A life in pictures: Elton John

Anna Walker

He's the third most successful artist in the history of the American charts, surpassed only by The Beatles and Elvis Presley, but how did a boy from north-west London become an international superstar? We look at the life and career of Sir Elton John.

A London lad

Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, the singer was the only child born to his parents Stanley Dwight, a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, and Sheila Eileen, on March 25, 1947. 

Elton's mother recalls that he started playing the piano when he was just three-years-old. Just 12 months later she was shocked to stumble across her son picking out Winifred Atwell's The Skater Waltz by ear.

Elton John
A young Elton with his mother Sheila in 1979 during a tour stop in Moscow. Image via Rolling Stone

Growing up in Pinner in north-west London, Elton lived in a musical house. His father had played trumpet for a semi-professional big band while his mother was an avid record collector. She ignited the singer's lifelong love of rock n roll when she brought home records by artists such as Elvis Presley and Billy Haley and his Comets.

The pair would later become estranged. In 2016 he told Rolling Stone, "It upsets me, but to be honest with you, I don't miss her. I don't hate my mother, I look after her, but I don't want her in my life."

When he turned 11, Elton was offered a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. According to one of his tutors, speaking in Elizabeth Rosenthal's His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John, the young musician could play back "like a gramophone record" a piece by Handel that he had heard for the very first time just moments before.

His rare talent was obvious. 



The pub pianist

Shortly after his 15th birthday, Elton began to play piano in local pubs under the name, "Reggie". Spurred on by the success of his performances, the teenager soon formed a band with some of his friends, to be named Bluesology.

It was a busy time in the musician's life. By day he was running errands for a music publishing company, and by night he was performing a combination of solo gigs and Bluesology rehearsals. 

His maternal father was unsupportive of Elton's attempts to start a serious career in the music industry. He thought a more traditional pursuit, such as banking, would be more appropriate for his son.

Elton (right) with his Bluesology bandmates in 1965. Image via EltonJohn.com

Thankfully his mother, who divorced his father when Elton was 14, was more liberal. Along with her new husband, Fred Farebrother, a man Elton affectionately nicknamed Derf, she encouraged her son to pursue his dream.  

As the mid-1960s rolled around, interest in Bluesology began to take off. Soon the band found themselves touring as backing for huge American R&B stars including the Isley Brothers. 

Spurred on by this success, in 1967 Elton replied to an advertisement in the NME and was asked by Ray Williams, then A&R manager for Liberty Records, to write music to accompany some of the lyrics written by another man who responded to the advert, Bernie Taupin.

A musical partnership that would produce such classics as Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man and Candle in the Wind, was born. 



The dream duo

Six months into their songwriting partnership, Elton changed his birth name in favour of something more glamorous. Inspired by his Bluesology bandmates, Elton Dean and vocalist Long John Baldry, he became Elton Hercules John. 

Speaking to The Telegraph about their collaboration process in 2013, Taupin explained, "We’ll sit down, and I might say, 'I kind of see this as a Gram Parsons kind of song’. Or 'there’s a very Ray Charles feel to this’. He likes bullet points. But then he’ll go off on a tangent and take it totally somewhere else. But I never argue with his melodic stylings because the guy is a genius as far as I’m concerned."

In the interview below, Elton describes their relationship as "kind of like Siamese twins who got cut down the middle".

The pair recorded their first collaborative album with Elton on vocals in 1969, Empty Sky. It was the follow-up album, however, Elton John, that would launch them into the spotlight. With Your Song as the lead single, there was little doubt in the minds of the music scene that Elton John was a genius.

Just three years later they released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The album remained number one for two months.  



Crazy costumes

As Elton's fame grew, so did his wardrobe, and he quickly garnered a reputation for his garish costume choices

By 1975, his stage wardrobe could boast, among other things, spectacles that spelt his name in lights worth £4,000. At this time he also took to dressing in extravagant fancy dress, appearing as Donald Duck, the Statue of Liberty, a bee (above) and many other characters in his live shows. His extensive shoe collection is shown below. 

Later in life, Elton claimed that his love for showy fashion and dramatic performances were a way of letting go of his restrictive childhood. 

Since 2004, Elton has regularly opened temporary shops called "Elton's Closet" where he sells his second-hand clothes for charity. Speaking about the store in 2006, he said, "There's the most extraordinary collection of T-shirts, your baseball caps, your shoes, from flamboyance to classic. And spend some money to help other people who desperately need their lives to be changed and improved, and you'll be doing a really good thing."



