Few musicians are more highly esteemed than Sir Elton John. His signature round, often-tinted glasses, outlandish outfits and incredible talent have placed him among the upper echelon of legendary musicians. He’s performed at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert, won five Grammy Awards and even did a controversial duet with Eminem at the 2001 Grammys. After 30 studio albums, John recently broke his seven-year silence with 2013’s The Diving Board and embarked on an extensive worldwide tour.
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in Pinner, Middlesex, England, his calling came at the tender age of 17 when he left Pinner Country Grammar School to pursue a career in the music industry. His parents, however, were less than enthusiastic about his chosen path, but he forged ahead and did it anyway. Ironically, it was his parents that exposed him to popular music of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He recalls being immediately hooked on rock-n-roll when his parents brought home records by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & His Comets. John had already been playing piano since the age 3 and later earned a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he was classically trained. He quickly mastered Chopin, Bach, and Handel—all the greats.
“Anyone who played the piano was my hero,” John recalls. “My first serious piano player that I loved was George Shearing at the age 5, when my dad used to buy all his records. Then I graduated to all the other great piano players. And then of course, along came Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, and changed my life. And then Ray Charles—and you know I’m always a piano player fan. If anyone’s a piano player or a keyboard player I’m on their side. Because I think–you know, that’s what I do.
“The piano is my friend,” he continues. “I went to the Royal Academy for five years, between 11 and 16. And, you can hear a lot of classical influences in my chord changes. The thing about being a piano player is you over complicate things. All the great rock-n-roll songs are written with four chords: The Avett Brother songs, Buddy Holly; they’re so simple. And they’re written on guitar. And, guitarists can do that, and make things sound so good. When you’re a piano player you tend to want to get more chords involved, and that’s the way I am. I like chord changes and that’s the way you know—When I write, I hear a chord change and I go, ‘Alright, I’ve got to put that in the song.’ But you know every time I sit at a piano and write a song, it’s a new ball game.
John stared writing music in an eight-unit apartment building called Frome Court, where he lived with his mother and stepfather. He wrote the songs that would eventually launch his career as a rock star; he lived there until he had four albums simultaneously in the American Top 40.
After landing a songwriting job with NME (New Musical Express), he met Bernie Taupin, whom he still works with today.
“We’ve never had an argument, we’ve never disagreed on anything, and it’s been an amazing privilege to have that kind of relationship in ones life,” he says. “To write with someone for 46 years and not have an argument is pretty amazing. And a lot of people who are songwriters argue and split up and it’s so sad. And I always get so sad when that happens. I’ve never had that happen to me. Yes, we’ve written apart from each other. We gave each other a break, but we had to. We had to let each other go to come back and be stronger than ever.”
In 1968, the pair joined Dick James’s DJM Records as staff songwriters. This eventually led to John’s self-titled debut in 1970. John’s first American concert took place at The Troubadour in Los Angeles that same year.
“When I first came to America I was lucky enough to be Universal: UNI Records [Universal City Records] with Russ Regan and Pat Pipolo and all those kind people,” he recalls. “And I had the best time of my life. I’ve never had that since then. And I feel now with this new team at Capitol, and with the team in England who are so enthusiastic, at 66, all I can ask for when I make a record is for people to be enthusiastic about it and get it. And they get it, and that’s all. And I’m so excited about that, you know.”
For someone who has accomplished so much, it’s baffling why he doesn’t just sit back amongst his estimated $265 million fortune and bask in his achievements. However, like most artists, the need to create outweighs anything else. In January 2012, he got to work on The Diving Board, which was released in the U.S. in September 2013. The team of John and Taupin wrote the album while T-Bone Burnett, who produced their collaborative effort, The Union, in 2010, took the helm again. Not surprisingly, it debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200.
“It’s very hard to hear a record, you know, first time through, and get it,” he explains. “When I did The Union with my dear Friend Leon Russell, the first record I made with T-Bone [Burnett], it led me to a new place in my life musically. Before I made that record I thought—I analyzed my career and I hadn’t made a solo record since 2006. I went, ‘I have to go back, and listen to my old stuff, to move forward again and find out where I am. I know I’m not going to get played on the radio; what kind of music do I really want to make?’ And when I made that record with Leon, that was the kind of record and music I wanted to make. It was the music that I played on Tumbleweed and Mad Man, and it was the music I fell in love with.”
The album’s premiere single “Home Again” was released on June 24, 2013, the same day the album became available for pre-order. On August 28, 2013, a video for “Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)” was released on YouTube, being the album’s second single. The 15-track album is another shining example of the harmonious marriage of Taupin’s lyrical prowess and John’s incredible composing abilities.
“Most of it is inspired by America,” he explains. “You know; it’s a lot of Deep South and it’s a lot of gospel influences and music from The Band. We were talking about Capitol Records today and the great artists that have been on this label. And The Band kind of changed my life with Music from Big Pink, and the way that Bernie Taupin and I wrote songs—And I have to say before I go any further that the lyrics on this album are unbelievable.
“I just wanted, at 66 years of age, or 65, to make records that I think befits a person of my age,” he adds. “And things that I- you know: records and songs that I really want to make. A template was Modern Times by Bob Dylan. When I heard that record I went, “God, my god.” This record could have been made any time in the last 50 years.”
Amazingly, humility has not escaped the great Sir Elton John.
“There are so many great keyboard players that are playing in bands that are probably much better keyboard players than I am,” he says. “Obviously I’m just a piano player.”
Elton John, November 23, at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, 8 p.m. Tickets start at $80. Visit www.pinnaclebank.arenalincoln.com for more information.