Sir Elton John Biography

photo: Elton John

Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, now known as Sir Elton John, he started to play the piano at the tender age of four. Somewhat of a child prodigy, he could play by ear any melody he heard.

His parents, Sheila and Stanley Dwight, an RAF Squadron Leader, divorced when Elton was young. His mother then married Fred Farebrother, whom Elton nicknamed ‘Derf’. At 11, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. He stayed for six years but dropped out shortly before graduation in order to pursue a rock career.

Elton was 14 when he and friends formed a band, the Corvettes, which evolved into Bluesology. It was 1961 and they played Ray Charles and Jim Reeves ballads Friday's to Sunday's at the Northwood Hills Hotel, Middlesex. With the money he made from this work, Elton bought himself his first electric piano. By the mid 1960s, Bluesology was backing American soul and R&B artists, including Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles.

In 1966, Elton left Bluesology and auditioned unsuccessfully, as lead vocalist, for progressive rock bands King Crimson and Gentle Giant. The turning point in Elton’s career came a few years later, when, during an audition for Liberty Records as a songwriter, he met lyricist Bernie Taupin. A strong musical partnership began that would last to this day.

He changed his name, by deed poll, from Reginald Kenneth Dwight to Elton Hercules John in 1972. The name came from Elton Dean, a saxophonist, and the late Long John Baldry, a British blues musician. Hercules was the name of the horse in the British television sitcom ‘Steptoe and Son’.

The Elton/Taupin formula was beginning to weave its magic and they recorded their first song ‘Scarecrow’ in 1967, going on to write songs for the likes of Roger Cook and Lulu. Their musical chemistry had a sense of urgency to it, with Taupin writing a batch of lyrics in less than an hour and then Elton writing music for them in half an hour. If he couldn’t quickly come up with the music, he would dispose of the lyrics. They were never in the same room during this process.

Elton’s debut album, ‘Empty Sky’ (1969), received somewhat of an empty response, despite its good reviews. He quickly followed this with ‘Elton John’ (1970), which started to climb the charts and the single ‘Your Song’ making the US Top Ten. A few months later, Elton gave his first American concert in Los Angeles.

Next came his concept album ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ (1970) and then the live album ‘11-17-70’ (1970) (or ‘17-11-70’, as it was known in the UK) which truly highlighted Elton’s talent as a rock pianist as well as showing his influences in boogie-woogie and gospel music. He was well on the road to stardom and became the most successful pop artist of the 1970s releasing many albums, often two or more a year.

An important addition to the band was Davie Johnstone, on guitar and backing vocals, in 1972. When teamed with bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson, and Elton, the four produced magic and would soon be known as The Elton John Band. The group released ‘Honky Chateau’ (1972), which shot to the top of the charts, spent five weeks at number one and had hit singles ‘Rocket Ma’” and ‘Honky Cat’.

With all this success under his belt, in 1973 Elton created Rocket Records, his own label. He then released ‘Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player’ (1973), with hits ‘Crocodile Rock’ and ‘Daniel’. Following that was his more introspective album ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (1973), another chart-topper, with a number of hit singles, most notably ‘Candle in the Wind’. Some believe this to be his best album ever.

1974 saw Elton and his band in collaboration with John Lennon, including a surprise joint concert at Madison Square Garden, New York City. It would prove to be Lennon’s final public performance. Elton went on tour in the US in 1974, with an entourage of 35 musicians, roadies and management. They flew from city to city in their own Boeing jet, Elton had reached ‘musical royalty’ status.

In 1975, he played the Pinball Wizard in the Ken Russell movie ‘Tommy’ and performed the title song. Elton also performed with Cher, Bette Midler and Flip Wilson on the spectacular ‘Cher Bono Television Special’ (1975). He released an autobiographical album about his ambiguous sexuality, ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’ (1975), and the following year, announced his bisexuality to the world, in a 1976 Rolling Stone magazine interview. Soon after this, a stressed and over-worked Elton fired Olsson and Murray, which was a disastrous knock to the band and perhaps not the wisest career move.

