Elton John is in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. One could argue he did just enough to get in. More appropriately, Elton was awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in '75.
Elton's entire career brings up the question of intent. He was an incredibly talented singer/songwriter with a well-developed flair for the extravagant. He created several Rock 'n' Roll songs but was never a Rocker. It was just another style in his largely MOR repertoire. But occasionally he was up to the job (see above)
Reg Dwight got himself low life jobs at music publishing companies while working with Long John Baldry. Baldry's group also included Elton Dean. Reg then legally changed his name to Elton "Hercules" John (easy to trace the origin of his stage name). A chance meeting with lyricist Bernie Taupin produced one of the most successful songwriting teams since Lennon/McCartney. Their early songs were covered by Rod Stewart ("Country Comfort") and Three Dog Night ("Lady Samantha" and "Your Song"). After several false starts Elton scored with "Your Song" and began a remarkable and unequalled pop career.
Of course, Elton and Bernie had their differences and ceased working together in the late '70s. Elton wrote with others and Bernie produced a solo album. Wisely, realizing they were better together than apart, they joined forces again.
However, Elton worked with lyricist Tim Rice on a couple film projects including "The Lion King." That effort produced the mega ballad hit "Can You Feel The Love Tonight." Elton also managed to become great friends with Princess Di (talk about giving in to establishment tendencies). They loved to gossip or so we are told. Taupin even re-wrote the lyrics to "Candle In The Wind," one of their most maudlin ballads, to fit Princess Di, which Elton sang at her state funeral. Some thought it was inappropriate while others felt it was a touching tribute from one friend to another. "Candle In The Wind '97" was one of the all-time best selling singles.
While Elton's '01 release, "Songs From The West Coast," saw disappointing sales it was his best album in over a decade. '06 effort, "The Captain And The Kid" (John & Taupin again), was presented as a sequel to the massively popular double album "Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy" (released in '75) and focused on that period and the intervening years.
Elton's flamboyant public persona (including oversized glasses, wigs and costumes) overshadowed everything else, including his music. He was a pop star in the truest sense.
Throughout his career, Elton played countless benefit concerts and had post-Academy Awards parties to raise money for various causes, including AIDS research. But in '08 Elton took a high profile political turn when performed at a benefit concert for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in New York. Even though Clinton's campaign was struggling the concert raised $2.5 million. "I've always been a Hillary supporter," Elton told the crowd at Radio City Music Hall. "There is no one more qualified to lead America." Almost makes you forget he's a Brit.
When Elton agreed to a five-year engagement at Caesar's Palace in Vegas very few were surprised. If anyone seemed suited to Vegas it was John. Since Elvis Presley took up residence three decades earlier, playing Vegas had lost much of its stigma. Besides, for aging Rock stars it makes much more sense to have your audience come to you rather than touring. The Red Piano, the title of Elton's show, concluded in '09. Then came The Red Piano Live In Las Vegas, a DVD and a Blu-ray disc.
Not content to be anchored in Vegas, John also toured with fellow '70's icon, Billy Joel. The Face 2 Face treks, where the two played grand pianos facing each other, drew SRO audiences.
A bit later, Elton had a memorable cameo in the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy Bruno. He played piano and sang the film's closing satire of "We Are The World" type songs with Bono (U2), Sting and 'Bruno', while seated on a day-laborer (who was on his hands and knees) - something former American Idol judge Paula Abdul had done earlier in the film. He got a big laugh.
Though not as intentionally humorous, a duet by Elton and pop exhibitionist Lady Gaga opened the 52nd Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in L.A. The pair performed her "Speechless" and his "Your Song." The two appeared to be perfectly matched glam survivors of some incredibly horrific inferno (there was a lot of fire and smoke on the stage). But this heavily hyped and overly dramatic performance never really soared though it was impossible to look away.
Face 2 Face took an extended break in '10 when Joel decided to take some time off. Elton however, scheduled another tour. But working with a collaborator was still in the cards. John recorded "The Union" with the legendary Leon Russell. Though Russell started as a solo performer in the early '60's, he first gained fame as the driving/guiding force behind Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and double album. Prior to that, Russell had been a noted L.A. session musician and songwriter ("Delta Lady" and "Superstar," which he co-wrote with Bonnie Bramlett). From there he worked with numerous high profile performers including B.B. King, Delaney and Bonnie & Friends, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Dave Mason and Badfinger. In addition, Russell had a solid solo career best remembered for the song "This Masquerade."
John, a long time Russell fan, suggested the partnership. It was, he claimed, indicative of a career change. "I don't have to make pop records any more," said Elton. The 14 song, T Bone Burnett produced set was released in '10 and marked the first studio collaboration by the two keyboardists.
Like several performers, the earlier you catch Elton John the better. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" shows Elton's reach from Rock 'n' Roll ("Love Lies Bleeding," "Saturday's All Right For Fighting" and "Grey Seal") to decent ballads ("Harmony"). Also, Taupin's lyrics are sharp and effective. "Tumbleweed Connection," "Madman Across The Water," "Honky Chateau" and "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player" are solid albums with enough punch to generate some excitement. Following "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" it became Elton John Superstar and there was no looking back. Pop MOR ruled. There are several "Greatest Hits" collections but these all contain far too many lame ballads to be worth recommending.
"Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy" (John and Taupin respectively) represented Elton and Bernie's commercial zenith (their artistic apex had come a few years earlier). Shortly after the album's run, Elton endured a rough patch in the late '70s. He still managed to have hits though not with the frequency nor impact. He regained his footing in the mid-80s but Taupin never really did. So it's little wonder the pair would want to return to their glory days.
It's a compliment to Elton's outsized presence that the piano/vocal songs on "The Captain And The Kid" ("The Bridge," "Postcards From Richard Nixon" and "Blues Never Fade") sound complete rather than two track demos. There's no shortage of emotion or drama. "Tinderbox" deals with the implosion of the John/Taupin partnership as they were "coasting on a winning streak." The Country influenced title track is charming while the set gets some needed energy from the feel-good Boogie number, "Just Like Noah's Ark."
If there is a constant on every Elton John album it's that there's a large dose of ballads. "The Union," with Leon Russell, is true to form but with some unexpected curves. The usual Elton schmaltz is noticeably absent. Perhaps he's serious when he says he doesn't need pop hits anymore. Another twist is the return of Elton's rough-edged "Madman Across The Water"/"Honky Chateau" voice - trying to match Russell who shines on the Gospel oriented - complete with a choir - "In The Hands Of Angels." It's the set's signature ballad.
That said, there is a lot more fun elsewhere. "Monkey Suit" is good ol' Rock N' Roll handled by pros. The track is perfectly evocative of Russell's solo career combining a raw drawl with an irresistible natural ease. John and Russell go retro again on "I Should Have Sent Roses." Taupin's lyrics compliment the R&B echoes of the Stax era. Then the pair switches gears for the Country leaning "Jimmie Rodger's Dream" (with a title like that how could it be anything else?).