William Martin Joel, 9 May 1949, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA. Joel, a classically-trained pianist who grew up in Long Island, joined his first group, the Echoes, in 1964. Three years later he left them in favour of the Hassels, a popular Long Island act signed to United Artists Records. Joel appeared on both of their albums, The Hassels and Hour Of The Wolf, before breaking away with drummer Jon Small to form Attila. The duo completed a self-titled album before moving in separate directions. A demo of Joel’s original compositions led to the release of his 1971 debut, Cold Spring Harbor, but its progress was marred by insufficient promotion. However, when ‘Captain Jack’, a new song recorded for a radio broadcast, became an ‘underground’ hit, Columbia Records traced Joel to California and signed him to a long-term contract. The title track to Piano Man, became a US Top 30 single in 1973 and sowed the seeds of a highly successful recording career.
Joel refused to bow to corporate demands for commercially-minded material and despite enjoying hits with two subsequent albums, Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles, it was not until 1977 that his fortunes flourished with the release of The Stranger, which eventually surpassed Simon And Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as Columbia’s bestselling album. Its best-known track, the US Top 5 hit ‘Just The Way You Are’, later won two Grammy Awards for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year. This romantic ballad has since become a standard, and was a major UK hit for Barry White in 1978. Joel’s 1979 album, 52nd Street, spawned another smash single, ‘My Life’ while the singer’s first US number 1, ‘It’s Still Rock ‘N’ Roll To Me’ came from a subsequent release, Glass Houses. Joel’s image as a popular, uncontroversial figure was shaken with The Nylon Curtain, which featured two notable ‘protest’ compositions, ‘Allentown’ and ‘Goodnight Saigon’. However he returned to simpler matters in 1984 with An Innocent Man, which included the US number 1 ‘Tell Her About It’ and the effervescent bestseller ‘Uptown Girl’, a tribute to his then wife, model Christie Brinkley. This memorable single topped the UK charts and confirmed the artist’s status as an international performer. Further transatlantic hits from the album included the title track, ‘The Longest Time’, ‘Leave A Tender Moment Alone’, and ‘Keeping The Faith’.
Although his output from the mid-80s onwards has been less prolific, Joel has continued to score the occasional hit single, maintaining his standing in the pop world. Most notable of these were the US Top 10 hits ‘You’re Only Human (Second Wind)’, ‘Modern Woman’ and ‘A Matter Of Trust’, 1989’s US chart-topper ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, and 1993’s ‘River Of Dreams’. In 1990 he won the Grammy’s Living Legends Award, and the following year was awarded an honorary doctorate at Fairfield University, Connecticut. Further awards included Billboard’s Century Award in 1994 and induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999.
Joel’s back catalogue continues to sell in thousands and by the turn of the new millennium many had reached multi-platinum status in the USA. He is also the third bestselling solo artist in US recording history, behind Garth Brooks and Elton John. A perfectionist by nature, he also indicated a desire to pursue a wider musical style, and in 1997 announced that he would not be writing any pop songs in the foreseeable future, concentrating instead on classical scores. His first classical release, Fantasies & Delusions, was performed by pianist Richard Joo. In 2002, Emmy Award-winning director Twyla Tharp conceived, choreographed and directed Movin’ Out, a dance-theatre production based on 24 Joel songs. The show moved to Broadway in October.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.
Reginald Kenneth Dwight, 25 March 1947, Pinner, Middlesex, England. At the age of four, the young Dwight started taking piano lessons. This launched a talent that via the Royal Academy Of Music led him to become the most successful rock pianist in the world, one of the richest men in Britain and one of the world’s greatest rock stars. Dwight formed his first band Bluesology in the early 60s and turned professional in 1965 when they secured enough work backing touring American soul artists. Long John Baldry joined the band in 1966, which included Elton Dean on saxophone and Caleb Quaye on lead guitar. As the forceful Baldry became the leader, John became disillusioned with being a pub pianist and began to explore the possibilities of a music publishing contract. Following a meeting set up by Ray Williams of Liberty Records at Dick James Music, the shy Dwight first met Bernie Taupin, then an unknown writer from Lincolnshire. Realizing they had uncannily similar musical tastes they began to communicate by post only, and their first composition ‘Scarecrow’ was completed. This undistinguished song was the first to bear the John/Taupin moniker; John had only recently adopted this name, having dispensed with Reg Dwight in favour of the more saleable title borrowed from the first names of his former colleagues Dean and Baldry.