Not one to let things slow him down however, Elton decided to change tack and work with a female vocalist. Enter English singer Kiki Dee and her and Elton’s duet ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ (1976) which leapt straight to number one on the charts. Later that year, Elton sold out Madison Square Garden for seven nights, a record that remains to this day. In 1979, he became the first Western pop star to perform in Israel and the USSR. His flamboyant style and spectacular costumes, along with his obvious musical talent, meant that his concerts were always well received.

Success was to come at a price and Elton had been battling with bulimia and drug and alcohol addiction through the 1970s and into the 1980s. However, with the start of a new decade, came a turning point and Elton invited Olsson and Murray back into the band. They gave a free concert to a delighted, and large, audience, in Central Park, New York City in 1980. In a sad twist of fate, this concert took place almost across the road from Lennon’s apartment and a few months later, he would be murdered. Elton’s posthumous tribute to his friend ‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’ was released on his ‘Jump Up!’ (1982) album.

With The Elton John Band back in full swing, they were again at the top of the charts, with memorable hit singles such as ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ (1983), ‘I’m Still Standing’ (1983), and ‘Nikita’ (1985). In 1984, surprising friends and fans alike, Elton married Renate Blauel on Valentine’s Day in Sydney, Australia. It lasted four years before Elton decided he was in fact gay and they divorced, with no children, in 1997.

A year after winning the 1986 British Phonographic Industry award for Outstanding Contribution, Elton faced a serious health scare in January 1987. He was on tour in Australia when he had to undergo laser surgery to remove potentially cancerous nodules from his vocal cords. He later admitted that the problem had been caused by smoking too many drugs, including marijuana. He recovered from the surgery, but was unable to reach his previous falsetto range. He continued using drugs until 1990, but this very real brush with ill health, directly related to his ability to sing, gave Elton a focus that was perhaps previously lacking. Another positive focus in helping him to overcome his addictions and illnesses, was that he started living with his partner, David Furnish, a former advertising executive, now a filmmaker.

Deciding to use this revitalised energy, as well as his celebrity status and his vast wealth, Elton wanted to give something back to the community, particularly in connection with AIDS awareness, something close to his heart. In April 1990, he performed ‘Skyline Pigeon’ at Ryan White’s funeral, a haemophiliac whom Elton had befriended and who had died of AIDS. Following that, Elton pledged to donate the royalties from all his future UK singles to combat AIDS. Two years later, in 1992, he did the same thing concerning his American singles and was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, with Bernie Taupin. He then formed the Elton John Aids Foundation and hosted a post-Oscar inaugural party in Beverly Hills in March 1993. This has become an annual and much-anticipated high-profile event. One of the mainstays in Elton’s cleaned up life, is his dedication to raising AIDS awareness and fund-raising for his Foundation.

In further recognition of all his work, Elton was inducted into Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Also that year, he co-wrote, with lyricist Tim Rice, original songs for Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ (1994) and for this work, they won an Academy award in 1995. Soundtrack sales topped the 10 million mark and the film was converted into a hit Broadway show that opened in 1997. This strong collaboration continued and they released the albums ‘Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida’ (1999) and ‘The Road to El Dorado’ (2000). They co-wrote the Broadway stage productions of both ‘The Lion King’ (1998) and ‘Aida’ (2000), for which they won a Tony Award for Best Original Score and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

The accolades kept coming and he was awarded the Polar Music Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. In 1996, Elton was appointed a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). On 24 February 1998 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, becoming Sir Elton John, in recognition of his contribution to music and fund-raising for AIDS charities. Another tireless charity worker was Princess Diana and she and Elton had been friends since they had met in the early 1980s. He had always been supportive of her, and particularly through her divorce from Prince Charles. After Diana’s tragic death in July 1997, Elton captured the hearts of a grieving nation with his tribute, ‘Candle in the Wind’ (1997), with new lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. Sales of this single broke all records and the proceeds went to Diana’s favourite charities.

