The history of music can be a tricky thing, especially when it comes to when and how an artist from one country breaks in another country. Some performers, like Canadian country singer Shania Twain, have such stratospheric success that people forget she had an album before The Woman in Me. Def Leppard broke huge in the United States long before they were a hit in their native U.K. And there are a fair amount of people who don’t even know that Rick Springfield is from Australia. In the case of Elton John, he exploded onto the U.S. charts 50 years ago with a self-titled album that Americans assumed was his debut. While his real first album wouldn’t make it to the States for another five years, Elton John cemented the Madman from Across the Water as one of the biggest new stars of the 1970s.
Born Reginald Dwight in England in 1947, he began using the stage name Elton John by 1967; that same year, he began his lifelong songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin; primarily, Taupin did lyrics and John did melodies. Originally writing for other artists, the duo soon focused on writing for John and put together the songs for Empty Sky, John’s U.K. debut. The most well-known track from the disc is “Skyline Pigeon,” which got U.K. airplay without the benefit of a single release. The next album was lined up to be released in April 1970, but they also secured distribution in the States from Uni Records, then a division of MCA.
Released in the U.S. on April 10, the album’s first single, “Border Song” cracked the Hot 100. John started playing shows in America and opened for acts like Three Dog Night. The band covered John’s “Your Song” from Elton John, but decided not to release it as a single so that John could have a chance with it. That was a stroke of good luck. John had lined up “Take Me to the Pilot” as his next single, with “Your Song” on the B-side, but American DJs started playing “Your Song” more, leading to it being promoted as the A-side. “Your Song” would hit #8 in America and #7 in the U.K. with the album going Gold and earning a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. As of 2003, Rolling Stone included Elton John in the list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and the disc is enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
As for John himself, he went on to have one of the greatest careers in the history of popular music. He’s sold more than 300 million albums and notched more than 50 hit singles in both the U.K. and the States. “Candle in the Wind 1997,” the rewrite of his original hit in honor of Princess Diana, is the best-selling single in the history of both the U.S. and U.K. charts. An inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, John counts among his other accolades five Grammys, two Oscars, two Golden Globes, and a Tony Award. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1998 for his charity work and contributions to the arts. John plans to retire soon from live performing, though his three-year Farewell Tour has been disrupted as of late due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless, John has assembled one of the fondest followings in music. An aggressive advocate and fund-raiser in the battle against AIDS and an inspiration for countless musicians, it’s fair to put down in words how wonderful life is with John in the world.
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Bill Newcott reviews Rocketman and takes a musical voyage through Elton John’s big screen career. He also reviews four other films, including Mouthpiece, Alec Baldwin in Framing John DeLorean, a documentary about a woman who has just too many birds, For the Birds, and Denys Arcand’s drama, The Fall of the American Empire.