Elton John’s 40 Most Important Moments
Where would pop music be without Elton John? We certainly would be short several great albums (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Madman Across the Water, Tumbleweed Connection and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road among them), and AM and FM radio in the '70s would not have been nearly as interesting, nor as entertaining. And the fashion! From his feather boas to his oversize glasses, his spangled Los Angeles Dodgers uniform to his Donald Duck costume, John both set trends and smashed them.
As John embarks on what he claims to be his final tour, we look back at his most important moments ...
Reginald Dwight is born (1947)
Londoners Stanley Dwight and Sheila Eileen Harris welcomed baby Reginald Dwight into the world on March 25, 1947. Though little Reggie gave no indication he would one day play Dodger Stadium (which wouldn’t exist for another 15 years), he did show an interest in piano at three years old – and his parents encouraged that interest.
Forms first band, Bluesology (1962)
Right around the time of his parents’ divorce, Reg joined Bluesology, a local blues and R&B band that headlined small venues and landed regular gigs backing visiting American acts when they toured in the area. Eventually they became the regular backing band for blues singer Long John Baldry, and Reg split not long after for a solo career.
Meets Bernie Taupin (1967)
After leaving Bluesology, Reginald Dwight answered an ad in a music magazine to be a staff songwriter for Liberty Records. There was one problem: He could write music, but not lyrics. Ray Williams, a young Liberty executive, introduced him to Bernie Taupin, who had answered the same ad. Taupin who wrote lyrics, but not music. For three years, the pair composed songs for music publisher Dick James and Dwight, who had by this point changed his name to Elton John, worked as a session pianist. A partnership was born.
Records first single, ‘I’ve Been Loving You’ (1968)
This new collaboration yields its first fruit:
Releases U.S. debut album (1970)
Elton John provided an introduction for most of the U.S. (Empty Sky had been released in Great Britain a year prior), and just about everyone loved what they heard. Imagine being a music fan in 1970 and dropping the needle on "Your Song," "Take Me to the Pilot" or "Border Song.” Masterful stuff, and it was only the beginning.
Makes American debut at the Troubadour
John’s first album had just been released when he and his band settled into a six-show stand at the Troubadour, the famed Los Angeles club. The gigs were rocking, raucous affairs that both extended and clashed with the overarching tone of the Elton John album. The shows were the “in” place to be, with celebrities practically sitting on top of one another to get a chance to see the star in the making. “We looked into the audience and there’s Neil Diamond sitting in the first row," drummer Nigel Olsson later recalled. "I think Stephen Stills was there, as was Leon Russell. I even think Diana Ross was sitting there for some reason. I don’t know, but it was packed to the rafters and we were so nervous about it. But once we cranked it up it was amazing, just amazing. Critic Robert Hilburn was effusive in his praise: 'Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning,' he wrote. '[John is] going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.'"
Radio gig turns into ‘11-17-70’ album (1971)
The Troubadour shows whetted the appetite of the public to experience Elton John and his band live, so when a bootleg recording of a concert at A&R Recording Studios in New York City hit the streets, people scooped it up. Such was the demand for a live recording that John’s record company quickly put together 11-17-70 – an official, though truncated, recording of the show which was titled 17-11-70 in the U.K. – and the energy and magic of John’s live performances were captured on vinyl for the first time.
Meets Billie Jean King (1971)
Elton John and tennis star Billie Jean King met at a party in 1971 and became fast friends. “We couldn’t stop talking,” King told Us magazine. She was a fan of his music; he was a tennis fanatic. (To this day, John takes a tennis pro on tour with him so he can practice whenever he wants, according to Us.) In 1975, he and Bernie Taupin wrote “Philadelphia Freedom” for King, as a kind of theme song for her World Team Tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. The song spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the second of three No. 1 singles John released that year.
Begins run of seven consecutive No. 1 albums (1972)
John’s extraordinary run of No. 1 albums – seven in all – started in May 1972, with Honky Château (featuring "Rocket Man" and "Honky Cat”), and lasted through Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), Caribou (1974), Elton John’s Greatest Hits (1974), Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) and Rock of the Westies (1975). In the ‘70s, perhaps only Stevie Wonder could match such quality of output, if not the quantity. For those three and a half years, Elton John was the most popular pop star in the world: Little Reginald Dwight had made it, and made it big.
