Elton John (born March 25, 1947) is an English vocalist, pianist, songwriter, and philanthropist with a career stretching back to the mid-1960s. He achieved global stardom with his self-titled second album in 1970. Since that time, he has recorded more than 30 albums and scored numerous hits that have gained evergreen status around the world.
John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947, in Pinner, Middlesex, England. His father, a Royal Air Force flight lieutenant, was a trumpeter in the Bob Millar Band, which played military dances. The Dwight’s were avid record buyers, raising Reginald on the popular music of the day. He knew he wanted to be a musician after hearing the early rock n’ roll hits of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Dwight took up piano as a small child, leaning to play pieces like Waldteufel’s “The Skater’s Waltz” by ear. He started taking formal piano lessons at age seven. By age 11, he won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. According to one professor, Dwight recited the entirety of a lengthy Handel piece after hearing it once. He attended the academy for five years, singing in the Saturday choir and mastering the works of Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Dwight’s divorced when Reginald was 14. He moved with his mother and her new husband into a flat on Frome Court, where he remained until he hit paydirt in the states. Around this time, he got a four-nights-weekly pianist residency at the Northwood Hills Hotel. Though normal-sighted, he started wearing horn-rimmed glasses in emulation of Buddy Holly.
In 1962, Dwight formed Bluesology with some musical friends, including his neighbor, guitarist Stewart “Stu” Brown. After some months on the local pub circuit, they scored a weekly residency at London’s Establishment Club with a setlist comprised of blues standards by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Memphis Slim.
In 1965, Bluesology signed an agency contract that got them booked as the backing band for a slew of visiting American performers, including The Isley Brothers, Doris Troy, Billy Stewart, and Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. That July, Bluesology made its vinyl debut with the Dwight original “Come Back, Baby” (b/w the Witherspoon cover “Times Getting Tougher Than Tough“), followed that November with another Dwight original, “Mr. Frantic” (b/w the Slim cover “Everyday (I Have the Blues)“). Both singles were issued on Fontana; the second features an uncredited early appearance by guitarist Bernie Holland, who later surfaced in Jody Grind, Stealers Wheel, and Hummingbird.
Bluesology expanded to a brass-integrated sextet for a German tour behind American soulster Major Lance. In late 1966, they were hired by English blues singer Long John Baldry. Dwight and Brown were the only original members after a lineup shuffle that brought in (future Soft Machine) saxophonist Elton Dean and (future Juicy Lucy) guitarist Neil Hubbard. Early the following year, they issued their third single, “Since I Found You Baby” (b/w “Just a Little Bit”), on Polydor as Stu Brown & Bluesology.
After leaving Bluesology in 1967, Dwight answered an ad in the New Musical Express placed by Liberty records A&R Ray Williams, who introduced Dwight to another respondent, lyricist Bernie Taupin. Dwight and Taupin began a songwriting partnership that would span more than 50 years. Their first completed song was the September 1967 demo “Scarecrow.” Later that year, Dwight adopted the professional name Elton John, derived from his ex-bandmates Elton Dean and Long John Baldry.
In 1968, John and Taupin became staff writers at DJM Records, where they churned out songs for assorted pop performers, including Scottish singer Lulu, who recorded their song “I Can’t Go On (Living Without You),” the sixth runner-up to the UK entry in the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest. Around this time, John served as a sit-in keyboardist for Simon Dupree & the Big Sound, then on their final legs. (He would soon audition for their followup band, Gentle Giant).
In March 1968, John released his debut solo single, “I’ve Been Loving You” (b/w “Here’s to the Next Time”. The single was produced by guitarist Caleb Quaye and issued in limited quantity on Philips (UK only). Both songs were penned by John alone, though the a-side is co-credited to Taupin. All subsequent singles up through 1976 would be co-written by the pair.
In January 1969, John issued his second Philips single, “Lady Samantha” (b/w “All Across the Havens”). Both sides were recorded the prior month at DJM Studios and produced by Steve Brown. The songs were performed during Elton’s first BBC Radio broadcast (10/28/68) but soon dropped from his setlist. Concurrently, John played on the 1969 single “Mr. Boyd” (b/w “Imagine”) by Argosy, a starting vehicle for soon-to-be Supertramp frontman Roger Hodgson.
That May, John released his third single, “It’s Me That You Need” (b/w “Just Like Strange Rain”). It was recorded the prior month at Olympic Studios, once again with Brown, and issued on DJM. Two years after its release, the a-side charted in Japan.
John released his first album, Empty Sky, in June 1969 on DJM. It features nine John/Taupin originals, including “Hymn 2000,” “Western Ford Gateway,” “Skyline Pigeon,” and “Val-Hala.” The tracklist is bookended by the two lengthiest songs: “Empty Sky” (8:29) and “Gulliver / Hay Chewed / Reprise” (6:58). The album was produced by Brown the prior winter at DJM Studios. Musicians on the album include Elton’s furniture backing mainstays Quaye (guitar) and then-Plastic Penny drummer Nigel Olsson. Empty Sky remained unreleased in the US until January 1975, when it was issued by MCA to capitalize on Elton’s transatlantic megastardom.
John released his second, self-titled album in April 1970. It features 10 John/Taupin originals, including “The King Must Die,” “The Greatest Discovery,” “First Episode at Hienton,” and “Take Me to the Pilot.” The last of those was initially issued as a single a-side before radio stations play-listed its flipside, “Your Song” (UK #7, US #8). The album’s other single, “Border Song,” was soon covered by a slew of soul artists (Dorothy Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, The 5th Dimension). It’s non-album b-side, “Bad Side of the Moon,” was also recorded that year by Toe Fat.
Elton John is the singer’s first of 14 albums produced by Gus Dudgeon. Several tracks feature a six-piece studio choir that included singer/songwriters Lesley Duncan and Tony Hazzard. John and Duncan subsequently co-wrote “Love Song,” which appeared on his third album and her 1971 debut Sing Children Sing.
That June, John issued the non-album single “Rock and Roll Madonna.” Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover plays on the track. Its b-side, “Grey Seal,” was later re-recorded for Elton’s 1973 release Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
Madman Across the Water (1971)
Honky Château (1972)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Rock of the Westies (1975)
Blue Moves (1976)
A Single Man (1978)
Victim of Love (1979)
21 at 33 (1980)
The Fox (1981)
Jump Up! (1982)
Too Low for Zero (1983)
Breaking Hearts (1984)
Ice on Fire (1985)
Leather Jackets (1986)
Reg Strikes Back (1988)
Sleeping with the Past (1989)
- Empty Sky (1969)
- Elton John (1970)
- Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
- Madman Across the Water (1971)
- Honky Château (1972)
- Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
- Caribou (1974)
- Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
- Rock of the Westies (1975)
- Blue Moves (1976)
- A Single Man (1978)
- Victim of Love (1979)
- 21 at 33 (1980)
- The Fox (1981)
- Jump Up! (1982)
- Too Low for Zero (1983)
- Breaking Hearts (1984)
- Ice on Fire (1985)
- Leather Jackets (1986)
- Reg Strikes Back (1988)
- Sleeping with the Past (1989)
- Elizabeth Rosenthal, His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John, Billboard Books, 2001.
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