Wednesday, January 19, 1994

THE 1994 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME: ELTON JOHN


Inductee: Elton John (piano, vocals; born March 25, 1947)
Induction Year: 1994; Induction Category: Performer


Elton John is among the most successful musical artists of the modern era. In terms of popularity, he ranks with Elvis Presley and the Beatles among rock and rollers. Moreover, his longevity as an active recording artist surpasses both of them. In 1992, he broke Elvis Presley’s old record for the most consecutive years of Top 40 hits on Billboard’s singles chart, having been a continual presence in every year since “Your Song” debuted in December 1970. A multifaceted talent, Elton John excels as both a ballad-oriented singer/songwriter and a flamboyant rock and roll star. He is also a first-rate musician who elevated the role of piano in a medium theretofore dominated by guitars.


Elton John emerged from the obscurity of a British song publisher’s office in a meteoric rise to superstar status during the Seventies. Toting a wardrobe of outrageous costumes and glasses, he was the consummate live entertainer, providing a splashy, larger-than-life visual spectacle to complement his music. He helped usher rock into the arenas during the decade when that conquest became unequivocal. Elton John and longtime lyricist and partner Bernie Taupin identified and shaped the mood of the Seventies from its inception. Given to roughly equal numbers of ballads and rockers, Elton John’s output was as critical to this decade as the Beatles were to the Sixties and Elvis Presley to the Fifties. There was even a bit of overlap between the Beatles and Elton John, as Elton John had the most successful Beatles cover ever with his 1974 version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – which featured John Lennon as guest guitarist.

Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born on March 25, 1947, in Pinner, a suburb of London. He displayed early promise on the piano and was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, where he enrolled in a program for musically gifted children. Though tutored in the classics, his heart belonged to rock and roll, especially Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Early on, he joined a band called Bluesology, a blue-eyed soul group whose members included singer Long John Baldry and sax player Elton Dean. (The combination of their first names provided Reg Dwight with the stage name “Elton John.") Elton John met lyricist Bernie Taupin when both answered a June 1967 ad placed by Liberty Records in the British music paper New Musical Express. Thus began a prolific partnership that endures to this day.

If Elton John’s earliest albums - Empty Sky, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection - established him as a solid arrival on the rock scene, his concert performances sent his career into orbit. The Elton John Band - the Seventies core of which included guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson - was an onstage powerhouse. Elton John’s flamboyant stage wardrobe included ostrich feathers, $5,000 spectacles that spelled his name in lights, a Statue of Liberty costume and more. He’d take the stage attired as Donald Duck or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the game of sartorial one-upmanship during the over-the-top Seventies, Elton John was without peer.

All the while, he steadily amassed a formidable catalog of recordings, their classic status being all the more amazing for the prolific pace at which he worked. During 1971 alone, four new Elton John albums made their appearance on Billboard’s album chart: the western-themed Tumbleweed Connection; the soundtrack to an obscure film, Friends; the live album 11-17-70, recorded on that date at a New York radio station’s studio; and Madman Across the Water, which contained the favorites “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon” and the brooding title track. Honky Chateau, which appeared in 1972, was top-heavy with classic tracks, including “Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man.” The latter was a profound match of words and music that used space travel as a metaphor for spiritual isolation.

In 1973, Elton John launched his own custom label, Rocket Records. That peak year saw the release of the poppy, hit-filled Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player (“Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel,”) and the more thoughtful, album-oriented double-LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Elton John had already racked up five Top Forty hits prior to the release of Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, but the floodgates opened in the wake of the chart-topping success of that album’s “Crocodile Rock.” In the three-year period from 1973 to 1976, Elton John amassed 15 hit singles, including six that went to #1 (“Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Island Girl,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) and three that reached #2 (“Daniel,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”). Those 15 singles logged a combined 156 weeks from 1973-1976, which is to say that, on average, an Elton John single could be found in the Top Forty every week for three years. In other words, Elton John completely dominated the rock world in the mid-Seventies.

Moreover, Elton John wasn’t just a highly successful singles artist. From 1972 to 1975, he released seven consecutive albums that topped the charts: Honky Chateau (1972, #1 for five weeks), Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player (1973, #1 for two weeks), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973, #1 for eight weeks), Caribou (1974, #1 for four weeks), Elton John – Greatest Hits (1974, #1 for ten weeks), Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975, #1 for seven weeks) and Rock of the Westies (1975, #1 for three weeks). These seven albums topped the album chart for a combined total of 39 weeks, which is to say an Elton John album was ensconced at #1 every fourth week or so during the mid-Seventies. Sales figures and chart statistics such as these place Elton John in a rarefied class with the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Garth Brooks and Bob Dylan.

