Elton John is one of the most famous recording artists of all time. His fascinating personal life and illustrious 50 plus year career is the subject of this summer’s biopic Rocketman. But even with a big-budget movie poised to tell his life story, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about him.
Elton John Isn’t His Real Name
Elton John may have been born to be a great musician, but he wasn’t born “Elton John.” His real name is Reginald Dwight, which is not a bad name per se, but definitely not as theatrical as the performer who would become famous for his over-the-top theatricality would’ve liked.
Although they didn’t come up with a name he particularly enjoyed, Elton’s parents were definitely responsible for his early love of music. His father played the trumpet as a professional musician, and both his mother and father were fond of buying stacks of rock and roll records, including albums by Elvis.
He Has the Best-Selling Single of All Time
Elton John has experienced an almost impossible amount of success in his life, including holding the record for the best-selling single of all time in the UK and US. The song “Candle in the Wind 1997” has sold over 33 million copies worldwide. However, this success was the result of a huge tragedy.
The song is a re-recording of “Candle in the Wind,” a song John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote about Marilyn Monroe. John re-recorded it as “Candle in the Wind 1997” in honor of Princess Diana of Wales, who died very suddenly in a car accident in 1997. John and Princess Diana had been friends, and the proceeds from the astronomical sales of his tribute single went towards Diana’s charities.
He Was Terrified During His Memorable Cameo in Tommy
Elton John has a particularly memorable cameo in the rock opera Tommy, written and performed by the English rock band The Who. John appears as a pinball champion going head-to-head with the title character, and he appears wearing a pretty awesome costume that included platform heels raising him several feet off the ground.
John was very nervous about being so high off of the ground on what essentially amounted to a pair of Doc Marten stilts. In order to calm himself down, he asked to have a tiny keyboard attached to the equally tall pinball machine he was supposed to be playing in the sequence. Since his natural state is behind a piano, this allowed him to not be so nervous. He also got to keep the shoes.
He Originally Didn’t Need to Wear Glasses
One of the most iconic elements of Elton John’s stage presence are his glasses. Typically every bit as outlandish as his outfits, he’s rumored to have over a thousand different pairs. However, he didn’t actually need corrective vision when he started wearing them.
Originally, John started sporting his signature eyewear because, as a teenager, he wanted to look more like Buddy Holly. Ironically, after wearing them for so many years, he eventually couldn’t see without them. Luckily, they had become such an integral part of his image that it didn’t matter.
He Met His Songwriting Partner Through an Ad
When he was just starting out as a professional musician, Elton answered an ad calling for songwriters placed by a manager at Liberty Records. This would wind up becoming one of the single most important actions of his career, because it’s how he met Bernie Taupin, his songwriting partner.
Taupin had replied to the same ad, and when John met with the Liberty Records manager who had placed it, he was handed an unopened envelope containing some lyrics Taupin had submitted. John took the lyrics, composed some music to accompany them, and mailed it all back to Taupin. Thus began a partnership that has lasted nearly half a century.
He Began Playing Piano at Age 7
Elton got an early start on his trademark instrument. He began teaching himself to play his grandmother’s piano at age 7, and displayed a knack for playing many songs by ear. His ability eventually won him a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at age 11.
John attended the Royal Academy for 5 years, further honing his talent. He even had instruction from a private tutor at the same time. Eventually the draw of performing music for a living proved to be too great, and he left the school to pursue his career.
He Formed a Band When He Was 15
It seems like throughout the short time in his life when he wasn’t an international superstar, Elton was eager to hurry up and get there. He formed a band with his friends called Bluesology at age 15, just a few short years before he met Bernie Taupin.
Bluesology enjoyed decent success. They performed regular gigs, and even opened for several big American artists that were touring through Europe, including Patti LaBelle, Major Lance, and the Isley Brothers. Bluesology eventually became the supporting band for blues singer Long John Baldry.
“Elton” and “John” Were His Bandmates
In addition to helping perfect his skills as a live performer, Elton’s time with Bluesology provided another source of inspiration. In 1967, shortly after recording his first-ever collaboration with Bernie Taupin, the 20-year-old Reggie Dwight adopted the name Elton John.
“Elton John” is a combination of the names of two of his Bluesology bandmates, saxophonist Elton Dean and vocalist Long John Baldry. He legally changed his name to Elton Hercules John in 1972, when he was 25. For reference, the hero of Greek and Roman mythology was not a member of Bluesology.
He Began as a Pub Musician
Elton John’s career as a professional musician started out the same way as pretty much everyone else’s – by playing for whoever would listen. As a teenager and with the help of his parents, he secured a regular gig as a pub musician at the Northwood Hills Hotel.
He was a solo act going by simply “Reggie,” and would play weekend gigs, Thursdays through Sundays. During this time, he played the same kinds of sets that bar musicians play to this day – a collection of current popular hits along with a few originals carefully thrown in.
