July 16, 2006
Elton John's enduring appeal
By ALLAN WIGNEY -- Ottawa Sun
“The great thing about rock and roll is that someone like me can be a star.” — Elton John
He was an unlikely teen idol. A balding, bespectacled butterball, Elton John capitalized on the rise of 1970s glam by taking every excessive aspect of rock ’n’ roll that much further. Visually, he wore outlandish costumes — everything from sporting ostrich feathers to dressing as a duck or the Statue of Liberty — and glasses that were an optician’s nightmare (or dream). Musically, he crafted supremely catchy tunes and proved equally adept at the prettiest of pop ballads and the most ferocious boogie-driven rockers. Offstage, he became one of rock ’n’ roll’s most controversial figures, though not always intentionally or justly so.
He pulled John Lennon out of the shadows and helped to ease Guns N’ Roses into them. He hesitantly advanced the cause of the gay-rights movement and paid a hefty, if temporary, price for it. He has engaged in a lengthy love-hate relationship with the media that has likely both helped and hindered his remarkable endurance as a performer. Between 1970 and 1996, Elton John placed at least one single per year in the Top 40. Today, he stands as one of the 10 best-selling recording artists in history.
And he’s only getting started.
Reginald Kenneth Dwight had seen little of his RAF squadron-leader father when his parents divorced in 1962. Born March 25, 1947 in Pinner, England, young Reginald had been raised by his mother. And by music.
The restless youngster had begun studying piano at age four and had earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at 11. He would not complete those studies, however, abandoning the Royal Academy in his teens in favour of daytime gofer work at a music publishing company and nighttime stints with a rock ’n’ roll group, The Corvettes. Like virtually every other English combo of the early 1960s, of course, The Corvettes soon mutated into an R&B combo.
The renamed Bluesology made something of a name for themselves in and around Middlesex, backing touring R&B stars like The Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle’s Bluebelles, before settling into a regular gig as Long John Baldry’s band. Steady work, but hardly the sort of role for a budding frontman like Reg Dwight. Attempts to join nascent London bands King Crimson and Gentle Giant failed, as did an audition for Liberty Records, but the latter setback would ultimately prove beneficial when a Liberty exec suggested Dwight contact an aspiring lyricist by the name of Bernie Taupin.
Taupin and John soon developed a words-and-music formula that continues to serve them well 39 years later. Yet, Empty Sky, the 1968 debut album by Elton Hercules John — a name culled from Bluesology saxophonist Elton Dean, Long John Baldry and the dog on a popular British sitcom — was barely noticed by the record-buying public.
The addition of producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger Paul Buckmaster to the John-Taupin team came in time for a second album, simply titled Elton John. And the perfect pop of Your Song, one of Elton John’s tracks, catapulted the would-be Jerry Lee Lewis wildman to instant sentimental singer-songwriter fame on both sides of the Atlantic.
The thematic Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water furthered the cause, while a live album culled from a November 1970 concert hinted at the power of an Elton John live show. By the time of Honky Chateau, the 1972 album propelled by the success of the singles Honky Cat and Rocket Man, John was resting comfortably atop the charts.
Seven straight No. 1s
It would be the first of seven consecutive John albums to reach No. 1 before the close of 1975, as the songwriter, his lyricist and a band that included (as it includes today) guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson maintained a tireless schedule. Between 1972 and 1976, John placed 15 singles in the Top 10, while a 16th, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, only narrowly missed that mark. The albums — among them Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy — were consistently electric and eclectic. Nothing, it seemed, could stop rock ’n’ roll’s greatest star.
“There is nothing wrong with going to bed with someone of your own sex,” John said in a 1976 Rolling Stone interview entitled “Elton’s Frank Talk.” After all, he said, he had done it himself, on more than one occasion.
And with that, seemingly, everything changed. John had admitted only to being bisexual, as a tentative means of testing the homophobic waters. And his career nearly drowned as a result.
The streak had to end anyway, of course. And John likely welcomed the opportunity to slow his prolific pace to one major release per year. Faced with a combination of exhaustion, a cruel backlash to his frank talk and a deteriorating relationship with Taupin, John announced in 1977 that he was retiring from live performances.
The “retirement” (like many others since) lasted but a few months. But when John returned, it was without Taupin. A Single Man, a lacklustre album cursed with B-grade lyrics by former advertising-jingle writer Gary Osborne, brought forth no hits. A disco-flavoured followup, Victim of Love, fared worse.
“Every artist who makes it goes through a period where it seems they’re invincible,” John would tell Joe Smith for the author’s book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. “We’ve seen it with Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince … It just seems like they can’t fail. And then suddenly everything levels off. I knew it when it started happening to me. I was really tired … I knew I was peaking. I knew it was time for someone else to take over. You have to be realistic about these things.”
Subdued words from the famously flashy Captain Fantastic. But it would take several years for John to make a concerted effort to reclaim some of what was once his. It began modestly enough with 1980’s 21 at 33 and Taupin’s return, and gathered steam with the promising Too Low for Zero. But if the albums were patchy, singles like Little Jeannie, I’m Still Standing, I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues and Sad Songs (Say so Much) served notice that John and Taupin could still make with the hits. In 1987, John even saw a live recording of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ode to Marilyn Monroe, Candle in the Wind, finally have its moment to shine. It would have another a decade later.
But while success continued on the singles charts, John’s personal life was in turmoil. Years of drug and alcohol abuse, plus serious throat problems, took their toll through the remainder of the 1980s. In 1988, John auctioned off his complete collection of records, costumes and other memorabilia, bidding farewell not so much to the past as to the man who now likened himself to Elvis Presley in the King’s final days.
The 1990s, however, signaled a return. Fresh from a stint at a Chicago hospital, a sober John established a charitable foundation to combat AIDS, underwent hair-replacement surgery and set about expanding his canon through soundtracks and stage musicals, sometimes working with lyricist Tim Rice. The Lion King and its Oscar-winning Can You Feel the Love Tonight would be the first; AIDA, Billy Elliot and others would follow.
So, too, would induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1994), knighthood (1998), fine returns to form like Songs from the West Coast and the underrated 2004 release Peachtree Road. Plus, of course, the biggest hit of John’s 40-year career, which would come in 1997 with one last return to Candle in the Wind, this time rewritten as a eulogy to Princess Diana.
Today, as John continues to tour when not performing at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, he and Taupin occasionally drop hints of a sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy that will tell the story of their last 30 years together.
There is no shortage of material to draw from.
“I am Elton John full-time now; I don’t even think of myself as Reg Dwight anymore,” the artist told Joe Smith in 1988.
“But Reg might be surfacing again … Maybe Reg will make an album, and he’ll be the one putting songs out. There is still a lot to come out of me, and I do desperately want a platinum album again, but for now I feel very fortunate to have lasted so long.”