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Slow Burn: How Elton John's "Candle in the Wind '97"—the Best-Selling Single in Music History—Became a Royal Relic

Jon O'Brien
Anwar Hussein/GettyImages
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Famously performed at and written for Princess Diana’s funeral, Sir Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind ‘97” remains the biggest-selling chart hit of all time (since the charts began in the 1950s). The song sold a colossal 33 million copies, is still the only single ever to receive a Diamond certification in the United States, and spent a remarkable three years in Canada’s Top 20.

On the first day of the song’s rush release—it appeared on shelves just a week after its Westminster Abbey debut—news reports showed hordes of grieving royalists stampeding their way into record stores to grab dozens of copies at a time. Such was the sheer fervency of shoppers wanting to relive that saddening moment again and again that the footage resembled a scene from a George A. Romero zombie flick. 

But once the mass hysteria over the royal’s tragic death subsided, the heartfelt tribute appeared to vanish into thin air—a feat that would have seemed physically impossible at the time of its original release.

A Musical Eulogy

Elton John performs at the Concert For Diana.
Elton John performs at the Concert For Diana. / Getty Images/GettyImages

Interestingly, this pandemonium should have arisen from another track entirely—at least, that’s one of the many different stories about how “Candle in the Wind ‘97” came about. Bernie Taupin, the Rocket Man’s longtime lyricist, claims he had misunderstood the funeral song’s brief during a transatlantic phone call in the days following Diana’s death. Apparently, John had asked him to write something similar to the Marilyn Monroe-themed original, which Taupin wrongly interpreted as a request to simply rewrite that song’s lyrics. 

The original version of “Candle in the Wind” appeared on John’s 1973 magnum opus, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and was released as a single the following year. The title came to Taupin after hearing legendary music producer Clive Davis use the phrase in reference to Janis Joplin following her 1970 death. “I just kept hearing this term [and] I thought, what a great way of describing someone’s life,” Taupin told American Songwriter.

“I’d been a Marilyn fan for a long time,” Taupin told the BBC in 2014. "I’d wanted to write a song about her. But I’d never found the right way of doing it without being incredibly tacky.” So he tried to craft a narrative “that told you the reason she was so popular, was that she was very much somebody people could fall in love with without her being out of reach.” The original ballad, which Rolling Stone ranked at No. 347 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, also happened to be a personal favorite tune of Dianas.

In his memoir Me, however, John recalls being asked by Richard Branson to provide a new version of “Candle in the Wind” after the entrepreneur noticed how often it had been quoted in St. James Palace’s Book of Condolence. The music legend also believed Branson had been acting on behalf of the Spencer family. Then, in 2021, newly-released Westminster Abbey records showed another John/Taupin classic, “Your Song,” had initially been penciled in as the musical eulogy. 

Whatever had previously transpired, Taupin’s new, unashamedly sentimental lyrics (“Now you belong to heaven / And the stars spell out your name”) and John’s emotional delivery perfectly tapped into the world’s prevailing somberness. In the UK, “Candle in the Wind ‘97” sold a record-breaking 658,000 copies on its first day while on the other side of the pond it shifted 3.5 million units in just a single week.

“Candle in the Wind ‘97” is widely remembered as an historical memento. But at a time when the public, particularly those of the stiff upper-lip variety, didn’t quite know how to handle their shared grief, it also provided a much-needed form of musical catharsis. 

Of course, earlier that same year Puff Daddy (as he was then known) had also sold millions by paying a familiar-sounding tribute to a friend who’d lost their life in tragic circumstances. Yet whereas The Notorious B.I.G.-dedicated and The Police-sampling “I’ll Be Missing You” has maintained some form of cultural relevance (see everything from BTS’s cover to various TikTok dances), “Candle in the Wind ‘97” has been consigned to history. 

From Most Wanted to Most Hated

Admittedly, the track took a while to disappear completely. It was still top of the Hot 100 at the beginning of 1998, just before its 14-week run was ended by Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply.” It also sold enough copies over the next 12 months to make the year-end Top 20 for the second time in a row. Most famously, the tune remained on the Canadian charts until the turn of the century

By this point, however, the tide had dramatically turned. In a poll conducted by British newspaper The Observer and Channel 4, “Candle in the Wind ‘97”—the single that forced retailers HMV to issue “no more than five copies” warnings—was voted second only to the Spice Girls’s “Wannabe” as the worst song ever. To add insult to injury,  in 2007, the Guinness Book of Records ruled “Candle in the Wind ‘97” could no longer be labeled the world’s all-time best-seller; research concluded Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” released before chart data was officially compiled, had sold 17 million more copies. 

By Royal Request

Princes William and Harry on stage with Elton John at the Concert For Diana .
Princes William and Harry on stage with Elton John at the Concert For Diana . / Getty Images/GettyImages

Still, John himself is unlikely to have been too upset. Ever since the day he debuted the reworking (and made a studio recording produced by Sir George Martin), the pop icon has been keen to leave it behind. “Candle in the Wind ‘97” didn’t appear on The Big Picture, John’s 25th studio album, which housed the other half of its double A-side, “Something About The Way You Look Tonight.” And it hasn’t graced any official compilation, either. John has also stated he will only ever perform the chart-topping version at the request of Princes William and Harry; even at 2007’s Concert for Diana, he stuck to his word. 

In fact, John has only ever listened to the track once—to ensure the mixing of its single release maintained his high standard. And in his book, the musician expressed both bafflement (“Under what circumstances would you play it?”) and a distaste (“it almost felt like wallowing in her death, as if the mourning for her had got out of hand”) at its unprecedented success.

You will still hear “Candle in the Wind” at John’s live shows, but it will be the 1973 original. Likewise on golden oldies radio, where the song has remained a staple alongside the likes of “Tiny Dancer,” “I’m Still Standing” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” In contrast, according to airplay data collectors Soundcharts, the sobering remake was played in full just once on American radio in August 2022, with Wisconsin-based KUWS apparently the outlier. 

Candle, Extinguished

There’s a similar disparity when it comes to streaming. Since being made available in 2015, “Candle in the Wind ‘97” has amassed 17.9 million Spotify plays, with the majority no doubt coming from the various Hits of ‘97 playlists. Its predecessor, on the other hand, has clocked nearly 125 million listens. Even the Ed Sheeran cover, recorded for 2018 star-studded John tribute album Revamp, has been streamed over four times more.  

In Britain, the Diana eulogy doesn’t even feature in John’s most-streamed Top 40. It was notably absent from the countdown published by The Official UK Charts in 2021, a list which included relatively obscure duets with Gary Barlow, Ironik, and Fall Out Boy. Apart from a random gospel-tinged cover featured on Europop duo La Bouche’s 1998 second album A Moment of Love, there haven’t been any notable cover versions, either. 

Of course, “Candle in the Wind ‘97” did leave a more important legacy, thanks to the nearly $50 million it raised for the now-defunct Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Yet its pop cultural dominance, perhaps rather aptly, burned out long before its subject’s ever will.

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