The 1995 Polar Music Prize has been awarded to the British singer, stage artist and composer Elton John – a central figure in the popular music crucible of the ’70s and ’80s and, eventually, an eccentric mega-star with a big output of successful hits with a worldwide response from a broadbased public.
Reginald Kenneth Dwight
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947 in the London suburb of Pinner, the future Elton John was the son of a trumpet-playing Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, and a musically interested mother who got Dwight hooked on popular music after she brought home early rock & roll records. The young Dwight started playing piano at the age of four and took up formal piano lessons when he was seven.
Early on Dwight began composing his own melodies and performing, first at parties and family gatherings, and later at school functions, where he was known for playing like Jerry Lee Lewis. At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he went on Saturdays until he was 17. Although he liked playing Bach, Chopin and singing in the Academy’s choir, it was the rhythm & blues and rock & roll of the era that truly captured his spirit.
Dwight quit school at 17 with the intention of breaking into the music business. He spent his days running errands for a music publishing company, while his evenings were divided between playing with his band Bluesology and playing solo gigs at a local hotel bar. By the mid-1960s, Bluesology was backing touring American soul acts, and in 1966 they became British R&B singer Long John Baldry’s band. Dwight’s interest in the band began to wane after Baldry became frontman; he began looking for new gigs and met lyricist Bernie Taupin after responding to an ad in New Musical Express. It would be the start of a successful creative partnership that has continued throughout John’s career. In 1968 the two became staff songwriters for Dick James’ DJM label where they started off writing songs for other artists before composing a few singles and a debut album, Empty Sky, of their own in 1969. It was also around this time that Dwight changed his name to Elton John – a tribute to Bluesology saxophonist Elton Dean and Long John Baldry.
For their second album Elton John and Bernie Taupin hired producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger Paul Buckmaster. Elton John was released in the summer of 1970, and in August of that year Elton John gave his first American concerts at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. The sold-out performances were attended by Quincy Jones and Leon Russell, among others, and received enthusiastic reviews from both critics and audiences alike.
Hit Songs, Albums & Tours
By the time John’s self-titled breakthrough album and hit “Your Song” had introduced him to an international audience in 1970, the songwriting duo had honed their skill to such a degree that Taupin could present John with lyrics and he could compose music to them within an hour. In the period between 1970 and 1976, the duo recorded an astonishing fourteen albums and racked up an equally astonishing number of hits, all the while John toured the world with his enormously popular stage performances.
Collaboration with John Lennon
In 1974 Elton John began a collaboration with John Lennon. The first release was a single with cover versions of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and John Lennon’s “One Day at a Time,” both of which featured Lennon on guitar. Elton John was then featured singing harmony vocals and playing piano on Lennon’s single “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.” It was during the recording of this single that Elton John bet Lennon the song would top the charts; Lennon was not so sure about this and agreed to join Elton John on stage if it did. After the single did in fact reach number one, Lennon made a memorable guest appearance at Elton John’s 1974 Thanksgiving performance at Madison Square Garden. The performance would be John Lennon’s last major concert appearance before his death six years later.
After 1976, Elton John cut his performance schedule drastically and started recording only one album a year, none of them as commercially successful as his albums from the early ‘70s. During this period he made changes to his band and began working with other lyricists after his relation with Bernie Taupin had become strained.
Although John and Taupin reunited briefly in 1980, they did not collaborate on a full album until 1983’s Too Low For Zero, the hit record that also signaled John’s return to the charts.
Decade of loss
“I have a chapel in my home in Windsor, in an old orangery at the property. It’s where I go to remember the people in my life who touched me, who made me the person I am today. When I go inside it’s like stepping back in time…
…I’m flooded with sadness and warmth. Pictures adorn the walls. My grandmother. Princess Diana. Gianni Versace. Guy Babylon, the amazing keyboard player I lost to a heart attack in 2009.
Then there’s another wall, full of plaques that list name after name after name. People who, in memory, are frozen in time as young, vibrant and full of life. None of them are here any more. They all died of AIDS.These were close friends, lovers, and people who worked for me. Many of them died in the 1980s, wiped out by a cruel and relentless plague. The first person I knew who died of AIDS was my manager’s assistant, Neil Carter. He was a lovely young man, and I was distraught when I learned he had the disease. Three weeks later, he was dead. His was the first plaque I placed in my chapel…
…Today, AIDS in the west is increasingly thought of as just another chronic condition that can be controlled with medication. We see people like Magic Johnson living long and healthy lives, and we wouldn’t know they had such a terrible disease unless they told us. Thank heaven for that. But when you had AIDS in the 80s, you died – quickly and horribly.”
Excerpt from Elton John’s book Love is the Cure. © Elton John, published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd 2012.
Elton John’s career enjoyed continued success throughout the 1980s, though his personal life was in turmoil. He had been addicted to cocaine and alcohol since the mid-’70s and the addiction worsened during the ’80s. After five record-breaking concerts in Madison Square Garden in 1988, Elton John auctioned off all of his theatrical costumes, memorabilia and his extensive record collection through Sotheby’s. Over the next two years he battled drug addiction and bulimia, coming out sober in 1991.
He returned to active recording with The One in 1992, which became a great success both artistically and commercially, eventually going double platinum. In 1994 he was inducted to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on songs for Disney’s animated film The Lion King, which won him both an Academy Award and a Grammy for the song “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” His 1995 album Made in England was another well-crafted collection of pop songs that continued his comeback. In 1997 grief struck again when two close friends died – designer Gianni Versace and Princess Diana.
Knighthood, Awards and the new millennium
In 1998 Elton John received a knighthood from H.M. Queen Elizabeth II for “services to music and charitable services” and became Sir Elton Hercules John, CBE. Other awards include five Grammys plus a Grammy Legend Award, four Brit Awards, an Academy Award, a Tony Award for the original score to the musical Aida (1999) where he once again collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice, and an honorary doctorate from The Royal Academy of Music.
More than 40 years after his album debut in 1969, Elton John continues to tour the world, perform record-breaking stints at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, record new material, and collaborate with other artists and musicians. His solo albums since the beginning of the new millennium have included Songs From the West Coast (2001), Peachtree Road (2005) and the self-biographical The Captain & the Kid (2006). In 2010 he recorded his thirtieth studio album The Union, a duet album with Leon Russell.