John, Sir Elton (Hercules) [Dwight, Reginald Kenneth]
(b Pinner, 25 March 1947). English composer, singer and pianist. The son of a dance band musician, he was awarded a junior exhibition to the RAM where he learned the basic principles of composition (1958–62); he was already a devotee of rock and roll and the greatest influences on his percussive piano style were Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. His musical apprenticeship between the ages of 14 and 22 encompassed classical training, work as a jobbing rock musician, journeyman songwriting and performing in a local public house. He worked at the Mills Music publishing company and played the piano and sang with Bluesology, a soul and blues group which also made a few undistinguished singles before becoming the backing group for Long John Baldry. Elton John's stage name was drawn from those of Baldry and the saxophonist Elton Dean.
From 1967 he concentrated on songwriting, working with Bernie Taupin (b Sleaford, 22 May 1950), who wrote poetry influenced by Western ballads such as those composed by Marty Robbins. They first collaborated by post with John setting Taupin's verses to music; they have subsequently maintained this unusual method of working whereby the lyrics invariably preceded the music. Elton John is also notable for the speed and fluency with which he sets Taupin's words. They were contracted by Dick James Music and, after some small successes composing songs for other singers, Elton John made his first album of John-Taupin material (1969). With string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster and production by Gus Dudgeon, Empty Sky (DJM) presented him in the then fashionably singer-songwriter mode and won respectful reviews. The second album, Elton John (DJM, 1970), included the first classic John-Taupin composition, Your Song, in which John interpreted its clever yet moving lyric conceit in a confident and confidential soul-influenced style; it has subsequently been recorded by some 50 other singers.
A critically acclaimed appearance at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles (1970) made Elton John an overnight success in the USA. He toured frequently and recorded six albums of new songs in the following five years. These included many of his best-remembered hits such as Rocket Man with its falsetto chorus, an affectionate pastiche of 1950s rock and roll in Crocodile Rock, Candle in the Wind (the lament for Marilyn Monroe which Taupin rewrote for John to sing at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997) and Don't go breaking my heart, a dynamic soul number recorded by John with the British singer Kiki Dee. In 1973 he set up his own record company, Rocket, and the following year he and Taupin formed Big Pig Music to publish their songs.
By the mid 1970s Elton John had formed his mature style as a composer and singer. His American-accented vocal style projected ballads and dance numbers with equal facility while his compositions favoured the keys of E flat, D flat, G flat and F flat. In comparison with the guitar-based songs of his contemporaries, his compositions showed relatively complex melodies and chord structures. His performances increasingly favoured flamboyant outrageousness over introspection, paying homage in equal parts to Little Richard and Liberace as he appeared in a series of flamboyant costumes, a style epitomized in his cameo appearance in the film of the Who's rock opera, Tommy.
In 1979 he was the first Western pop star to tour the Soviet Union, but his career faltered when the partnership with Taupin was suspended in the late 1970s. They reunited in 1982 and during the 1980s created a number of outstanding songs among which were Nikita, Sacrifice, I guess that's why they call it the blues and I'm still standing. In general, both Taupin's lyrics and Elton John's vocal performance were more reflective than in the previous decade. Despite highly publicized personal crises triggered by drug addiction, Elton John maintained his creative output in the 1990s and The Big Picture (Rocket, 1997) was his 25th studio album. In 1994 he contributed songs to the Disney cartoon The Lion King, with lyrics by Tim Rice, and won an Academy Award for Can you feel the love tonight?.
Elton John is the most prolific composer of popular music of his generation, having written and recorded several hundred songs, most with lyrics by Taupin, and is one of the most commercially successful performers of the latter part of the 20th century. He was made a CBE in 1996 and was knighted two years later.
all music by Elton John; lyrics by Bernie Taupin, unless otherwise stated
Your Song, 1969; Crocodile Rock, 1972; Rocket Man, 1972; Candle in the Wind, 1973, lyrics rev. 1997; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973; Bennie and the Jets, 1974; Don't let the sun go down on me, 1974; Philadelphia Freedom, 1975; Don't go breaking my heart, 1976; Sorry seems to be the hardest word, 1976; Song For Guy, 1978 [instrumental]; I guess that's why they call it the blues, 1983; I'm still standing, 1983; Nikita, 1985; Sacrifice, 1989; Can you feel the love tonight?, 1994 ( T. Rice, from the film The Lion King)