In 1968 John and Taupin were signed by Dick James, formerly of Northern Songs, to be staff writers for his new company DJM Records at a salary of £10 per week. The songs were slow to take off, although Roger Cook released their ‘Skyline Pigeon’ and Lulu sang ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ as a potential entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. One hopes that John was not too depressed when he found that ‘Boom-Bang-A-Bang’ was the song chosen in its place. While the critics liked his single releases, none were selling. Only ‘Lady Samantha’ came near to breaking the chart, which is all the more perplexing as it was an excellent, commercial-sounding record.
In June 1969 Empty Sky was released, and John was still ignored, although the reviews were reasonably favourable. During the next few months he played on sessions with the Hollies (notably the piano on ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’) and made budget recordings for cover versions released in supermarkets. Finally, Elton John’s agonizingly long wait for recognition came the following year when Gus Dudgeon produced the outstanding Elton John. Among the tracks were ‘Border Song’ and the classic ‘Your Song’. The latter provided the singer with his first UK hit, reaching number 2, and announced the emergence of a major talent. The momentum was maintained with Tumbleweed Connection but the following soundtrack, Friends and the live 17-11-70 were major disappointments to his fans.
These were minor setbacks, as over the next few years Elton John became a superstar. His concerts in America were legendary as he donned ridiculous outfits and outrageous spectacles. At one stage between 1972 and 1975 he had seven consecutive number 1 albums, variously spawning memorable hits including ‘Rocket Man’, ‘Daniel’, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, ‘Candle In The Wind’ and the powerful would-be suicide note, ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’. He was partly responsible for bringing John Lennon and Yoko Ono back together again in 1975, following the Madison Square Garden concert on 28 November 1974, and became Sean Lennon’s godfather. In 1976 he topped the UK charts with a joyous duet with Kiki Dee, ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’, and released further two million-selling albums, Here And There and Blue Moves. The phenomenal pattern continued as John courted most of the rock cognoscenti. Magazine articles peeking into his luxury home revealed an astonishing wardrobe, and a record collection so huge that he would never be able to listen to all of it.
In 1977 Elton John declared that he was retiring from music, and in 1979 Taupin moved to Los Angeles as the John/Taupin partnership went into abeyance. John started writing with pianist and band leader Tony Osborne’s son, Gary. The partnership produced few outstanding songs, however. The most memorable during that time was the solo instrumental ‘Song For Guy’, a beautiful tribute to a Rocket Records motorcycle messenger killed in a road accident. Elton John then entered an uncomfortable phase in his life; he remained one of pop’s most newsworthy figures, openly admitting his bisexuality and personal insecurities about his weight and baldness. It was this vulnerability that made him such a popular personality. His consumerism even extended to rescuing his favourite football team, Watford. He purchased the club and invested money in it, and under his patronage their fortunes changed positively.
John’s albums and sales during the early 80s were patchy, and only when he started working exclusively with Taupin again did his record sales pick up. The first renaissance album was Too Low For Zero in 1983, which scaled the charts along with the triumphant single ‘I’m Still Standing’. John ended the year in much better shape and married Renate Blauel the following February. During 1985 he appeared at Wham!’s farewell concert, and the following month he performed at the historic Live Aid concert, giving a particularly strong performance as one of rock’s elder statesmen. He completed the year with another massive album, Ice On Fire. In January 1986 he and Taupin contested a lengthy court case for back royalties against DJM. However, the costs of the litigation were prohibitive and the victory at best pyrrhic. Towards the end of that year John collapsed onstage in Australia and entered an Australian hospital for throat surgery in January.
