12 Things You Might Not Know About Elton John
By Jake Rossen
Few entertainers have enjoyed the accolades and career longevity earned by Elton John: The British singer and songwriter, currently in the middle of a farewell tour, has sold more than 250 million albums in a career that's spanned five decades. John's eclectic life and musical achievements will be the subject of Rocketman, an upcoming biopic starring Taron Egerton. While you wait for that film's release on May 31, check out some facts about John's upbringing, his feud with David Bowie, and how some UK fans can rest their bottoms on a seat named after him.
1. Elton John's birth name wasn't Elton John.
He was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947, in Pinner, Middlesex, England, to parents Stanley and Sheila Dwight. He was called Reg or Reggie, but once he legally changed his name in 1972, he no longer wanted to be associated with his former name—even by those who had known him when he was younger. "Reg is the unhappy part of my life," he once said, according to a biography by David Buckley. "If my mother can call me Elton, then everybody else can."
2. Elton John taught himself how to play piano.
John was a musical prodigy, reportedly teaching himself how to play the piano. At the age of 3, he played "The Skater's Waltz" after learning it by ear. That innate talent for music earned him a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London at age 11. Eventually, John was more consumed by his passion for composition than his studies, and he opted to drop out at the age of 17 to pursue a career.
3. John took his stage name from two of his bandmates.
In the early 1960s, John formed a soul group called Bluesology. He would eventually take his stage name from the names of two members of that ensemble: saxophonist Elton Dean and singer Long John Baldry. (Baldry was also later the subject of the song "Someone Saved My Life Tonight.") For a middle name, he chose Hercules. The name wasn't a nod to the Roman god—it was the name of a horse on a long-running British sitcom called Steptoe and Son.
4. John released four albums in one year.
Some artists take years to craft albums, agonizing over arrangements, lyrics, and their own performances. Early in his career, John appeared to be more prolific than perfectionist, releasing four albums—Tumbleweed Connection, Friends, the live album 17-11-70, and Madman Across the Water—between October 1970 and November 1971. The latter stands out for including "Tiny Dancer," one of John's most enduring hits.
5. He couldn't stop producing hits.
John's rise to stardom in the 1970s was fueled in part by his outlandish stage presence, which included colorful costumes and utilizing the piano at a time when much of rock and popular music was built around guitars. But John was no mere curiosity. Between 1973 and 1976, he recorded 15 hit singles as part of his longtime collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin, nine of which went to No. 1 or 2. ("Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" among them.) As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame noted, it was impossible to look at the Top 40 in any given week during that time and not see at least one John track on the list. The same held true for entire albums, with John's records hitting number one an average of once every four weeks during the mid-1970s.
6. John can compose a classic song in minutes.
John's relationship with Taupin has always been a curiosity for fans interested in the songwriting process—especially considering that they've been a successful team for more than 50 years. For one, the two never work together in the same room (which is a good system, considering Taupin moved to California in the '70s and never left). Taupin writes lyrics, and then John arranges a composition around them. John could reportedly execute this process in as little as 15 or 20 minutes.
7. He shared the stage with John Lennon for Lennon's final performance.
During a concert at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving day in 1974, John convinced ex-Beatle John Lennon to come up on stage. According to John's musical director and guitarist, Davey Johnstone, Lennon agreed to appear after John played piano on Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." If the single hit No. 1, John said, then Lennon would have to agree to the performance. Lennon wound up singing three songs with John at that concert, including "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I Saw Her Standing There;" it was his final time performing in public.
8. John had a falling out with David Bowie.
Although they were contemporaries in popular music for much of their respective careers, Elton John and David Bowie spent most of that time at odds. After developing a friendship with Bowie in the 1970s, John said he was offended to read Bowie refer to him as "rock 'n roll's token queen" in a Rolling Stone interview. The remark cooled their personal friendship, but John apparently still considered Bowie a formidable talent: When Bowie passed away in 2016, John honored his memory with a public performance of "Space Oddity."
9. John played in the Soviet Union.
At a time when relations between the U.S. and their allies with the Soviet Union were chilly at best, Elton John became one of the first major foreign rock acts to perform behind the Iron Curtain. John played a total of eight shows in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow in May 1979. John was initially put off by the fact that many attendees sat stoically in the audience—several were government officials not prone to displays of emotion—until several of his more devoted fans began occupying the seats up front and cheering for him. John typically ended the shows by playing "Back in the U.S.S.R."
10. He names his pianos after female singers.
John's trademark instrument, the piano, often takes center stage in his performances, and he's not shy about showing them off. For a 2011 tour, he utilized a Yamaha that took four years to construct and featured a series of LED screens that could display images and video footage that "reacted" to the rhythm of his playing. It cost $1.3 million. John dubbed it Blossom, after jazz singer Blossom Dearie. He's named most of his pianos after female singers, including instruments named for Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Diana Krall.
11. John does weddings.
Booking private events can be lucrative for major acts, and John is no exception. In the past, he's accepted fees in excess of $1 million to be the performer at weddings. In 2010, John performed for radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh's reception. The money earned for these types of events are donated to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the performer's charity devoted to funding and researching treatment for the disease.
12. He had a set of bleachers named after him.
A lifelong soccer fan, John became president and later chairman of the Watford Football Club in his hometown during the height of his success in the 1970s and again sporadically throughout the 1990s. In 2014, the club named a set of bleachers after him, and in 2016, John's 7-year-old son, Zachary, was signed to the club's academy division for junior players. Perhaps one day, young Zachary will compete as his father watches from the Sir Elton John Stand.