In 1974, Elton John became director of a professional soccer team, the Watford Football Club. On Thanksgiving Day of that year, he coaxed a reclusive John Lennon onstage for three songs during a Madison Square Garden concert that turned out to be John Lennon’s final public performance. The charmed year of 1975 began with Elton John – Greatest Hits lodged at #1. Later that year, two albums of new material - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a musical autobiography about Elton John and Bernie Taupin, his longtime lyricist, and the more straightforward, rock-oriented Rock of the Westies - entered the album chart at #1, a previously unprecedented feat.

Elton John’s exhausting pace tapered off as the Seventies wound down. Elton John and Bernie Taupin took a two-year hiatus from each other, during which time they worked with other writers. They resumed their partnership by co-writing several songs on 21 at 33 (1981), and 1983’s Too Low for Zero was their first fully collaborative album of the Eighties. The rest of the decade found Elton John working less furiously, though no less successfully, charting almost exactly as many Top 40 singles during that decade as he had in the previous one. Among them was “Sacrifice,” taken from 1990’s Sleeping With the Past, which became Elton John’s first-ever #1 hit in his British homeland.

Elton John remained active and viable in the Nineties, adding a tireless devotion to AIDS-related issues to his resume. Among other things, he established the Elton John AIDS foundation to provide funds for services to people living with HIV/AIDS and for educational programs targeting AIDS prevention. Meanwhile, oblivious to trends or the passage of time, Elton John continued his hitmaking ways. He scored a #1 single in 1992 with a live remake of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (a duet with George Michael) and reached #4 in 1994 with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” from the soundtrack to the Walt Disney film The Lion King. Five songs from that animated feature were composed by Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice.

The year 1997 was an eventful one for Elton John, marked by both triumph and tragedy. He lost two close friends, Britain’s Princess Diana and Italian designer Gianni Versace, under tragic circumstances. On the other hand, his tribute single to Diana, “Candle in the Wind 1997” – which was produced in a day by George Martin – became a phenomenal success that helped the whole world in its grieving. It sold more than 33 million copies, becoming the biggest single in history, and raised over 20 million pounds (roughly 30 million U.S. dollars) for the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund. In early 1998, Elton John was knighted in his British homeland. That same year, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that Elton John was the second top-selling solo artist of all time (behind Garth Brooks), with a grand total of 60.6 million units sold.

Elton John reprised his collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice for Walt Disney’s Broadway musical Aida (based on Verdi’s opera), which opened in March 2000 and won four Tony Awards. As luck would have it, John co-wrote the music for the spring season’s two most popular Broadway musicals: The Lion King and Aida. He returned to the world of rock and roll in with a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden that was released as Elton John – One Night Only (The Greatest Hits). In 2001, he released an album, Songs from the West Coast, which harked back in spirit and approach to earlier classics like Tumbleweed Connection.

TIMELINE

March 25, 1947: Reginald Kenneth Dwight, a.k.a. Elton John, is born in the London suburb of Pinner.

June 23, 1967: Elton John answers an ad placed by Liberty Records in Britain’s ‘New Musical Express,’ thereby setting in motion a chain of events that will result in his teaming up with lyricist Bernie Taupin, his lifetime songwriting collaborator.

June 3, 1969: ‘Empty Sky,’ Elton John’s first album, is released in England. It will not be released in the U.S. until 1975, when Elton John is a bonafide superstar.

August 25, 1970: Elton John makes his performing debut in America at Los Angeles’ Troubadour nightclub.

January 23, 1971: Elton John reaches #8 with “Your Song.” It is the first in a string of 60 hit singles for Elton John over the next three decades.

April 10, 1971: Elton John hits #34 with “Friends”.

February 5, 1972: Elton John hits #24 with “Levon”.

July 15, 1972: Elton John hits #6 with “Rocket Man,” a song whose words and music make a timely play on the U.S. space program.

September 23, 1972: Elton John hits #8 with “Honky Cat”.

February 3, 1973: Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” hits #1. It is the first of a half dozen chart-topping singles for Elton John over the next three years.

June 2, 1973: Elton John hits #2 with “Daniel,” a pensive ballad from his hit-filled album Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.

September 15, 1973: Elton John hits #12 with “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

December 8, 1973: Elton John hits #2 with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the title track from a double album that would itself reach #1 and remain on the album charts for two years.