During this time the UK gutter press were having a field day, speculating on John’s possible throat cancer and his rocky marriage. The press had their pound of flesh when it was announced that Renate and John had separated. In 1988 he released the excellent Reg Strikes Back and the fast-tempo boogie, ‘I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That’. Meanwhile, The Sun newspaper made serious allegations against the singer, which prompted a libel suit. Considering the upheavals in his personal life and regular sniping by the press John sounded in amazingly good form and was performing with the energy of his early 70s extravaganzas. In September, almost as if he were closing a chapter of his life, Elton auctioned at Sotheby’s 2000 items of his personal memorabilia including his boa feathers, ‘Pinball Wizard’ boots and hundreds of pairs of spectacles. In December 1988, John accepted a settlement (reputedly £1 million, although never confirmed) from The Sun, thus forestalling one of the bitterest legal disputes in pop history. He appeared a sober figure, now divorced, and concentrated on music, recording two more strong albums (Sleeping With The Past and The One).
In April 1991 the Sunday Times announced that John had entered the list of the top 200 wealthiest people in Britain. He added a further £300, 000 to his account when he yet again took on the UK press and won, this time the Sunday Mirror, for an alleged incident with regard to bulimia. In 1993 an array of guest musicians appeared on John’s Duets, including Bonnie Raitt, Paul Young, k.d. lang, Little Richard and George Michael. Five new songs by the artist (written with Tim Rice) graced the soundtrack to 1994’s Disney blockbuster, The Lion King, the accompanying album reaching number 1 in the US charts. In 1995 John confronted the media and gave a series of brave and extremely frank confessional interviews with regard to his past. He confessed to sex, drugs, food and rock ‘n’ roll. Throughout the revelations he maintained a sense of humour and it paid him well. By confessing, his public seemed to warm further to him. He rewarded his fans with one of his best albums, Made In England, which scaled the charts throughout the world.
Elton John’s career scaled new heights in September 1997 when, following the tragic death of his friend Diana, Princess Of Wales, he was asked by her family to sing at the funeral. This emotional moment was seen by an estimated 2 billion people. John’s faultless performance in Westminster Abbey of a rewritten ‘Candle In The Wind’ was entirely appropriate. Subsequently released as a charity record, it rapidly became the biggest-selling single of all time, overtaking Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’. Buoyed by the publicity, John’s 1997 album, The Big Picture, was another commercial success, and at the end of the year he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1999, John duetted with American country star LeAnn Rimes on ‘Written In The Stars’, a UK number 10 single in March. The single was taken from an ambitious stage adaptation of Aida by John and Tim Rice, which was rather clumsily retitled Elaborate Lives: The Legend Of Aida. The two men teamed up again the following year, with composer Hans Zimmer, to create the soundtrack to DreamWorks animated adventure, The Road To El Dorado. His first studio album of the new millennium, Songs From The West Coast, was hailed as a return to the standards set by his classic early 70s material. In August 2003, he enjoyed a surprise UK number 1 single with a remix of 1979’s minor hit, ‘Are You Ready For Love’. The following year he began a three-year residency at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Peachtree Road in 2004 was a conscious effort to recreate the atmosphere of the early ‘Americana flavoured’ albums such as Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection. The result was wholly successful, both lyrically and musically.
With or without his now substantial wealth Elton John has kept the friendship and admiration of his friends and peers. He remains an outstanding songwriter and an underrated pianist, and together with the Beatles and Rolling Stones is Britain’s most successful artist. He has ridden out all intrusions into his private life from the media with considerable dignity and has maintained enormous popularity. Above all he is still able to mock himself in down-to-earth fashion, aware of all his eccentricities.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.