Rhinestones, Sunglasses, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Elton John, Musical Genius
Elton John is one of the greatest musicians of all time, in fact, he is one of the greatest male solo artists of the century. Least to say, it doesn’t mean he’s endured the hardships of stardom. From his wildest moments to everything that made him an iconic legend, this is Elton John raw and unfiltered.
Elton John’s bumpy beginning
In an interview on the Phil Donahue Show in 1980, Elton John said, “I was always told what to do as a child…” regarding his parents. “I can’t blame them, their attitude towards me was always helpful, they just…they didn’t cultivate my own personality. They tended to dominate me with their own personality, which I think is what some parents tend to do.”
Elton John’s parents tried to mold him into a “proper adult.” Today, many are still wondering what exactly that means, much less what it entails. To him, that meant adhering to the strict ideas of his oft-cold parents. But the aspiring musician wanted much more than expected of him.
Stardom came early
Stardom found him early on in his career. A talented piano player, he was able to amaze his parents when he started playing piano at the age of three. At age 11, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music. At that time, he didn’t know how to read music. Instead, he learned by ear.
No wonder he was awarded such a prestigious scholarship at such a young age. His musical talents, however, weren’t always encouraged. His father envisioned his son enlisting in the Royal Air Force to become a pilot (just as he did). Thankfully, Elton John had other plans. He dropped out of school at age 17 to pursue a career in music.
John became an instant celebrity
Well, 300 million records and one diamond album later and everyone is grateful for John rebelling against the status quo. If his parents had their way, he would most likely be the friendly neighborhood record store clerk. Luckily for music fans, Elton John’s work spans multiple genres, making him accessible to even the most discerning, “square” listener.
Be honest, how many of you could honestly say life would be better without “Your song” or being able to jam out to “Bennie and the Jets”? Yeah, that’s to be expected. Elton John’s catalog is so full of hits, that deciding what songs to play live must be taxing on the artist.
His wardrobe was insane
To celebrate Elton John’s greatest achievements, take a look back at some of his most insane and moments throughout his life that were both fabulous and even a bit controversial? What’s better than diving into the past without his flamboyant wardrobe and mind-boggling glasses? That’s a trick question; there’s none.
Take this image, for instance. Although not unusual to see such a garish outfit on him, it was something of a novelty compared to his fellow musicians in the late 1970s. Toward the end of the first British invasion, the public saw less of The Beatles and more of The Rolling Stones. However, for John, he was aiming for a completely different sound.
Elton John’s first album was a flop
Being a big star like Elton John didn’t come easy. His first-ever album did not turn out as planned. Initially released in 1969, the album didn’t sell as well as the record company had hoped. When he released his second album, “Elton John,” however, his career skyrocketed. Hits like “Border Song” and “Your Song” made the top 100 on Billboard’s charts and his musical career was forever cemented.
By 1975, even America wanted in on the Elton John train. Apart from his music, which made him so lovable and unique, it was obvious that he was a supernova. Aside from his unbelievable talent, his wardrobe drew in large crowds.
His get-up was inspired (in part) by Liberace
For most music lovers, it’s not surprising to see eccentric musicians (at least by today’s standards). Just take a look at Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj, for example. Lady Gaga’s meat suit played into the overdramatic that shook the entertainment industry. They weren’t the first, however. Elton John was the true inspiration (although he borrowed a bit from Liberace).
So, when did it all start? The goofy sunglasses, the garish costumes, and outlandish hats? It wasn’t like this need to costume himself began overnight. Like most things that stick, they started innocently enough. In 1970, it was denim overalls with print-patterned long-sleeves underneath. However, there was one pair of shoes that changed his taste in stage fashion.
Bernie Taupin knew his outfits were connected to rebellion
Returning to his childhood, it can be inferred that the impetus for his elaborate costuming stems back to childhood. John grew up in a stifling environment; one where everything was controlled. This didn’t just apply to his personality, as hinted earlier, but in his wardrobe as well. Apparently, Elton John felt like he was suffocating.
He recalled in an interview that he wasn’t even allowed to wear Hush Puppies (a popular type of shoe) as a kid. TIME interviewed his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, the same man who wrote hit songs such as “Tiny Dancer,” “Bennie And The Jets,” and “Rocket Man,” which revealed a thing or two about the reason behind John’s wardrobe.