Famous friends

Celebrity guests at one of Elton's infamous Oscar parties. Image via Hollywood Reporter

Perhaps as much as his music, Elton John is known for his elaborate parties and host of celebrity friends. 

Since 1993 the star has hosted his infamous Oscar parties, in support of his HIV/AIDS Foundation, attended by all manner of famous guests. Actress Sharon Stone told the Hollywood Reporter, "People have to go to other parties, but people want to go to Elton's party." She described her friend as a "devastatingly loyal person".

At his Oscars party with Whitney Houston in 2001. Image via Hollywood Reporter

In 2016 alone, his foundation donated $8.6 million in grants across North America and the Caribbean, with a particular focus on communities including transgender people, those who have been recently incarcerated and sex workers. 

It was the loss of some of his closest friends to HIV/AIDS, including legendary Queen singer Freddie Mercury, that led him to establish the foundation. Elton has lost many of his close friends over the years, including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Prince, George Michael and Princess Diana

At Princess Diana's funeral, Elton performed a hauntingly beautiful new version of his song, Candle in the Wind, dedicated to the princess. 



Married life

Elton john
Elton and David signing their marriage certificate. Image via Instagram

At the start of Elton's career, speculation was rife on the subject of his sexuality. When he married Linda Woodrow, the muse for the song Someone Saved My Life Tonight, it seemed to put the subject to rest. When their marriage didn't work out, he remarried German recording engineer Renate Blauel on Valentine's Day, 1984. Another divorce followed. 

In 1976, he told Rolling Stone magazine that he was bisexual. In 1988, following his second divorce, he stated that he was now happily, openly homosexual. 

As part of Dear Me: A Letter To My Sixteen-Year-Old Self, a book of celebrity letters that Elton released to raise money for his AIDS Foundation, the singer wrote a touching letter to his teenage self

"Dear Reg,

You are a very young 16. You know nothing about sex – you don’t even know what a ‘queer’ is. 

Trust me when I tell you – you are ‘queer’, you are a gay boy. I made the mistake of not having sex until I was 23! 

I loved being with another man and felt relieved that I finally knew who I was. I made the mistake of falling in love too soon because I was naive and romantic. 

My advice to you is never to chase love – it will find you when you least expect it. Have fun, have lots of safe sex and enjoy your sexuality.

Be proud of who you are and as you get older and wiser fight for gay rights – I’m 46 years older than you are, and we have a long way to go. 

In certain countries we are still not treated as equals, especially by the so-called ‘Christian’ church. I made a lot of mistakes. 

Stay away from drugs, they’re a waste of time. Stand up for every human being’s rights. Be loving, kind and strong. Set an example. You’re going to have a hell of a life!

Love you, Elton

P.S. Change your name."

In 1993, Elton met David Furnish, a filmmaker from Toronto who directed the documentary, Elton John: Tantrums and Tiaras.

The pair were among the first couples to enter into a civil partnership on 21 December 2005. They later married on the ninth anniversary of their civil partnership after gay marriage became legal in Britain. 

Speaking to the Independent, he said of the decision, "There is a world of difference between calling someone your 'partner' and calling them your 'husband'. 'Partner' is a word that should be preserved for people you play tennis with, or work alongside in business. It doesn't come close to describing the love that I have for David, and he for me. In contrast, 'husband' does."




Elton John David Furnish
Image via People Magazine

Elton and David had their first child in 2010 via surrogacy, a son named Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John. Their second son, Elijah Joseph Daniel Furnish-John, was born from the same surrogate in 2013. 

Speaking on the Ellen Show, Elton said, "If you'd had said to me ten years ago I'd be sitting on your show married to the man I love and have two beautiful children, I would have said you put acid in my drink. But life throws you challenges and life throws you curve balls and great curveballs and these two children have come along at a time I never thought I'd have children. They are the greatest thing in our lives. There are no words to describe how much we love these boys. They're just amazing."



 "If you'd had said to me ten years ago I'd be married to the man I love and have two beautiful children, I would have said you put acid in my drink."



The singer has always maintained that he wants his sons to have an upbringing that's as normal as possible.

He told the Daily Mail that "It's terrible to give kids a silver spoon. It ruins their life. They have to do chores in the house—take their plates to be cleaned, help in the kitchen, tidy their rooms and help in the garden, and each time they do they get a little star to put on these charts they’ve made."


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