Elton John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in Pinner, Middlesex, England, the son of Royal Air Force squadron leader, Stanley Dwight, and his wife, Sheila Dwight. Reginald was raised primarily by his mother, grandmother and aunt, and saw little of his father during his childhood. Stanley and Sheila divorced in 1962, when Reginald was fourteen.
Reginald began playing piano when he was four, and when he was eleven, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. He previously attended Pinner County Grammar School. He stayed at the Academy for six years, before leaving to start a musical career.
In 1960, Reginald and some of his friends, while still in school, formed a band called The Corvettes, which evolved into Bluesology. By the mid-1960s, Bluesology was backing touring American soul and R & B musicians like The Isley Brothers, Major Lance, Doris Troy, and Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles. In 1966, two years after Reginald left school, the band became musician Long John Baldry’s supporting band and began touring cabarets with him throughout England. When Baldry’s control over the band greatly increased, Reginald left and started looking for other bands to join. After failing lead vocalist auditions for both King Crimson and Gentle Giant, Reginald answered an advertisement by Liberty Records. There he was given a stack of lyrics by lyricist Bernie Taupin. Reginald then wrote music for the lyrics, and got in touch with Bernie through the mail. Thus began a partnership that continues to this day. When they met six months later, Reginald had changed his name to Elton John, by deed poll, in homage to Bluesology saxophonist Elton Dean and Long John Baldry.
Elton and Bernie, now working together, joined Dick James’s DJM Records as staff songwriters in 1968, and over the next two years, wrote songs for pop singers like Roger Cook and Lulu, while also recording their own songs. In June 1969, Elton released his first album Empty Sky for DJM, without any success.
Elton’s self-titled second album was released in the summer of 1970, and started to sell well in the U.S., where it was released on the MCA's Uni subsidiary. “Your Song,” a single from the album, helped the album greatly by reaching the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100, and it reached the Top Ten on the Billboard 200. Elton performed his first American concert at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, California, around that time, and got mostly positive reviews.
Elton John was followed quickly with the concept album,Tumbleweed Connection, in February 1971. It reached the Top Ten on the Billboard 200 like its predecessor, and got heavy airplay on album-oriented radio stations in the U.S., which most likely played a part in its success. Tumbleweed Connection was followed by the live album 11-17-70, an ambitious and largely underrated album showcasing Elton’s considerable talent as a rock pianist, with great interaction between Elton and bassist Dee Murray. Extended versions of his early compositions clearly illustrate the gospel and boogie-woogie influences on Elton’s piano playing, as the lead instrument in a successful, yet unusual (for Rock) trio format. The live album was followed by the soundtrack to the obscure film Friends and the album Madman Across the Water, both that same year. Madman Across the Water reached the Top Ten, and produced the hit “Levon” while the soundtrack album produced the hit, “Friends.” In 1972, Elton released Honky Chateau, which became his first American number one album, spending five weeks at the top of the charts, and spawned the hit singles “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)” and “Honky Cat.”
In 1973, Elton started his own label, Rocket Records. That year, Elton released the pop album Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player which produced the hits “Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel,” and the more thoughtful, album-oriented double LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which gained instant critical acclaim. The album topped the charts and is considered the best Elton John album. It contains the Number One hit, “Bennie and the Jets,” along with the popular title song, “Candle in the Wind” (which went on to become the best selling song of all time), and the FM radio favorite “Saturday Night’s Alright” (for Fighting). It also contained gems, such as “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and “Grey Seal.”
In 1974, Elton engaged in a noted collaboration with John Lennon, resulting in Elton covering The Beatles’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Elton being featured on Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” and a surprise joint concert performance of these two No. 1 hits along with The Beatles’ classic “I Saw Her Standing There.” Elton got Lennon to perform these songs at Madison Square Garden in what would be his last public performance. The concert was recorded and released two years later with another live concert recording on the album “Here & There.” That year, he also became director of a professional soccer team, the Watford Football Club, and released the albums Caribou and Elton John's Greatest Hits, both Number One hits, like their predecessors. Caribou was widely considered a lesser quality album but demonstrated John’s rocking ability with “The Bitch Is Back” and his versatility in orchestral songs with “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” Also in 1974, Elton John was asked to play a character called the “Pinball Wizard” and perform a song of the same name by the British band, The Who, for their rock opera, “Tommy.” Drawing on powerchords, Elton’s version was recorded and used for the movie release in 1975 and the single came out in 1976. The song charted Number Seven in England.
Elton John's cryptic personality was revealed with the autobiographical album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.