Elton John had an overbearing childhood
Regarding Elton John’s stage wardrobe, Taupin said: “There’s no secret that the reason he became that outlandish character is simply that it was rebelling against childhood and a very domineering father who wouldn’t let him even wear Hush Puppies. I could definitely sympathize with that.”
Though Taupin sympathized with his close friend, it didn’t necessarily mean he was completely enthusiastic about his stage get-up, “I thought there were times — wearing a Donald Duck suit in Central Park — where it sort of went over the top.”
Donald Duck plays the piano in Central Park
A Donald Duck costume? Really? If you go to YouTube and search for “Elton John in Donald Duck costume at Central Park” you will witness thousands of fans surrounding a small stage and John appearing in his full yellow-spandex-glory wearing a Disney mock-up of Donald Duck.
Of course, only Elton John could pull off such a feat and have people love him for doing it. He even laughed when he sat in front of his piano. And he kept laughing until he was ready to sing his opening number “Bennie And The Jets.”
He wore rhinestones to a Dodgers game
Sure, Disney had a moment in the spotlight (it won’t be the last), but John had other costume gems that were just as memorable. Off the bat, one would be remiss not to mention his Queen Elizabeth I costume or his elaborate bird-feathered costumes. That’s nothing compared to his head-to-toe rhinestone Dodgers uniform when he performed at Dodgers Stadium, Los Angeles in 1975.
He appeared glittering like a magnificent gem and remembers the event as one of the best times of his life. The stadium was jam-packed with screaming fans. It was a sea of onlookers who were there for one shiny man behind a piano.
His wacky wardrobe changed gradually
As his popularity grew, so did his taste in fashion. John’s career rose, and he began to incorporate unique pieces of clothing. His first might have been winged boots from the popular Mr. Freedom boutique in London. It was love at first sight, and people can only imagine what John was thinking when he first wore those Hermes-inspired boots.
He probably thought “let’s push it further.” And he did. Soon, it wasn’t just winged boots. It quickly evolved into long-feathered hats and, yes, his iconic eye-wear. It started small, but sooner or later, he was sporting feather-framed spectacles that raised brows and excited the crowd. What was the reason behind John’s loud costumes? His take was pretty hilarious.
Elton John compared himself to David Bowie and Mick Jagger
Elton John had a peculiar taste in costuming when he performed on stage. It wasn’t just a personal preference that influenced this piano-playing wizard, but it was also to set himself apart from his peers. John said on NPR, “I wasn’t a heartthrob — David Bowie or Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart in those days. You know, I was Elton at the piano. And I, you know — just had to turn the attention on to something comedic or even more outrageous that it was.”
Elton John was channeling his inner Liberace, however, after a while, John would get tired of the constant costuming. Although his fans loved it, it placed a great strain on John and how he wanted to project himself.
He brought down the Soviet house
Costumes aside, as his name wrapped around the globe, he began to reach in the furthest and often, most controversial places in the world. One of which was the Soviet Union. It’s no secret that the US had a tumultuous relationship with the Soviet Union at the time (it was basically announced through a megaphone).
The Cold War was a hot topic, but that didn’t stop John from performing at one of the most politically controversial places on the planet. Rock n’ roll music has no borders, despite their records having been illegal when he performed. The Washington Post reported that John put on a legendary performance in front of 4,000 fans. The language wasn’t an issue, however, for every fan who saw this show knew his songs and absolutely loved John.
Before he was Elton John he was Reginald Dwight
The name sounds pretty common. Unlike stage names like Madonna or Lady Gaga, Elton John sounds relatively normal compared to how the Rocketman projects himself on stage. John’s real name is Reginald Kenneth Dwight, however. It doesn’t have the same flair as “Sir Elton John,” though. John knew that and decided it was time for a change.
So, how did Elton John get his name? He actually took it from Blues artists Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. When asked about the name change, John said in a 1987 interview: “When I became Elton John, it was like a new lease on life. I didn’t particularly like being Reg Dwight. It had too many unhappy memories…As soon as I was Elton, it was just great. It was like a new personality.”
Elton John was a painfully shy kid
You would think that an artist like John would have had an energetic upbringing, but that wasn’t the case. He frequently mentioned how painfully shy and insecure he was as a child. He felt that he was ultimately controlled in a home that forced him to continuously conform and obey to his family’s standards.