Brings John Lennon onstage (1974)
John Lennon once lost a bet, and the rest of us won as a result. Elton John sang harmony vocals on Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” and told the former Beatles star that he thought the song would be a No. 1 hit. Lennon, who at that point had never scored a No. 1 solo hit (“Instant Karma!” and “Imagine” both topped out at No. 3), later said: “I sort of halfheartedly promised that if 'Whatever Gets You Thru the Night' became No. 1, which I had no reason to expect, I'd do Madison Square Garden with him.” The song sailed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and John cashed in his bet with Lennon. The pair (backed by John’s band) ran through “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” delighting the crowd and putting Lennon in the spotlight in front of a rock ‘n’ roll audience for one of the last times.
Debuts at No. 1 with ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’ – a ‘Billboard’ first (1975)
These days, just about every week brings a new album debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 – unless Drake or Adele hog the summit for weeks or months at a time. For decades, though, such a thing was a rarity, because of how record sales and radio airplay were recorded and reported to Billboard. Thanks to John's popularity and anticipation for his new music, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was the first album to debut at No. 1. He accomplished the same feat again with his next album, Rock of the Westies, which stands as John's last No. 1.
Plays Dodger Stadium (1975)
John thrilled 100,000 fans across two sold-out performances on Oct. 25 and 26, 1975 in Dodger Stadium. Dressed in a spangled Los Angeles Dodgers uniform, he tore through two sets and three encores each night, combining hits with a few album tracks and hitting every one of them out of the park. “This wasn’t just a concert, this was an experience,” said one fan. “We were all transfixed by the music, the party atmosphere and the sheer joy of being there, knowing that we were seeing something very special with 50,000 of our new best friends.”
Performs ‘Pinball Wizard’ in ‘Tommy’ movie (1975)
It seemed John could do anything in the mid-'70s, even acting in a film adaptation of the Who’s rock opera Tommy. Director Ken Russell apparently pestered John to play the part of the Pinball Wizard, and John relented, bringing his band to Pete Townshend’s studio to record the song for use on the soundtrack. “It was a revelation to observe how quickly and efficiently Elton and his band worked,” Townshend recalled in his memoir Who I Am, “nailing a driving track with solos, lead and backing vocals in less than four hours.”
Comes out as bisexual in ‘Rolling Stone’ (1976)
John’s sexuality had been the subject of rumors throughout his years as a top hit maker, but he’d never broached the topic publicly until Rolling Stone reporter Cliff Jahr brought it up in an interview. After talking about John’s band and his upcoming hiatus, Jahr said: “Can we get personal? Should we turn off the tape?” John replied, “Keep going.” Jahr asked John about finding love in his life, and John opened up about his frustration in that regard. “I don’t know what I want to be exactly,” he said. “I’m just going through a stage where any sign of affection would be welcome on a sexual level.” Jahr asked him outright if he were bisexual. “There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex," John answered. "I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be.”
Ends Two-Year Top Ten drought with ‘Mama Can’t Buy You Love’ (1979)
After the release of Blue Moves in 1976, John began writing with lyricists other than Bernie Taupin and took nearly a year off from touring. Those things, combined with a general and entirely natural waning of his popularity yielded a two-year period in which John did not have a Top 10 single in the U.S. He “still wanted to make records, but he now wanted to create them in different ways,” biographer Tom Doyle says in his John biography Captain Fantastic. “Purely as a singer, he wanted to put himself in the hands of a record producer.”
Enter Thom Bell, whose productions for the Stylistics, the Delfonics and the Spinners all but defined the sound of Philadelphia soul in the ‘70s. Together, he and John recorded a handful of songs, one of which was “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” which climbed to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though not considered one of John’s best or most enduring hits, it did return him to the spotlight, albeit one that was a little dimmer than in previous years.
Scores big hit with 'I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues' (1983)
After years of professional separation, John reunited with Bernie Taupin and his old band for 1983's Too Low for Zero. The first single from the record, the ballad “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” rekindled the fire of their earlier collaborations: It’s a yearning, somewhat nostalgic song that soundtracked countless slow dances and tearful farewells around the world. It also gave John a Top Five hit, marking a welcome return to the upper reaches of the singles chart.
