Not just any musician gets a major Hollywood musical-fantasy-biopic made about them. But when Reginald Dwight transformed himself into Elton John it was as if this was always part of the plan.
The pianist-composer-singer-activist-fashion plate has been one of the foundational elements of popular culture for the last 50 years. As this week’s Rocketman boasts, there was a stretch in the 1970s where he personally represented five percent of all records sold. He’s had seven consecutive No. 1 albums and nine No. 1 singles, and he’s got an Oscar, a Tony, a Golden Globe, five Grammys, and technically you are supposed to call him Sir. He’s also currently on his final tour (“Farewell Yellow Brick Road”) and his autobiography Me comes out in October.
While sales figures and splashy outfits will always be a part of his legend, it wouldn’t mean anything without his music. Elton John’s voice, piano, and melodies (written to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics) have a quality that can never be duplicated, but certainly can be analyzed. EW spoke with six artists who have found inspiration in the Rocket Man’s music and asked them to lift the piano lid to give us some insider insight on his influence.
Bruce Hornsby: I was in 9th grade. My brother went to school in New England and got exposed to music we didn’t hear in the Virginia Peninsula. We were driving and he put on the 8-track of Tumbleweed Connection. “Amoreena” comes on and changes my life. That soulful vocal, the melodic line, the harmonic complexity with a diminished chord, so atypical for the time. A seminal moment in my development.
Ben Folds: I’m maybe eight years old and I bought three cassettes for 25 cents at a yard sale. Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, and the first record. I put the tape recorder under my pillow at night and would dream about playing those songs on the piano. Of course I couldn’t, but I’d try.
PJ Morton (solo artist and Maroon 5 keyboardist): Mary J. Blige’s “Deep Inside,” which samples “Bennie and the Jets,” really sent me on a journey to learn about him. I’d seen him, you know, the figure, but that got me investigating.
“Bennie and the Jets” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Hornsby: I don’t know of another song that sounds anything like it.
Morton: That rhythm changed the game. No one approached an intro like that, those heavy chords with the melody on top. Adding the audience sounds, it makes you visualize the moment and live in it. Then he jumps into the falsetto?
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (multiple award-winning classical pianist): The beat is irresistible, and draws you into the story.
Folds: I hear that song and I’m immediately in a backyard, 1974.
Rufus Wainwright: It’s a great example of a curveball. No one was expecting it. You can’t even dance to it! Michael Stipe loves this one and he’s a tough one to crack.
“Levon” (Madman Across The Water, 1971)
Thibaudet: Its slow beat is like a drug that goes into your body.
Morton: The music makes you want to know more about the person in the story. Then the end, with the orchestra, it’s like the end credits.
Folds: When the song does the harmonic shift — “he was born a pauper to a pawn” — it is so in tune with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. Chills. The melody doesn’t repeat for a long time. I’ve brought this up with him and he’s usually “eh, I don’t want to think about it too much.” Same with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” It stretches for over two minutes before a repeat. The current era’s songs are maybe two seconds.
Hornsby: I love it even if I don’t know what it’s talking about.
“Nikita” (Ice on Fire, 1985)
Regina Spektor: I’m not sure if people know this one, but my husband and I once went six months humming this song nonstop. Once one of us would get it out of our heads, then the other would start singing it. Such an earworm. Even though I didn’t grow up with this, it makes me feel nostalgic for something I didn’t experience.
Wainwright: I was absolutely obsessed with this song when I was 10 years old.
“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” (Too Low For Zero, 1983)
Folds: I heard this in a bathroom the other day out on the road. The dude next to me starts singing along at the urinal. We’re both standing there holding our dicks singing “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”!
Morton: “Laughing like children, living like lovers, rolling like thunder under the covers.” Maybe the most perfect lyric ever. And maybe the only song about the blues that isn’t a blues-y song. Then Stevie Wonder on harmonica is the icing.
Wainwright: My aunt, Anna McGarrigle, no slouch of a songwriter herself, loves this song. I’m a touring musician, you are calling me in Zurich and I am off to Belfast tomorrow, and there’s a real confusion that can occur, when sex becomes love and when love becomes sex. I’m not that into that sort of thing anymore, but I was young once, and this song really illustrates this maze.
Thibaudet: It’s a love letter, the essence of music. He gives us the gift of feeling.
“Take Me To The Pilot” (Elton John, 1970)
Folds: There’s a discovery there of “holy shit, I can be a gospel singer?”
Hornsby: I was a huge fan of the 11-17-70 live album, a radio broadcast bootlegged so much the label just put it out. It’s amazing how just piano, bass, and drums can have such “rock music” impact. My first trio played this and it always roused the crowd.
Morton: I’m a preacher’s kid from the black church, so I get this song immediately. It’s gospel 100 percent. “Take me to see Him.” It’s a song you can fire up on a Sunday morning.
“Candle In The Wind” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Spektor: It’s a beautiful song. And it was such a surprise to me to learn he didn’t write the words. When he sings it sounds so personal to him.
Thibaudet: Of course, we associate it with Princess Diana now, even though it was written for Marylin Monroe. It’s so tender.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Wainwright: He wasn’t technically out of the closet, though it was one of those amazing 1970s situations with a big sparkling elephant in the room. I sang this song for him at an event; it shares our love of The Wizard of Oz, but also the surreal journey of show business.
“Rocket Man” (Honkey Château, 1972)
Folds: Stuck in a space helmet, floating — it seems Bernie knew what Elton was going through. Musically, he’s really in stride with his formula and knows what’s connecting. And I love that slide guitar. “DoooooooOOOOOOOOOoooooo.”
Hornsby: It has an atmospheric, cinematic quality. I love the interval-leaping singing, “a long long time,” in his falsetto.
Morton: It’s a great song about being misunderstood. I’m sure he had to deal with it a bunch. He is one of one. He is an alien. He is Rocket Man.
Elton’s piano style
Thibaudet: You hear one note and you know it is him. His rhythm is everything, a heartbeat.
Morton: He’s very New Orleans. The seeds somehow got across the water to England, because you can’t teach it.
Hornsby: In 1988 or so Elton had me sit in with him at Madison Square Garden. We did “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” for the encore and by the end we’re both lying down playing one-handed while doing the dying cockroach on the floor.
Folds: There’s something connected about his piano playing. He has a sense of rhythm on the piano that almost no one has. Look at the number of times he’s been covered. Not many for someone with so many of the all-time greatest hits. There’s a reason; these songs are difficult to do.
Wainwright: He’s so muscular. Banging on the instrument, beating it into the ground, but it’s still beautiful. It’s almost sadomasochistic yet the instrument is still moaning for more.
Spektor: Piano is not like guitar, there aren’t an infinite amount of tones. An engineer told me that when he went to record with John Lennon, the tech guys couldn’t find the “Elton John sound” with the microphone placement, and they were getting worried. Then Elton showed up, goes to check the piano and even with the microphones laying in the corner it was “wait, there’s the sound!” It’s a certain kind of magic.