Of course, he broke out of his shell, but he only did so on stage. He channeled these insecurities and anxieties into an outgoing, star performance. He would unfurl on stage and become a new person. However, even though John felt that he could project his confidence on stage, it was an entirely different story off-stage. That’s where the real trouble began.
He hid his insecurities during performances
Although Elton John was flamboyant and exciting on stage, off-stage he was insecure and anxious. He stated, “I didn’t get any confidence until I started performing on stage and let that buried half of me come out. The timid boy that I was, I continued to be offstage.” The music world was severely controlling.
Elton John elaborated on NPR how he had a hard time confronting conflict: “I was comfortable on that stage, but not comfortable off it. I did go into stuff ‘cause I wanted to join the gang’. My band was doing everything so far ahead. I was naive.” Instead of tackling his problems head-on, John found himself spiraling into a world of darkness.
He can’t remember half of the seventies
He admitted that, due to all of the “fun” he was having, he finds it difficult to remember what he did in the seventies. In an interview on the Phil Donahue Show, John admitted that he had become dependant on substances, and later felt that he owed it to himself to stay sober. It wasn’t until the 1990s when he fully committed to staying clean.
Until then, he was trudging his way through stardom in another state of mind. Once he began using, he felt that it was a way to easily communicate with others, and force himself to open up. Before he became reliant on a variety of crutches, they broke down whatever conventional barriers he had left. Despite this snowy period, John doesn’t deny having a grand time.
He danced with England’s favorite royal
One of the grandest times had to be, hands down, in 1981 when he met and danced with Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II. He took a break from touring and would sometimes perform at private events. One event was at Windsor Castle for Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday. Elton John arrived early at the venue, and when he appeared, saw Princess Diana.
Elton said in his biography Sir Elton: The Definitive Biography, “We danced the Charleston alone on the floor for twenty minutes.” If dancing with England’s favorite princess wasn’t enough to make the event memorable, another royal decided to step in.
The Queen requested a dance
As Elton John and Princess Diana were dancing on the floor, essentially cementing a long-lasting friendship, another royal approached the dancing duo. Princess Anne. She approached John and asked, ‘Would you like to dance?’ How could John say no? Especially to a royal? Of course, he gladly danced with both women.
Just when he thought it couldn’t get any better, John was approached by none other than the Queen. He said, “As we’re bobbing up and down, the Queen comes up with an equerry and says ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Just at that moment, the music segues to ‘Rock Around The Clock’ with the Queen of England.”
A brief rift between Elton John and the royal family
Following Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday, John forged a close relationship with the late Princess Diana. The two were inseparable until 1997 when the release of Gianni Versace and John’s coffee table book Rock and Royalty appeared. The book benefitted John’s AIDS foundation, but that didn’t matter to the royal family when they saw what was inside.
Inside the book, amidst photos of semi-nude men, was Princess Diana with her boys. Princess Diana was afraid that the Queen would be furious, and the photo caused a rift between John and Princess Diana. The tension, thankfully, didn’t last, and the two were able to make up before Princess Diana’s death.
He attended the funerals of two influential people
When Princess Diana passed away in August 1997, John was beside himself. He was still grieving over Gianni Versace’s death from two months prior and Princess Diana’s death hit him hard. Attending the royal’s funeral, John performed Candle In The Wind. Although the song was originally written as a tribute for Marilyn Monroe, he rewrote a few lyrics for it to suit his long-time friend.
The new rendition of “Candle In The Wind,” renamed “Goodbye England’s Rose,” hit No.1 in the U.K. charts and won John a Grammy. When he delivered his tribute, John admitted that it took every ounce of willpower not to break down in front of the service. He reminded himself to hold it together and deliver his tribute and say his goodbye to “Lady D.”
Elton John’s charity awarded him a knighthood
Because of his contributions to AIDS charity organizations, it doesn’t come as much of a shock to learn that he was knighted Sir Elton John, CBE, for his philanthropic contributions. And in case you’re wondering, CBE stands for “Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.”
Sounds pretty snazzy. In later years, John would also establish his own charity, the Elton John AIDS Foundation. So far, his foundation has raised more than $300 million in support of projects that aid 55 countries around the world. No wonder he was awarded such an esteemed title.