Releases his anthem, ‘I’m Still Standing’ (1983)
Too Low for Zero also featured what many consider to be John’s late-career anthem. “I’m Still Standing” is all about endurance and tenacity – bouncing back from adversity and coming back for more. The video for the song was a rather large production, complete with body-painted dancers, clowns, opulent sets and lots of extras.
It was shot in Cannes, France, where Duran Duran were staying, attending the famous film festival there and indulging themselves with ridiculous amounts of champagne and blow. According to Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, his band spent a good bit of one afternoon providing John with a liquid lunch. “We decided it would be a laugh to get him drunk and we were slinging the drinks down him,” Taylor told the Daily Mail. “'Ooh, you are lovely boys,' he screeched, loving every minute of it. We got him so drunk that eventually he went upstairs and threw a [tantrum] in his suite. It caused all sorts of chaos, but it was a great party.”
Marries Renate Blauel (1984)
Fans and press alike were shocked, and more than a little skeptical, when John married German recording engineer Renate Blauel in a ceremony in Australia. Few were surprised when the marriage ended in divorce four and a half years later. According to People (quoting London tabloid reports), the pair never consummated their marriage and slept in separate bedrooms. “I wanted more than anything to be a good husband,” John wrote years later, “but I denied who I really was – which caused my wife sadness, and caused me huge guilt and regret.”
Performs last show before throat surgery (1986)
John underwent surgery in January 1987, to remove non-cancerous polyps from his vocal cords, a procedure that both saved his voice and changed it. "My voice is the thing that's really improved the most over the last few years,” he told Billboard in 2004. “There's more resonance to it." Before the surgery, he toured Australia, performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Newton Howard, who would go on to score films like Avatar and Titanic.
A resulting live album, creatively dubbed Live in Australia With the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, is an extraordinary document of these shows. John’s voice shows an enormous amount of strain and gruff timbre, yet he never wavers from his songs’ melodies, never holds back in spite of the struggle – or maybe because of it. The Melbourne Symphony is recorded perfectly; you can get caught up in the sweep of it, and in the contrast between the collective voice of the orchestra and the voice of the man whose songs they’re playing. It’s remarkable stuff, as definitive a document of that moment in John’s life and career as 11-17-70 was of his career’s beginning.
Wins libel suit against ‘The Sun’ (1987)
John’s relationship with the tabloid press had always been a bit testy, but a line was crossed when the Sun published a report that John had been involved in a tryst with a male prostitute (or “rent boy”). John vehemently denied it, and the alleged accuser later retracted his story. “They can say I'm a fat, old sod,” John said at the time. “They can say I'm an untalented bastard; they can call me [gay] – but they mustn't lie about me, because then I'm going to fight. And I'm determined to be a winner." He sued and won the case, taking the Sun for $1.6 million and infuriating its publisher, the Australian press magnate Rupert Murdoch.
Auctions off possessions (1988)
Most people have clutter. We accumulate possessions over time and, if we don’t purge every so often, the house can get a little messy. In the late ‘80s, John noticed he had too much stuff, only Elton John’s clutter was not the same kind of clutter the rest of us have. The rest of us, for example, don’t have an original Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe just sitting around, nor do we have pottery busts of Queen Elizabeth II, or Cartier silver baskets, or hundreds of stage costumes. Our clutter would not net us $8.8 million at auction, as John’s did in 1988.
Comes out as gay (1988)
Probably the worst-kept secret in rock ‘n’ roll was John’s sexuality. Even when he married Renate Blauel, he was thought to be covering up for the fact that he was gay, and shortly after their divorce, he publicly outed himself. “I just thought it was common knowledge,” he told Today.
Scores big hit with ‘I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That’ (1988)
John’s biggest hit of the ‘80s came as “I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That” hit No. 2 on the Hot 100 on the last week of August in 1988. It was kept out of No. 1 by his friend George Michael’s “Monkey.”
Performs at Ryan White’s funeral (1990)
Ryan White was an Indiana teen who contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion in 1984, and who faced discrimination virtually everywhere he went: He even had to take his public school to court so he could attend classes. John read about White and lent his support to the young man and his parents, becoming a family friend in the process. When White died in 1990, John was at his bedside. When White’s funeral was held days later, John performed “Skyline Pigeon” for the mourners, a selection as heartbreaking as it was hopeful.
