Long before Lady Gaga stepped out of an egg-shaped flying saucer or Cee Lo Green sported plumage to sing with Muppets, there was Elton John.
Back in the early 1970s, John became one of glam rock’s pioneers.
He appeared less alien than David Bowie and his music was more mainstream than Lou Reed’s. Yet John, with his spangled glasses, towering platform shoes and feather boas, helped forever change the musical landscape by bringing some outrageous flamboyance to radio-friendly rock ’n’ roll.
In terms of sales and popularity, John — who will bring his greatest hits to Red Deer’s sold-out Centrium on Wednesday — was one of the 1970s biggest pop superstars.
Through his seemingly endless stream of hits, including Rocket Man, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets, Your Song and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, he proved a genius at infusing infectious, Beatlesque pop songs with soul, disco, country and progressive rock.
John’s classic pop balladry and catchy melodies enabled him to sustain his popularity through the decades, charting a Top 40 single every year from 1970 to 1996.
The singer was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in 1947, and raised in Middlesex, England, as the son of a Royal Air Force trumpeter. He began playing the piano at age four and was considered something of a prodigy, being able to copy most tunes by ear.
At age 11, John won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London and attended Saturday classes for the next five years. After his parents divorced and his mother remarried, John landed his first weekend gig at a nearby pub, at age 15.
He played the piano and sang original songs he’d written, as well as popular standards.
Bluesology was the first serious band John formed with friends in 1964. But his stint with the group was short-lived — two years later, John was writing music for record companies.
He was handed a stack of lyrics written by Bernie Taupin, starting a partnership that was to go down in music history.
The story goes that Taupin would write words to a song in less than an hour and turn them over to John, who would come up with a melody in half an hour, or chuck the lyrics if the muse didn’t strike quickly enough.
While the two initially wrote songs for other artists, John also began recording original tunes after officially changing his name. He chose Elton John as a homage to two friends from Bluesology — saxophonist Elton Dean and singer Long John Baldry.
Teamed with Taupin, John was a virtual hit-making machine, charting 16 Top 20 singles in a row between 1972 and 1976, including Crocodile Rock, Daniel, The Bitch is Back, Philadelphia Freedom and Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.
His fan following dropped off somewhat when John revealed to Rolling Stone Magazine in 1976 that he was bisexual (he later admitted he was afraid to say homosexual).
His relationship with Taupin also became strained around this time for different reasons. Both artists began working less successfully with other people before reuniting again in 1981 to produce Little Jeannie.
Despite a few musical stumbles in the 1980s, this precipitated another run of hits for John, including Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny), his tribute to the slain John Lennon, Blue Eyes, I’m Still Standing, Sad Songs Say so Much, Nikita, I Don’t Want to Go On With You Like That and the Top 10 single, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.
But his personal life was falling apart.
John married, then divorced, German recording engineer Renate Blauel, after which he stated he was comfortable being gay. He also continued to abuse alcohol and cocaine — addictions that started with career pressures in the mid-1970s — and became bulimic.
John successfully battled both problems a few years later, and also turned the corner in his stage act when he auctioned off his theatrical costumes and memorabilia in 1988.
In 1992, the singer formed the Elton John AIDS Foundation and pledged to donate all royalties from his singles sales to AIDS research.
Soon after, he met Canadian former advertising executive and filmmaker David Furnish, and the two entered a civil partnership in 2005. They have since welcomed a son, born through a surrogate mother.
Although John went on to collaborate with Tim Rice on songs for the musical The Lion King and a Broadway musical adaptation of the opera Aida, his biggest career success came out of one of the greatest celebrity tragedies of our time.
He rewrote the song Candle in the Wind (which was originally about Marilyn Monroe), following the untimely 1997 traffic death of Princess Diana. And the single became the fastest-selling hit of all time in Britain and the U.S.
All profits were earmarked for Diana’s favourite charities.