He and Bernie Taupin Worked as Songwriters
Shortly after Elton and Bernie Taupin became a songwriting team, they both joined DJM Records as staff songwriters. Essentially, their job was to write a bunch of songs that the label would then try to sell to popular artists. It’s a common practice that exists to this day – you might be surprised to learn how many of your favorite pop songs were written by the same person behind-the-scenes.
During their tenure as staff songwriters, John and Taupin developed an efficient assembly line process. Taupin would spend an hour or so writing a bunch of lyrics and then pass them off to John, who would write music to them and throw out any lyrics he couldn’t use. Several of their songs wound up being used by popular artists of the day, including Roger Cook and Lulu.
John Wrote the Music for Billy Elliot The Musical
The film Billy Elliot is about a coal miner’s son who wants to be a ballet dancer and eventually gets accepted to the Royal Ballet School. The movie was a surprise success and was eventually adapted into a stage musical, for which Elton John composed the music.
First premiering in 2005, Billy Elliot the Musical went on to win ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical. In a bit of art imitating life, the film version of Billy Elliot was the acting debut of Jamie Bell. Bell would later play Elton John’s longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin in the 2019 biopic Rocketman.
He Also Wrote A Vampire Musical
Despite collaborating for half a century on dozens of albums, Elton John and Bernie Taupin have only worked on one musical together, and it was a huge flop. Lestat: The Musical opened on Broadway in 2006 and closed two months later after only 39 performances.
The musical was based on The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, with the title character most famously appearing in the film Interview with the Vampire, played by Tom Cruise. John and Taupin’s musical didn’t have the draw of a Cruise film, however, with reviews calling it “bloody awful” and insisting that performances of the show could be prescribed as sleep aids.
He Has Contributed to Several Hip Hop Songs
Elton John is known to be a frequent collaborator with other artists across many genres, including hip hop. During a performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards, he appeared on stage with Eminem to perform the rapper’s hit single “Stan,” playing piano and singing the accompanying vocals to Eminem’s verses.
“Stan” isn’t the only rap song to feature Elton John. His song “Indian Sunset” is sampled in the posthumous Tupac Shakur single “Ghetto Gospel,” which was produced by Eminem. John also played piano and sang on Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” and has expressed his desire to record his own hip hop-influenced album.
He Performed on a Grunge Rock Song
Elton John appears on a song titled “Black Gives Way To Blue” performed by grunge rock band Alice in Chains. The song was a tribute to the band’s original lead singer Layne Staley, who died of a drug overdose in 2002.
The band’s lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell emailed Elton John to see if John would be interested in collaborating on the recording, because both Cantrell and Staley’s first concert had been an Elton John show and they both loved his music. The legendary pianist was happy to contribute.
He’s Working on a Musical Adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada
Elton John has had frequent success with musical theater (as long as you don’t count that whole Lestat debacle). In addition to writing the music for Billy Elliot the Musical and the stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King, it was recently announced that John would be contributing to another screen-to-stage adaptation.
In 2017, John confirmed that he would be writing the music for an upcoming stage musical based on The Devil Wears Prada. The film earned actress Meryl Streep her 14th Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a monstrous magazine editor.
He’s Currently on a 3-year Farewell Tour
Elton John has been a touring performer since the 1970s, but he recently announced that he was going to retire from touring to spend more time with his young children. In typical Elton John fashion, he didn’t settle for a single goodbye performance, but an elaborate farewell blowout.
To commemorate his official retirement from touring, John launched a 3-year farewell tour in 2018. The tour is going to consist of over 300 performances in cities all around the world. It’s expected to wrap up in England in 2021, when John will be 74.
He was Hospitalized after a Drug Overdose
A dark side of his meteoric rise to international stardom was John’s dependence on drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress of fame and touring. It came to a head in 1975, when he was hospitalized after suffering a cocaine overdose.
Thankfully, John was able to overcome his addiction and has been sober for years. He’s offered support to some of his other famous friends in their struggles with addiction, including Eminem, who said, “I reached out to him and told him, ‘Look, I’m going through a problem and I need your advice.’”
He Guest-Starred on South Park
You might be surprised to learn that Elton John guest-starred on an episode of the long-running subversive animated comedy South Park. On the Season Two episode titled “Chef Aid,” John appears as himself, and agrees to do a benefit concert in South Park to raise money for Chef (Isaac Hayes).
The song John performs in the episode, “Wake Up Wendy,” was featured on the South Park soundtrack album Chef Aid: The South Park Album. The album also features songs from other veteran artists like Joe Strummer and Ozzy Osbourne.
He is a Godfather to Several Famous Kids
Elton John is a legendary British musician, so it might not surprise you to learn that he was friends with John Lennon. What you might not have known is that Elton is actually godfather to Lennon’s son Sean Ono Lennon.
All told, Elton John has ten godchildren, including the children of David and Victoria Beckham, the soccer superstar and the former Spice Girl, as well as model and actress Elizabeth Hurley’s son, Damian. That’s a lot of birthdays to keep track of.
He Performed With John Lennon in Madison Square Garden
John Lennon appeared on stage with Elton during a performance at Madison Square Garden in 1974. Elton had played piano on Lennon’s song “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” and had bet Lennon that if the song reached #1, Lennon would have to perform with him.