In turn, White helped John in his own struggles with addiction. “I knew that my life was out of whack,” Elton told NPR. “I knew that I had to change. And after he died, I realized that I only had two choices: I was either going to die or I was going to live, and which one did I want to do? And then I said those words, 'I'll get help,' or, 'I need help. I'll get help.' And my life turned around.”
Hits No. 1 with George Michael (1991)
Elton and George Michael had memorably performed John’s 1974 No. 2 hit “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at Live Aid in 1985, with Michael doing all the actual singing, and John and his band accompanying the Wham! star in front of an audience that totaled some two billion people. In 1991, Michael, now a solo artist, brought John out at a show in Wembley Arena to share the vocals, and a recording of that performance became a massive, world-wide hit, ascending to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in the U.S.
Establishes Elton John AIDS Foundation (1992)
Having been moved to sobriety in the wake of Ryan White’s death, John’s next step in reclaiming his life was to do something for others suffering with AIDS. White’s death “got me to realize how out of whack my life was, because I was just in and out of a drug-fueled haze in the '80s,” John told NPR. “I did nothing to help people with AIDS. I was a gay man who really sat on the sidelines." He formed the Elton John AIDS Foundation to help find a cure “by raising funds for evidence-based programs and policies, and also by speaking out with honesty and compassion about the realities of people’s lives,” according to the foundation’s website. The group has raised over $400 million since 1992.
Sings with Axl Rose at Freddie Mercury tribute (1992)
Axl Rose’s line about “Immigrants and faggots … spread[ing] some fuckin’ disease” in the infamous Guns N’ Roses song “One in a Million” got Rose in hot water with a lot of people, and deservedly so. One of those people was not Elton John. “Never in a million years did I think he was homophobic,” John said in 2017. John backed up his judgment by playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Rose at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in London’s Wembley Stadium, and later joining Guns N’ Roses for a run through “November Rain” at the MTV Awards. When John entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rose gave the induction speech.
Contributes music to ‘The Lion King’ (1994)
John created the music for Disney’s The Lion King, a $422 million box-office hit. He also netted himself a couple hits in the process, including “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which hit No. 4 on the Hot 100. The tune also rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, staying there for eight weeks. When The Lion King was taken to Broadway in 1997, it was an even bigger hit, and has grossed a reported $6 billion since its debut.
Performs at Princess Diana’s funeral (1997)
The murder of Gianni Versace rattled John. At the fashion legend's funeral, a visibly shaken John was comforted by Princess Diana, ending a period of coldness between the two that had begun when Diana pulled out of a charity event John hosted. Just six weeks after Versace’s funeral, Diana herself was killed in a car accident in Paris.
To honor the fallen royal, Bernie Taupin rewrote “Candle in the Wind” to address her and her life, and John performed it at her funeral. “I had to call on all my kind of years of professionalism, and all my experience,” he said, “because I didn't want to break down and become emotional.” More than 2.5 billion people around the world watched.
Hits No. 1 with ‘Something About the Way You Look Tonight’ / ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’ (1997)
Later that day, John entered West London's Townhouse Studios for a session with Beatles producer George Martin that produced “Candle in the Wind 1997.” Recorded simply, with just a string quartet and John’s piano as accompaniment, the song carried with it the impact of his funeral performance and the tragedy that had begotten it. Released as a double-A-sided single with “Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” another John/Taupin composition, “Candle in the Wind 1997” would have even greater impact in sales (33 million copies around the world) and on the charts (14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100).
Feuds with Keith Richards (1997)
Keith Richards had some choice words about “Candle in the Wind 1997,” half-jokingly stating that John and Taupin’s “writing is limited to songs for dead blondes.” John was having none of it. “I’m glad I’ve given up drugs and alcohol,” he responded. “It would be awful to be like Keith Richards. He’s pathetic. It’s like a monkey with arthritis, trying to go on stage and look young. I have great respect for the Stones but they would have been better if they had thrown Keith out 15 years ago.”
Is knighted (1998)
On Feb. 24, 1998, John became Sir Elton John, after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. In bestowing the honor upon John, the Queen noted his services to British pop music and his work in raising money for AIDS charities.
