Man behind the music: 7 amazing stories you didn’t know about Elton John
From throwing oranges at Bob Dylan to the story behind that Donald Duck costume, Elton John isn't short on anecdotes capable of stealing the show at any dinner party.
Elton John’s phenomenal musical career has spanned more than fifty years, from pub gigs with his first band Bluesology to an epic worldwide three-year farewell tour. He is the most enduringly successful singer/songwriter of all time, but how much do we really know about the man behind the music?
In his official autobiography Me, Elton finally reveals the truth about his extraordinary life. Born in the London suburb of Pinner, and christened Reginald Dwight, his life has been full of drama. By the age of twenty-three he was performing his first gig in America, and success led to friendships with John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and George Michael, as well to a spiralling drug addiction which gripped him for over a decade.
From the songs that nearly didn't reach us, to celebrity ‘rivalries' and his beloved Watford FC, here, we share seven amazing anecdotes from Elton John' s incredible life that you may not have heard.
Get the whole story in his first and only autobiography, Me, out now.
1. Tiny Dancer was almost never released in the UK
Now one of Elton's most recognisable hit songs, 'Tiny Dancer' was almost never released in the UK. It was only when Cameron Crowe's ‘love letter to early seventies rock', Almost Famous, was released that the song became a hit almost overnight. The film chronicles fictional rock band Stillwater and in a now iconic scene, the band and their entourage break into a rendition of the song on their tour bus.
As Elton puts it – ‘That scene turned ‘Tiny Dancer' into one of my biggest songs overnight. People forget that when it came out as a single in 1971, it flopped. It didn't make the Top Forty in America, and the record label in Britain wouldn't release it at all. When it turned up on the soundtrack of Almost Famous, I think a lot of people had no idea what it was, or who it was by. I think the film subconsciously put some ideas into my head, about the kind of artist I'd been back then, about how my music was made and how it was perceived, before I became absolutely huge.'
Watch the iconic scene here, as Cameron Crowe, director of Almost Famous discusses why he wanted to use 'Tiny Dancer' at this pivotal point in the film.
2. He once threw oranges at Bob Dylan
Naturally, Me is full of incredible celebrity anecdotes but one of our favourites has to be the time that Elton threw oranges at Bob Dylan during a party hosted by Simon and Garfunkel. Dinner was followed by a game of charades, which S&G turned out to be hopeless at, although not as hopeless as Dylan, it would seem . . .
‘Simon and Garfunkel had dinner one night, then played charades. At least, they tried to play charades. They were terrible at it. The best thing I can say about them is that they were better than Bob Dylan. He couldn’t get the hang of the ‘how many syllables?’ thing at all. He couldn’t do ‘sounds like’ either, come to think of it. One of the best lyricists in the world, the greatest man of letters in the history of rock music, and he can’t seem to tell you whether a word’s got one syllable or two syllables or what it rhymes with! He was so hopeless, I started throwing oranges at him. Or so I was informed the next morning, by a cackling Tony King. That’s not really a phone call you want to receive when you’re struggling with a hangover. ‘Morning, darling – do you remember throwing oranges at Bob Dylan last night?’ Oh God.
3. Watford football club might have saved his life
Football has always been an incredibly important part of Elton’s life. He’s a lifelong Watford FC supporter and has held various roles at the club first as chairman and most recently club president. In 1977, when Elton first got involved with the team, he appointed a young football manager called Graham Taylor and under their leadership, the team rose an incredible 3 divisions, in just five years. This was during a particularly dark time in Elton’s life and he’s credited his involvement with the club to saving his life . . .
‘I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved together, but I owe Watford far more than Watford owe me. I was chairman throughout the worst period of my life: years of addiction and unhappiness, failed relationships, bad business deals, court cases, unending turmoil. Through all of that, Watford were a constant source of happiness to me. When I didn’t feel I had any love in my personal life, I knew I had love from the club and the supporters. It gave me something else to concentrate on, a passion that could take my mind away from everything that was going wrong. For obvious reasons, there are chunks of the eighties I have no recollection of – I struggled to remember what had happened the next day, let alone thirty years later – but every Watford game I saw is permanently etched on my memory . . . If I hadn’t had the football club then God knows what would have happened to me. I’m not exaggerating when I say I think Watford might have saved my life.’
4. He has an extremely playful rivalry with Rod Stewart
While you may know that Rod and Elton are firm friends, you might not know exactly how much rivalry there is between the two. They became close when Rod covered one of Elton’s songs, Country Comfort, and Elton fell in love with Rod’s ‘camp’ sense of humour – the pair even have drag names for each other.