April 13, 1974: Elton John hits #1 with “Bennie and the Jets,” a tribute to R&B music from ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.’ “When I first heard ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ I knew I had to be a performer,” Axl Rose (of Guns N’ Roses) would say in his 1994 speech inducting Elton John into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

July 27, 1974: Elton John hits #2 with “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” from his ‘Caribou’ album. The song features Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston on backing vocals.

November 2, 1974: Elton John hits #2 with “The Bitch is Back.”

November 28, 1974: Having promised Elton John that he would join him onstage if “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” hit #1, John Lennon makes good by accompanying Elton John on three songs at Madison Square Garden. It turns out to be John Lennon’s last-ever live performance.

January 4, 1975: Elton John hits #1 with his remake of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” John Lennon plays guitar on this non-LP single under the pseudonym Dr. Winston O’Boogie.

April 12, 1975: Elton John hits #1 with “Philadelphia Freedom,” a song inspired by his friendship with tennis superstar Billie Jean King, whose pro team is the Philadelphia Freedoms.

August 16, 1975: Elton John hits #4 with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

October 11, 1975: “Bad Blood,” by Neil Sedaka, hits #1. It features Elton John on harmony vocals and appears on Elton John’s own label, Rocket Records.

November 1, 1975: Elton John hits #1 with “Island Girl,” from ‘Rock of the Westies,’ his seventh consecutive #1 album.

August 7, 1976: “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” by Elton John and Kiki Dee, tops the charts for the first of four weeks. It is Elton John’s sixth #1 hit in three years – and his last one in the U.S. for 21 years.

December 25, 1976: Elton John hits #6 with “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word”.

November 3, 1977: An exhausted Elton John announces at a London concert that he is retiring from live performances, which he does – for 15 months.

February 3, 1979: Close on the heels of a new album, ‘A Single Man,’ Elton John resumes touring after a 15-month hiatus.

May 30, 1980: Elton John releases ‘21 at 33,’ which reunites him with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The title refers to the fact that it is the 33-year-old Elton John’s 21st album.

December 14, 1986: Elton John performs in Sydney, Australia, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The concert is released as the double album ‘Live in Australia’ in July 1987.

August 1, 1987: MTV Europe, the continent’s only 24-hour music-video network, is launched at 12:01 a.m. Elton John switches on the channel from the Roxy Club in Amsterdam. The first video to be shown is Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.”

September 23, 1988: Elton John concludes a sold-out five-night stand at New York’s Madison Square Garden. It is his 26th sold-out concert at the venue, breaking the Grateful Dead’s old record.

June 23, 1990: “Sacrifice,” from the album ‘Sleeping With the Past,’ becomes Elton John’s first-ever #1 hit in his British homeland.

December 21, 1992: Elton John establishes the Elton John AIDS Foundation, aimed at AIDS prevention education and direct care services.

February 18, 1993: Elton John’s album ‘The One’ becomes the first to receive multi-platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Previously, albums were only certified gold (500,000 copies sold) or platinum (1,000,000 copies sold).

April 3, 1993: Elton John’s “Simple Life,” from his 1992 album ‘The One,’ enters Billboard’s Top Forty. With this charting single, Elton John breaks Elvis Presley’s longstanding record with 24 consecutive years of Top Forty hits.

January 19, 1994: Elton John is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the ninth annual induction dinner. Axl Rose, of Guns N’ Roses, is his presenter.

June 4, 1994: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” by Elton John – a collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice from the soundtrack to Walt Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ – enters the Top Forty, where it will peak at #4. It extends Elton John’s record-breaking streak of consecutive years of Top Forty hits to 25.

July 13, 1994: Elton John and Billy Joel team up for a joint tour for the first time. The union of two piano-playing rock and roll superstars virtually guarantees sellouts.

March 1, 1995: After countless Grammy nominations dating back to 1970, Elton John receives his first Grammy Award as an artist for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (from ‘The Lion King’), which wins Best Pop Vocal Performance. The same song wins Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice an Oscar for Best Song from a Motion Picture at the March 27th Academy Awards.

October 2, 1997: It is announced that “Candle in the Wind 1997,” Elton John’s tribute to the late Princess Diana, has shipped more than 26 million units worldwide, making it the second biggest single in history (behind Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”). It tops the U.S. charts for 14 weeks.

February 24, 1998: “Sir” Elton John is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

October 2, 2001: Elton John releases ‘Songs from the West Coast.’ It is his 40th U.S. album, including compilations and soundtracks.

THE INDUCTION CEREMONIES