The story behind Elton John's moving tribute to his friend Diana

The call came through late Friday, Sept. 5. Representatives for Elton John and Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin rang Townhouse Studios, a state-of-the-art music complex in West London, to reserve a space the following afternoon for a quickie recording session.

Of course, this would be no ordinary session and Sept. 6 no ordinary Saturday. At 11:30 a.m., before an estimated 2.5 billion worldwide TV viewers, John would sit at a piano in London’s Westminster Abbey and stoically sing ”Candle in the Wind” (complete with newly revised lyrics) in a tribute to his longtime friend Diana, Princess of Wales. In a day already choked with emotion, John’s song made millions weep, including Diana’s son Harry, who reportedly buried his face in his hands and cried as the lyrics filled the Abbey. It may be impossible to ever hear the song again without thinking of that moment.

Invited by Diana’s sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale to perform at the funeral, John chose ”Candle in the Wind” himself; he then asked longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin to retool the lyrics, which Taupin did in just an hour and a half at his L.A. home. He faxed the new lyrics to John in New York the Thursday before the ceremony.

After the service ended, John and Martin met at Townhouse to record the song, profits from which will go to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. They were joined by just two engineers, a string quartet, and a woodwind player. By 11 p.m. and after only two takes, the basic track — with strings added to the second verse and John overdubbing his own harmonies on the chorus — was done; the artwork, based around the image of a solitary white rose, would be completed the next morning for what is now called ”Candle in the Wind 1997.”

So began the third, and potentially biggest, lease on life for John and Taupin’s 1973 homage to Marilyn Monroe (who, like Diana, died at age 36), now sporting lines about ”our nation’s golden child” instead of the original’s goodbye to Norma Jean. On Sept. 13, ”Candle in the Wind 1997” will arrive in record stores in the U.K., followed 10 days later in the U.S. At press time, PolyGram, which distributes John’s Rocket label, had received orders for 3.4 million copies. The label will press ”Candle” onto the same discs that contained John’s already-planned new CD-single release, ”Something About the Way You Look Tonight.” (It’s not yet clear whether PolyGram will recoup its manufacturing costs from single sales or write off its expenditure.) London’s Daily Mail is claiming ”Candle in the Wind 1997,” which will retail for $3.49, will be ”the biggest-selling single in history,” with up to $16 million (including all of John and Taupin’s royalties) being raised in honor of the dead princess. In the U.S., the Virgin Megastore chain is ordering an inordinately high number — 500 to 1,000 — per store. ”Everybody has to have a copy,” says Tom Poleman, program director of New York City Top 40 station Z100, ”just like everybody had to have a copy of the newspaper the next day.”