Elton John commands respect, yet he really doesn’t get enough of it. More likely to be called a Queen (as in His Royal Pop Highness) than the king of anything, he wasn’t featured in either the opening or closing ceremonies of the recent London Summer Olympics, and as far as I know, he’s never been asked to serenade James Bond — which might be one reason why he speaks so lowly of Madonna, whose “Die Another Day” he once called the worst Bond song ever. (Only someone of his stature in pop, though, could get away with such a bitchy pronouncement.) The first time I heard Adele’s underwhelming “Skyfall,” the theme for Skyfall, the soon-to-be-released 23rd 007 film, I wondered why Sir Elton has never gotten the Bond gig. Then I remembered this freelance essay that I wrote in July for a UK-based iPad app mag on the guy who is perhaps pop’s most undervalued icon.
Elton John has had pretty much every superlative under the sun thrown at his feet over the years, but the nicest guy in music? That might not be the first impression you get when you think of the high-maintenance superstar who once told an underling, “It’s too windy. Can someone please do something about it?” Or the legendary diva who has feuded famously – and very publicly – with Tina Turner, George Michael and Madonna. But according to Mary J. Blige, who has collaborated with John several times over the course of her career, she’s never worked with a kinder soul.
“When people ask me who is my favourite of all the people I’ve worked with, they always expect me to say Aretha,” Blige once told me during an interview. “But it’s definitely Elton John.”
Not to take anything away from Aretha, George Michael, Eric Clapton, or Sting, all of whom have worked with Blige, but as far as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is concerned, John is a prince among pop idols. “He’s such a gentleman,” she says of the man who is godfather to two of David and Victoria Beckham’s sons, Elizabeth Hurley’s son, and John Lennon’s son Sean. “He was always so nice to me and treated me so well.”
All that and extraordinary talent, too! Talent so fertile and rich that it’s made John one of the most beloved entertainers in the history of music. It’s hard to think of a pop star who has had such a pervasive influence for so long. “I’m still standing,” he sang on his 1983 hit single, which, at the time, was more than a decade into his hit-making streak (a virtual eternity on the pop calendar). Nearly 30 years later, he’s standing, still, continually creating new music, regularly striking gold and platinum.
He just hit No. 1 on the UK album chart with Good Morning to the Night, a new studio set featuring reconstructions of key tracks from his imperial period (1970 to 1976) by Pnau, an Australian duo from Sydney that John has been managing and mentoring for the past five years. From “Your Song,” his first hit single in 1970, to “Good Morning to the Night,” the new single credited to Elton John vs Pnau, which merges “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (from 1972’s Honky Chateau) and seven other John songs into a 2012 electro-pop club classic-to-be, John has pretty much done it all over the last four decades.
One could credit his staggering longevity to a number of things – least of which would be a willingness to adapt to the sound of the times without being a slave to it – but in the end, it all comes down to two things: music by Elton John, lyrics, for the most part, by Bernie Taupin.
Ron Fair, a veteran music executive who mentored Christina Aguilera and Fergie and has produced records by Lady Gaga, Pussycat Dolls and Queen Latifah, puts John’s talent into historical context: “In the ’70s, when Elton John went into the studio, you had to sing and play. A prerequisite of getting a record contract or recording music was that you had to actually possess musical ability. You had to sing and play, do something in front of a microphone of musical interest in order to make a record. A different breed of talent walked through the door. You couldn’t fake it. Today anyone who can operate the software can make music, regardless of whether you have any talent or ability to begin with. It’s an even playing field if you know how to operate the technology.”
Still, he adds, “Does that mean that your average Joe can walk in and make a record? Well, he can make music, but that doesn’t mean anybody will want to buy it.”
So an artist like John, one who’s looking to combine past and present can’t entrust years of blood, sweat and tears to just anyone. Luckily, John has always had excellent taste in collaborative talent. He spent the ’70s working with top-tier musicians (John Lennon on “Whatever Gets You thru the Night,” Neil Sedaka on “Bad Blood,” the Who on “Pinball Wizard” from Tommy), and he’s doing the same today – without shamelessly chasing the hipster vote. In the space of just a few years, John has recorded an album of classic-sounding country-blues with singer-songwriter legend Leon Russell (2010’s The Union), duetted with the queen of avant-garde pop Kate Bush (“Snowed In on Wheeler Street,” a highlight on her 2011 album 50 Words for Snow), and reinvented himself as a 65-year-old dancing queen with Pnau, all the while plotting an upcoming album with Oscar-winning producer T. Bone Burnett (The Diving Board, due early next year).