With the release of the 1975 autobiographical album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Elton John revealed his previously ambiguous personality. In the album, Taupin and John describe their early days as struggling songwriters and musicians in London and its environs. The lyrics and accompanying photo booklet are infused with a specific sense of place and time that would otherwise be rare in John's music. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was the hit single from this album and captured an early turning point in John’s life. His next album, the rock-oriented Rock of the Westies entered the Billboard 200 chart at Number One, a previously unattained feat.
Elton’s career slowed down somewhat after 1976. That year he stated in a interview with Rolling Stone that he was bisexual, which caused a drop in record sales the following years. The decline in his record sales was also probably due to his exhaustion. He cut his performance schedule after that year, and retired from live performances in 1977 and started recording only one album per year.
His biggest 1980s hits included, among others, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “I'm Still Standing,” “Nikita” and a 1986 live recording of “Candle in the Wind,” which he recorded with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The song, which was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, was originally recorded in 1973 on his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album.
Elton John underwent throat surgery in 1986 while on tour, a necessity he originally said was due to an infection, but later said was the result of excessive drug abuse. The problems with his voice can clearly be heard in his raspy singing on the Live in Australia album (released 1987). He made a full recovery but continued to engage in drugs for a few years yet. The surgery in 1986 also had a dramatic affect on John’s voice, and he found that he could no longer sing in falsetto as well as he previously could and that he now sang in a lower range.
In 1997, he updated the lyrics of “Candle in the Wind” for a special version mourning the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and this became the fastest selling single of all time, eventually going on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide.
In each of 30 consecutive years, from 1970 through 1999, John appeared with at least one single on the “Top 40” of Billboard magazine’s pop record chart, the “Hot 100” - a feat unmatched by any other recording artist.
In 2000, he recorded his One Night Only album over a two-night concert recorded from Madison Square Garden. His band included long-time members Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson, as well as the internationally renouned John Jorgenson, Bob Birch, John Mahon, and Curt Bisquera. The concert also featured duets with Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, Ronan Keating, Bryan Adams, Kiki Dee, and Anastacia.
In 2003, he reached number one in the United Kingdom with a re-release of the single “Are You Ready For Love” which had been only a minor hit when first released in 1979. In 2004, he released the album Peachtree Road, which met some critical success. The same year, John expanded his musical theatre repertoire by composing songs for the musical adaptation of Billy Elliot, which opened in London in May 2005 to rave reviews. John is also working on the a musical adaptation of Anne Rice’s work entitled Lestat. It marks the first time he has worked on a musical with his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. Later in December of that same year, John received the Kennedy Center Honor for a lifetime of contribution to entertainment.
He continues to release new material to commercial success, and tours extensively, despite being fitted with a pacemaker. His face-to-face tours with fellow pianist Billy Joel have been a fan favorite throughout the world since the mid-1990s. Elton also has a multi-year contract to perform at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The show, entitled The Red Piano, is a multimedia concert featuring massive props and video montages created by David LaChappelle.
He achieved yet another Number One single in the UK, being featured on 2Pac’s posthumous song “Ghetto Gospel” in 2005, from the rapper's album, Loyal to the Game. The song sampled “Indian Sunset” from John's 1971 album, Madman Across the Water.
Sir Elton John has long been associated with AIDS charities after the death of his friends Ryan White and Freddie Mercury, raising large amounts of money and using his public profile to raise awareness of the disease. For example, in 1986 he joined with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder to record the single “That’s What Friends Are For”, with all profits being donated to the American Foundation for AIDS Research. The song won Grammy awards for “Song of the Year” and for “Best Pop Performance, by a Duo or Group”.
John founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 as a charity to fund programs for HIV/AIDS prevention, for the elimination of prejudice and discrimination against HIV/AIDS-affected individuals, and for providing services to people living with or at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
Released by Universal in October 2010, and produced by T Bone Burnett, The Union marks the culmination of a mutual musical adoration that began in the late 1960s, ahead of Elton’s debut US performance in 1970 at The Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. The album is a collaboration between Elton and Leon Russell, with songs by Elton and Bernie Taupin; by Elton, Bernie and Leon; by Elton and Leon and by Leon alone.
The Union (2010) was recorded in Los Angeles, with guest musicians including Brian Wilson, Booker T, Don Was and Neil Young. Cameron Crowe has filmed the sessions for a documentary, creating too a moment of history as this is the first time that the genesis of Elton’s music has been recorded on film. Critics are united in praise for the work that Elton describes as a “Seventies record with a modern feel.”