Once again, Elton had to face health issues of his own, when he had a pacemaker fitted after a worrying angina episode on board an aeroplane in July 1999. This did not prevent him from continuing with his extensive world tours. After releasing the ‘Songs from the West Coast’ (2001) album, Elton declared it would be his last studio album and that he would concentrate on live performances. In 2002, The Music Industry Trusts’ Award was presented to Elton and Taupin for their outstanding contribution to the British music industry. Two years later, Elton released another album, ‘Peachtree Road’ (2004), which received some favourable reviews, but failed to make an impact. Also that year, he received the Kennedy Center Honours and began performing his hit show ‘The Red Piano’, directed by David LaChapelle, at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, in 2004.

On 2 July 2005, two major events occurred. Elton performed at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London, and Madame Tussaud’s unveiled his wax likeness, which had taken over 1,000 hours to complete. 21 December 2005 was a very special day, not only for Elton but for the United Kingdom as well. It was the first day civil partnerships were made legal in England and Wales and the day Elton registered a civil partnership with his long-term partner, David Furnish. The low-key ceremony, with only their parents in attendance, took place in Windsor Guildhall, and was performed by Registrar Clair Williams, who also married Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. They followed this with an extravagant party, with many celebrity guests, at their mansion in Berkshire.

In a recording career which has spanned over 40 years and with an estimated 220 million album sales, this multiple award winning singer keeps up to date with what’s happening in the music world and enjoys such artists as Robbie Williams, Eminem, Coldplay and Radiohead. In fact, Elton not only increased his own ‘street cred’ by dueting with Eminem on ‘Stan’ at the 2001 Grammy Awards, he helped absolve Eminem somewhat of homophobia charges against him. Elton was featured on 2Pac’s posthumous song ‘Ghetto Gospel’ (2005), which sampled ‘Indian Sunset’ from Elton’s ‘Madman Across Water’ (1971) album. The Pet Shop Boys 2006 limited edition album ‘Fundamental’ includes a duet with Elton, ‘In Private’, a new version of the Dusty Springfield single.

Elton continues to enjoy his long-time collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The current band members are: Elton John (piano, lead vocals), Guy Babylon (keyboards), Bob Birch (bass guitar, vocals), Davey Johnstone (guitar, musical director, vocals), John Mahon (percussion, vocals), and Nigel Olsson (drums, percussion, vocals).

He is a keen football fan and became chairman and director of the Watford Football Club in 1976. After helping the club rise to the First Division, he remains their life-long president. Elton also supports the St Kilda Football Club in the Australian Football League. He is a noted art collector, with reputedly the largest private photographic collection in the world. His main home is in Windsor, England, which he shares with David Furnish, but he also has homes in Venice, Nice, London, and Atlanta.

A prolific songwriter, he remains one of Britain’s most accomplished and acclaimed musicians, energetically pursuing his musical talent in the studio, in live performances, in world tours, in concert, in collaborations, in the theatre and in film. He has battled addictions and endured media scrutiny over his alleged financial difficulties, resulting from his excessive lifestyle. He has lashed out at fellow celebrities with a vicious tongue and he has entertained us with his outrageous costumes. Elton John has always said and done exactly as he pleases. His humanitarianism has been suitably honoured, particularly in the ever-important fight against AIDS. Through all of this, he has continued to contribute extensively to the music industry, with songs that reach across the age spectrum and settle into the collective memory.

In 2006, John was named a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company in recognition of his musical contributions to films such as 'The Lion King'.

The following year, he performed for the 60th time at New York's Madison Square Garden to mark his 60th birthday. A compilation of his greatest hits was also released and his back catalogue of almost 500 songs was made available for downloading online.

He performed alongside singer Lady GaGa at the 52nd Grammy Awards in 2010 and later that year released his latest album 'The Union'.

John and his partner David Furnish became fathers in December 2010, when baby Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John was born via a surrogate mother. On fatherhood, John said: "My biggest concern is to make sure that my child knows I love him, that he has real, tactile love. That is more important than anything."

The singer had initially been keen to adopt a Ukrainian baby he met while visiting an orphanage in the country, but same-sex adoptions are not permitted there.

However, John said he has not given up on the youngster and wants to help him leave the orphanage and be placed with a family. "It makes me cry. I will get him out. This is the boy who changed my heart, who planted the seed. I’ll never give up on him."


Watch Elton John's biography on Saturday 20 August at 10.30pm

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