John is constantly seeking out talent, old and new, which was how he stumbled upon Pnau in the first place. He discovered the band’s 2007 self-titled CD during a shopping excursion to Virgin Records to check out what was new in Australian music shortly after landing in Sydney. In his quest to update his classics and enter the now-hot dance-music arena, he easily could have hired a remixer to do the obvious: Take a classic like “Rocket Man,” give it a thumping backbeat, just add water, and voila! Instant smash and contemporary street cred. But when he asked Pnau to take on the task three weeks after signing them to his Rocket Music Management (which guides the careers of Lily Allen and James Blunt, among others), both parties had something entirely different in mind.
“We started cutting things up and making loops and finding the bits that other people had missed, things that we could use,” Nick Littlemore says of making the album with Pnau partner Peter Mayes. (After giving them his blessing and his back catalog, John opted to sit out of their creative process.) “We’re coming from the sample generation and hip hop and acid house, so we’re really trying to make things that sound like they’re evolving but staying the same.”
For his part, John wanted to honor his legacy while moving forward. “I’m only interested in the future. I’m not really looking back. And this was a chance for me to look back without having to do it myself. I wanted to create a fresh approach to my material so that young people would think, Oh my God, we didn’t know that Elton John sounded like that! Elton John has never sounded like that!”
That might have been what many young people who weren’t alive when he released his iconic ‘70s hits were thinking when they watched him performing “Stan” with Eminem at the 2001 Grammy Awards. But it’s hard to think of anywhere John hasn’t ventured into now that he’s conquered pop’s final frontier: electronic dance music.
Though he recorded many of his best-known, most critically acclaimed hits during the ‘70s – songs we’ve all learned to sing, the music that has provided the soundtrack to some part of the best years of most of our lives – unlike many of the leading talents of that time (Led Zeppelin, Bee Gees, ABBA, Queen), John has never been seen as a ‘70s act. Neither has Stevie Wonder (with whom John, alongside Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight, recorded the 1985 No. 1 single “That’s What Friends Are For”), but Wonder rarely releases new music. And John’s frequent touring mate Billy Joel “retired” from making pop music in 1993. Bruce Springsteen has remained a vital music force for nearly as long as John, but when we think of the Boss, we think rock & roll.
What category is there for someone like John, who has mastered the entire pop lexicon while sitting down. He was the piano man before Joel made that the hook of his signature song. With his early string of hits, John took an instrument that hadn’t been a prominent pop-music feature since the 1950s and made it both timeless and cool. Would there be a Tori Amos, or a Keane, or Fiona Apple without him. When I think of John, the first image that comes to mind is the man at his piano, singing “Your Song,” or “Daniel,” or “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” the 1983 Top 5 hit which he sang as convincingly as any rhythm and blues great.
For all of the success John had in the ’70s and even in the ’80s (which began on a creative high, with great singles like “Nobody Wins” and “Empty Garden,” a tribute to John Lennon written after his 1980 murder, and ended on a commercial one, with ‘Sacrifice,’ which went on to become his first solo No. 1 single in the UK), in some ways, he’s had his greatest success since the late ’80s, when he tossed out all of those vintage, outlandish stage costumes that had become so synonymous with his image. In 1988, when he came out as a gay man and suffered no commercial consequences, it was a testament to just how beloved John is. (He’s been in a relationship with filmmaker David Furnish since 1993.) By that point, his pop stature was already indestructible.
He won a Best Original Song Oscar for 1994’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” a song he co-wrote with lyricist Tim Rice for the soundtrack to the film The Lion King, which was adapted into a smash long-running Broadway musical in 1998. (The following year, he collaborated with Rice on the Broadway musical Aida, which won the pair a Tony Award for Best Original Score, and in 2005 he composed the music for a West End production of Billy Elliott.) In 1997, he enjoyed the biggest hit of his career with “Candle in the Wind ’97,” a requiem for the late Princess Diana of Wales that he performed at her funeral. In its original 1973 form, the song, written about Marilyn Monroe, was a No. 11 UK hit. It entered the U.S. Top 10 for the first time 14 years later.