John Lennon made a special appearance
Was it mentioned that Elton John rocked out with John Lennon? Oh yeah, he did. In 1974, John was performing in Madison Square Garden. It was Thanksgiving night and John was on stage wearing white overalls and staple sunglasses when he announced a special guest to the stage (understatement of the decade).
The audience had no clue who the special guest was until John Lennon stepped out on the stage. The crowd went wild as Lennon strapped on his guitar and played along with John. How did John-freaking-Lennon end up performing with Elton John? Simple. He lost a bet.
Lennon lost a bet
Before John Lennon’s untimely death in 1980, he and John were considerably close friends. When Elton was making headlines and skyrocketing across music charts, he decided to place a little wager with the ex-Beatle. John was working on a new song when he made a proposition to the now-solo songwriter.
Elton John bet Lennon that if his song, “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” reached No.1 on the music charts, then Lennon would have to perform at his Thanksgiving concert at Madison Square Garden (1974). Lennon agreed but never thought the song would actually reach No.1. Which of course, it did. Lennon made good on his promise and rocked a magical performance.
Freddie Mercury was like a brother
It seemed like Elton John was friends with everyone. There was the Queen, Princess Diana, Versace, John Lennon, and — Freddie Mercury. With a musical career spanning several decades, is it really a surprise? Like John, Queen was gaining popularity throughout the seventies and had already released classic hits such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Killer Queen.”
They almost toured together, but of course, that didn’t happen (though we wish!) Their friendship was so strong that, just before Mercury’s death in 1991, Mercury sent John a painting commissioned by one of his favorite painters. John was extremely touched by the gesture and wrote a heartfelt letter in the wake of his death.
His friends were dying
John was considerably heartbroken at the news of Freddie Mercury’s death. He wrote: “As Freddie deteriorated in the late ’80s and early ‘90s, it was almost too much to bear. It broke my heart to see this absolute light unto the world ravaged by AIDS… By all rights, Freddie should have spent those final days concerned only with his comfort. But that wasn’t who he was.”
If that wasn’t enough, John wrote in his book, Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS, further praising his friend, “He kept up appearances, he kept performing with Queen, and he kept being the funny, outrageous and profoundly generous person he had always been.”
The real ‘godfather’
Was it mentioned that Elton John was the godfather of Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono? Just when you think Elton John and John Lennon’s relationship couldn’t get any better, it just so happened that the power couple approached John and asked if he would be so humble as to be the godfather of their young son.
Of course, John said yes. If you think John Lennon’s kid wasn’t the only child to be under John’s guardianship, he is also godfather to the children of David and Victoria Beckham. Wonder if he’s accepting any more godchildren?
Bernie Taupin was a true friend
Who can argue with the friendships of royalty and celebrity? Can anyone imagine being close friends with a princess, or even Freddie Mercury? You’d think nothing else could measure or come close as something influential and meaningful as those legends in history. Then again, Bernie Taupin is one-of-a-kind.
Yes, the same Bernie Taupin mentioned earlier. Taupin is lauded to have written some of the most iconic songs in music history. Unlike the company of the monarchy and rock n’ roll legends, Bernie Taupin was John’s best friend throughout his career. Not only did the two create music together, but Taupin was also there at John’s greatest lows.
They had a ‘non-sexual love affair’
Believe it or not, both Taupin got their start in the music industry simultaneously, both calling to the same ad in 1967. Liberty Records was on the hunt for songwriters and both answered for the same ad. You’d think the two would compete for the job, but really, their meeting couldn’t have been any more serendipitous.
John couldn’t write lyrics to save his life, while Taupin couldn’t write melodies. Both decided to join forces after John was handed an envelope of Taupin’s poems. He was instantly moved by Taupin’s work and began creating demos using his lyrics. Taupin would call their relationship a “non-sexual love affair.”
No spoilers here
For those of you who have yet to see the movie, don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers in this article. To those who did watch the movie before doing a little research about the Rocket Man himself, you will undoubtedly be scratching your heads at what the movie got right and what it might have over-embellished.
What can be said is that despite Elton John’s ups and downs, he is unshakingly one of the most influential musicians of all time. His music continues to permeate the foundations of each generation. How John tells his story, via film or literature, is the same as he sings his song.