Born in London, John began learning to play the piano at 3 years old. His talent was uncanny, and he was quickly able to play several classical pieces by ear, often after only one or two listens. His parents brought rock and roll into his life early on, and he became enamored with acts like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles. At just 11 years old, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. After leaving school and spending some time as a resident pianist at a local pub, John began performing in bands and recording as a session pianist.
It was while working for Liberty Records that John met Bernie Taupin, who proved to be Elton John’s chief songwriting partner throughout his career – in fact, their relationship continues to this day. Their chemistry ignited an outpouring of creative productivity, and, before long, Elton John could be heard across international airwaves. Albums like Honky Chateau and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road hit number one on the Billboard charts, supported by songs like “Rocket Man,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Candle in the Wind,” to name but a few. His elaborate costumes and vivacious antics at his live performances are the stuff of legend, an essential “glam” addition to the formula of rock and roll that continues to be imitated but unsurpassed.
Even with the wild commercial and critical successes of the 1970s, Elton John’s musical achievements continued in the 1990s and beyond. He wrote the songs for the Disney classic The Lion King, which earned John an Academy Award for Best Song for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” In 1997, Elton John helped to unite a Western World distraught in the wake of tragedy. He performed a revised version of “Candle in the Wind” for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. As a single, “Candle in the Wind 1997” sold over 33 million copies, earning it the title of the best selling single of all time.
Despite his status as one of the most successful songwriters in history, Elton John has retained his characteristic sense of humor and generosity. Perhaps his proudest achievement and greatest passion are tied to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which he founded in 1992. This issue has long been important to John, who has been famously outspoken about his homosexuality and continued to campaign for tolerance and equal rights. He contributed to a song called “That What Friends Are For” with Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and others to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and to draw funding for awareness campaigns and medical research. In addition to his foundation, Elton John teamed up with Cyndi Lauper for the Give a Damn campaign in support of the LGBT community. His fearlessness and pride in the face of ignorance and intolerance continues to instill hope in this community.
Elton John’s vision of the world is simply that of a level playing field, in which all people – regardless of their beliefs – can co-exist through the highs and lows of the human experience with a shared respect and empathy. This is a message that continues to shape our politics, our lives, and the course of history, and that will likely resonate far into the future thanks another unforgettable melody by Elton John.