“Candle in the Wind ’97” would have been the perfect cap to a stellar career of unprecedented longevity, but there was so much more still to come. In 2000, his 1971 Madman Across the Water single “Tiny Dancer” was the centerpiece of a memorable tour bus scene in director Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. Last year, he was up against Chris Cornell, Madonna and Blige for a Best Original Song Golden Globe Award (on the red carpet, he predicted Blige would win, but the prize went to his frequent verbal sparring partner Madonna, whose W.E. composition “Masterpiece” beat out his “Hello, Hello,” the John/Lady Gaga duet that he and Taupin wrote for Gnomeo and Juliet).
In addition to Gaga, with whom he performed at the 2010 Grammys, there have been other May-December alliances, with Eminem, with Blue and 2Pac Shakur (the UK vocal group and late U.S. rapper with whom he duetted, respectively, on the No. 1 UK singles 2002’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” – a remake of his own 1976 classic – and 2005’s “Ghetto Gospel”), and now with Pnau. The latest union – which will continue for another two volumes of Elton John vs Pnau, featuring John songs from after 1976 – has resulted in another trip to No. 1 in the UK, this time on the album chart, 29 years after he first topped it with 1973’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, the second of seven consecutive No. 1s in the U.S.
What other music star from the last century, living or dead, has been so prolific for so long? I can’t remember a time when John wasn’t center stage, or playing in the background via one of his many hits (indeed, he scored with “Your Song” the year after I was born), and I can’t imagine there ever being a world without him in it. Luckily, I’ll never have to. The best of Elton John is the best of music, classic songs that will live forever – in our hearts, in our minds, on the radio, and on the charts.
Greatest Hits (and Some That Weren’t): 10 Elton John Tracks That Belong in Every Digital Library
“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” The emotional essence of living in the city (NYC) has rarely been captured so perfectly and gorgeously as it was on this Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition and album track from 1972’s Honky Chateau.
“Curtains” My favourite Elton John song (and the closing cut on 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy) has now been given another shot at widespread popularity via “Sad,” the second track on Elton John vs Pnau’s Good Morning to the Night.
“Bennie and the Jets” We’ve lived so long with ’70s John classics like this one (from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) that it’s easy to overlook how left-of-center many of them were at time, unencumbered by any need on John’s part to strictly adhere to any contemporary pop sound.
“Nobody Wins” A rare concession by John to the ruling synth-pop sound of his second hit-making decade, this 1981 single (from The Fox) still holds up better than much of what other legends-in-the making were doing at the time. (Hello, “Ebony and Ivory”!)
“Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” Another tragic aspect of John Lennon’s untimely passing is that he never lived to hear John’s haunting-beautiful post-mortem tribute to his dear friend and occasional collaborator, released as the first single from 1982’s Jump Up!.
“I’m Still Standing” If you’re going to make the bold declaration made by John on his 1983 single (from Two Low for Zero), you’d better have your facts straight. He was still standing indeed: The song became John’s signature hit from Phase 2 of his career.
“Sacrifice” It’s unbelievable that it took John two decades to finally score a No. 1 solo hit in the UK (his first No. 1, “Don’t Got Breaking My Heart,” was a 1976 duet with Kiki Dee), but this 1989 Sleeping with the Past single is as deserving of that honor as anything John did in the ’80s.
“Runaway Train” When John teamed up with Eric Clapton on this track from 1992’s The One (seven years later, they’d both put in cameo musical appearances on Mary J. Blige’s Mary album), the result was a perfect merger of gospel and blues.
“Something About the Way You Look Tonight” Relegated to the B-side of “Candle in the Wind ’97,” this single was largely overshadowed by Princess Diana mania following her 1997 death, but songs like this and “Believe” (from 1995’s Made in England) exemplify the elegant stateliness of John’s later work.
“Snowed In at Wheeler Street” In a career of memorable duets, this collaboration with Kate Bush for her 2011 album 50 Words for Snow stands out as one of John’s best plus-ones.