‘We’ve spent nearly fifty years constantly taking the piss out of, and trying to put one over, each other.’… ‘It reached a kind of peak in the early eighties, when Rod was playing Earls Court. They had advertised the gig by flying a blimp over the venue with his face on it. I was staying in London that weekend and I could see it from my hotel room window. It was too good an opportunity to miss. So I called my management and they hired someone to shoot it down: apparently it landed on top of a double-decker bus and was last seen heading towards Putney. About an hour later, the phone went. It was Rod, spluttering about the disappearance.
A year later, I was playing Olympia and the promoters had hung a huge banner across the street. It was mysteriously cut down immediately after it was put up. The phone call that informed me of this sabotage came from Rod, who seemed curiously well informed about exactly what had happened. ‘Such a shame about your banner, love. I heard it wasn’t even up five minutes. I bet you didn’t even get to see it.’
5. He has a particular love for photography
It’s no secret that Elton loves collecting beautiful things, but you may not know that he has a particular love of photography. In Me, Elton writes movingly about his struggles with addiction and discovering a new beauty in art once he was able to get sober . . .
‘It’s a real recovering addict’s cliché to say that you notice things about your surroundings that you never saw while you were using – oh, the beauty of the flowers, the wonders of nature, all that crap – but it’s only a cliché because it’s true. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why I started collecting photography when I got sober. I’d been around incredible photographers for most of my career – Terry O’Neill, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson – but I just thought of it as a form of publicity, never an art, until I stopped drinking and using drugs. I went to the south of France for a holiday and visited a friend of mine, Alain Perrin, who lived outside Cahors. He was looking through black and white fashion photographs with a view to buying some. Idly peering over his shoulder, I was suddenly transfixed. They were by Irving Penn, Horst and Herb Ritts. I knew Herb Ritts – he’d taken the photo for the cover of Sleeping with the Past – but it felt like I was seeing his work in a completely new way. I loved everything about the photos Alain was looking at – the lighting, the shapes it had created and contorted; it all seemed extraordinary. I ended up buying twelve of them, and that was the start of an obsession that’s never stopped: photography is the love of my life in terms of visual art.’
6. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer just before his farewell tour
In 2017, while plans for his farewell tour were already well underway, Elton was diagnosed with prostate cancer, spotted while undergoing a routine check-up. Elton speaks about the shock of this discovery and his journey to recovery for the first time in Me . . .
‘My doctor noticed that the level of prostate-specific antigens in my blood had gone up slightly, and sent me to an oncologist for a biopsy. It came back positive. It was strange: I wasn’t as shocked at hearing the word ‘cancer’ as I had been back in the eighties, when they thought I had it in my throat. I think it was because it was prostate cancer. It’s no joke, but it’s incredibly common, they had caught it very early, and besides, I’m blessed with the kind of constitution that just makes me bounce back from illnesses. I’d had a couple of serious health scares before, and they didn’t really slow me down.’
7. The story behind ‘that’ Donald Duck costume
In 1980, Elton played in Central Park to over half a million people, his biggest crowd yet. Elton’s costumes for the gig were being designed by legendary costumier Bob Mackie and a designer called Bruce Halperin, who were given the brief to ‘do their worst’. The results? The iconic Donald Duck costume that Bob designed for the encore, which wasn’t the most functional of stage outfits . . .
‘First of all, I couldn’t get the bloody thing on properly. I was backstage, with one arm through the leg hole and my leg through the arm, crying with laughter while everyone around urged me to get a move on: ‘There’s 500,000 people out there and they’ll think there’s no encore! They’ll think the gig’s over and go home!’ When I eventually got onstage it struck me that I should probably have had some kind of dress rehearsal to see how the outfit might work. Had I done that I might have discovered that there were two minor problems. First, I couldn’t walk in it – it had huge duck feet, like divers’ flippers. And secondly, I couldn’t sit down in it either – it had an enormous padded bum that meant the best I could manage was perching gingerly on the piano stool. I attempted to play ‘Your Song’, but I couldn’t stop laughing. Every time I caught Dee’s eye – wearing an expression of weary resignation, the look of a man who had turned up again after five years to discover that things were as ridiculous as ever – I had a fit of the giggles. Once again, Bernie’s tender ballad of blossoming young love was decimated by my choice of stage wear.'
Image credit: © Sam Emerson (courtesy of Rocket Entertainment)