‘Tiny Dancer’ steals scene in ‘Almost Famous’ (2000)
The sequence in Almost Famous when Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond leaves the band and crashes a teenage house party is one of the funniest in Cameron Crowe’s movie. A rock star falls from the skies into the lives of a bunch of kids in Nowheresville, and he drinks their acid-spiked beers and jumps off their roof into their pool: “I’m a golden god!” he shouts before he leaps. “And I’m on drugs!” Billy Crudup's character barely remembers this splashdown the next morning, when he’s back on the bus with angry bandmates and confused hangers-on – all of them directing their ire/puzzlement at him. Never fear, though: In short order, they are bound together once again, by a song.
Hits Vegas with ‘The Red Piano’ (2004)
“Going Vegas” doesn’t mean what it once did: Performers no longer automatically turn into Wayne Newton or near-death Elvis Presley when they sign on for stints at one or another casino. Elton John made the jump in 2004, setting up his show The Red Piano for a five-year residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Nearly one million people saw John over 22 engagements lasting from 10-to-15 shows in as intimate a setting as he’s likely to perform in again. He followed up The Red Piano with another residency, The Million-Dollar Piano, which ran from September 2011 through May 2018.
Starts a family (2010)
John and his then-partner (now husband) David Furnish received a very special present in 2010: Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John, their first son, was born to a surrogate mother in the United States on Christmas day. A little over two years later, on Jan. 11, 2013, Elijah Joseph Daniel Furnish-John was likewise born to a surrogate. “Both of us have longed to have children, but the reality that we now have two sons is almost unbelievable,” the couple said in a statement. “The birth of our second son completes our family in a most precious and perfect way.”
Collaborates with rockers and rappers
For years, John has kept abreast of music trends and has been open to collaborations with artists across genres. His 1993 Duets album found John trading verses with a diverse roster of artists, including Don Henley (“Shakey Ground”), Bonnie Raitt (“Love Letters”), hip-hop act P.M. Dawn (“When I Think About Love [I Think About You]”) and country queen Tammy Wynette ("A Woman's Needs"). The more recent tribute album Revamp finds John collaborating on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with Queens of the Stone Age and others like the Killers (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”) and Q-Tip, from A Tribe Called Quest (“Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”), performing his hits. He also played piano on “Check My Brain,” a tribute to Layne Staley, on Alice in Chains’ 2009 album Black Gives Way to Blue.
Strikes up a Friendship with Eminem
For nearly the entirety of his career, rapper Eminem has been accused of gay-bashing and homophobia. The charge stemmed from his lyrics, which have included slurs and juvenile jokes that can be construed as coming from a anti-gay world view. Elton John doesn’t buy that, though. “For me, Eminem was never homophobic,” he told Southpaw in 2017. “I listened to the whole of The Marshall Mathers [LP] when I drove to a show in South Hampton and I was floored by it. And I thought how could anyone think this is – he’s just writing about the way things are. Not how he thinks but the way things are. … I did the Grammys with [Eminem] and I became very big friends with [him]. I’ll fight for anyone who is misunderstood and misrepresented by the idiots out there.” After their performance of Eminem’s “Stan” on the Grammy Awards show in 2001, John also helped the rapper with his battle against addiction.
Named Most Successful Male Artist in 'Billboard' History (2013)
Nearly five decades’ worth of hit singles earned John the No. 3 spot on Billboard’s list of its Top 100 artists to hit the Hot 100, falling below only the Beatles and Madonna in number and ranking of hits on the chart. That made him the most successful male artist in the history of the Hot 100.
Marries David Furnish (2014)
When they were legally joined in one of the first civil partnerships between two men in the U.K., John argued: “We shouldn't just say, 'Oh well, we have a civil partnership. We're not going to bother to get married.' We will get married." His words came true on Dec. 21, 2014, as he and David Furnish tied the knot in a small ceremony.
Embarks on farewell tour (2018)
In January 2018, Elton John announced his retirement from the road after completing a three-year, 300-plus-date farewell tour. Dubbed Farewell Yellow Brick Road, it is set to run into 2021. "My priorities have changed in life," he said at the news conference announcing the tour. “I thought the time is right to say thank you to all of my fans and then to say goodbye. That doesn't mean I won't be creative, but I'm not gonna travel anymore." The announcement was met with wistfulness from longtime fans, and a bit of good-natured derision from Rod Stewart, who said: "I don’t think this is a big deal. It stinks of selling tickets."
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