The song did indeed reach #1, so Lennon joined Elton on stage for three songs, including two of The Beatles hits “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Sadly, that night turned out to be Lennon’s final public performance.
John Has Two Children With His Husband
John has been in relationships with women in the past, but he announced he was bisexual in a 1975 interview before finally coming out as homosexual in 1988. Today, John is married to David Furnish, a former marketing executive and filmmaker.
The two met in 1993 and married in 2014, the year same-sex marriage became legal in the United Kingdom. The couple have two young children, Zachary and Elijah, who were born to the same surrogate mother in 2010 and 2013 respectively.
He Has Six Homes Around The World
It’s practical for a man like Elton John to have multiple homes around the world, both because of his rigorous touring schedule and because he needs extra space to store all of his fabulous outfits. Elton John’s primary residence is the famous Woodside estate in Old Windsor, Berkshire. The home was built for King Henry VIII’s surgeon in the 1500s. John bought the property in the 1970s.
In addition to homes in London, Venice, Los Angeles, and Nice, John bought a home in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991. A longtime sports nut, John immediately became a fan of the Atlanta Braves, which makes total sense – the early 90s was the best time in history to be a Braves fan.
He’s a Longtime AIDS Activist
Elton John has long been an advocate for HIV and AIDS research and education. He started the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992, following the death of his friend, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. The nonprofit organization promotes HIV education and prevention, and treatment for people diagnosed with or at risk of contracting HIV.
The organization is chaired by John’s husband David. His friend, tennis legend Billie Jean King, is also a chairwoman. To raise money for the foundation, John hosts an annual ball at his Woodside estate. So far, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised over $400 million worldwide.
He is One of the Most Prolific Artists Ever
Elton John has been jamming out hits on his piano for over half a century. He and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin have written over 30 albums together. That’s in addition to John’s other notable collaborations, including his work with film and stage musicals.
The sheer amount of work John has done isn’t the only staggering statistic of his career. All told, John has 37 gold albums and 27 multi-platinum albums, and has sold over 250 million albums worldwide. Not bad for a kid who started out as a solo pub act.
He’s a Knight
Elton John lives in a house built by King Henry VIII, so it’s fitting that he also has a knighthood to go with it. Sir Elton was knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his contribution to music and his charity work.
He actually has a coat of arms to go along with his title, which features a keyboard and platinum records. Elton John’s full title is Sir Elton John, CBE – the CBE stands for Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a distinction granted to him in 1995.
He’s Performed Over 3,500 Concerts
Elton John has been a professional musician for over 5 decades, and in that half century, he has almost never stopped performing. Whether playing different cities on tour or doing regular shows at his two residencies in Las Vegas, the man never seems to run out of steam.
All told, John has performed over 3,500 times in more than 80 countries. Just for reference, if he were to play all of those concerts back-to-back, he’d be on a nonstop tour for almost ten years. That’s a whole lot of singing.
Elton is a Hit Machine
Elton John and Bernie Taupin have proven to be two of the most successful songwriters in history. Over the years, their partnership has produced 56 top 40 singles, the most of any other artist besides Elvis.
John is an equally impressive force in terms of album sales. In the United States, he’s the third most successful recording artist ever, behind Elvis and The Beatles. Worldwide, Elton John is the fifth bestselling artist of all time.
He Has Beef with Madonna
Despite being a charming and outspoken performer (or perhaps because of it), Elton John doesn’t get along with everyone. He’s had a famous feud with Madonna for several years now, all stemming from comments he made back in 2004.
While accepting an award for best classic songwriter at the Q Awards, John couldn’t hide his derision over Madonna’s nomination for best live act. John said “Madonna, best live act? F@#$ off! Since when has lip synching been live? … That’s me off her Christmas card list, but do I give a toss? No.”
He’s in a Prank War With Rod Stewart
The two megastars claim to be close friends, but Elton John and Rod Stewart have been clashing like a pair of glam rock titans for decades. Some of their antics wouldn’t have been out of place on an episode of MTV’s Jackass. They’ve been taking shots at each other since the 1970s, when they were neighbors in London and both used to play for Long John Baldry.
John once hired a sniper with an air rifle to shoot down a bunch of blimp-sized balloons Stewart had set loose to promote a concert. When they were both playing shows in Las Vegas during Stewart’s “Blondes Have More Fun” tour, John put up a banner across the street that read “But Brunettes Make More Money.”
He Wrote the Music for The Lion King
It’s easy to forget, since he doesn’t actually perform any of the songs in the film, but Elton John famously wrote the music for the songs in The Lion King, as well as its stage adaptation. It turned out to be one of the most successful collaborations for both Elton John and Disney.
John recorded five songs with veteran Disney lyricist Tim Rice. Three of the songs were nominated for Academy Awards, with John taking home the Best Original Song Oscar for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” The soundtrack for The Lion King is the only soundtrack for an animated film to be certified diamond, meaning it sold over 10 million copies. Hakuna Matata, indeed.