Elton John celebrated his 75th birthday on Friday. I was without wi-fi from Friday morning until earlier today (for the record, I needed a new modem). I’m assuming Sir Elton won’t be mad at me for being a couple days late.
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in Pinner, Middlesex (Greater London area), Elton John began playing the piano at the age of seven. He saw Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard on television and knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. His father Stanley tried to steer him toward a professional career, but John was not meant for the nine-to-five world. At age eleven, John was awarded a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of London, and while he was something of a prodigy, he didn’t want to be a classical pianist; he wanted to be a showman.
At age fifteen, John (still known as Reggie) began playing at a local pub and formed a band called Bluesology; he would later use the names of two of his bandmates – Elton Dean and John Baldry – to create his stage name. At the age of twenty, John answered an ad in the New Musical Express looking to pair composers and lyricists; he was handed a random unopened envelope and was matched with Bernie Taupin. Taupin and John’s partnership continues to this day.
Elton John has been one of the most commercially and critically successful artists of the past fifty years. He’s won two Oscars, six Grammys and a Tony. His nonprofit charity, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, has raised more than $600 million since its inception thirty years ago. He’s a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and a member of the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame. He’s a husband and a father, a legend and an icon.
In celebration of Elton John’s 75th, here is a list of my ten favorite John albums (and one bonus tribute album):
- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
CHART POSITION: #1 in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia
SINGLES: “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (US #12, UK #7), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (US #2, UK #6), “Bennie and the Jets” (US #1, Canada #1, not released as a single in the UK), “Candle in the Wind” (UK #11, not released as a single in the US)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Grey Seal”, “All the Girls Love Alice”, “Bennie and the Jets”
FUN FACT: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is John’s magnum opus and best-selling album (more than thirty million copies have been sold worldwide since its 1973 release), but it might have been titled something else: the working titles for the album were Vodka and Tonics and Silent Movies, Talking Pictures.
- Honky Château
CHART POSITION: #1 in the US, #2 in the UK
SINGLES: “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” (#6 US, #2 UK), “Honky Cat” (#8 US, #31 UK)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (my absolute all-time favorite Elton John song), “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)”, “Honky Cat”
FUN FACT: Honky Château was the first of seven consecutive Elton John #1 albums in the United States.
- Madman Across the Water
CHART POSITION: #8 in the US and Australia, #9 in Canada, #41 in the UK
SINGLES: “Levon” (#24 US, #6 Canada), “Tiny Dancer” (#41 US, not released as a single in the UK)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Tiny Dancer”, “Levon”, “Madman Across the Water” and “Holiday Inn”
FUN FACT: At 6:12, “Tiny Dancer” was more than twice as long as the typical pop song of the time. Because of its length, the song wasn’t even released as a single in the UK. Nevertheless, “Tiny Dancer” is one of John’s most enduring songs, both musically and culturally.
- Too Low for Zero
CHART POSITION: #25 in the US, #7 in the UK, #2 in Australia and #17 in Canada
SINGLES: “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (#4 US, #5 UK), “I’m Still Standing” (#12 US, #4 UK), “Kiss the Bride” (#25 US, #20)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Cold as Christmas (In the Middle of the Year)”, “Whipping Boy”, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”, “Crystal”
FUN FACT: After a several-album critical and commercial slump, John reunited with Taupin and his old backing band for the first time since 1976’s Blue Moves – and struck gold (actually platinum).
- Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player
CHART POSITION: #1 in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada
SINGLES: “Crocodile Rock” (#1 in the US and Canada, #2 in Australia, #5 in the UK), “Daniel” (#2 US, #4 UK)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Daniel”, “Elderberry Wine”, “Have Mercy on the Criminal”, “I’m Going to Be a Teenage Idol”, “Crocodile Rock”
FUN FACT: John once spent an evening playing piano at a party hosted by Groucho Marx. Marx had been gently ribbing John all night and at one point made a “pistol” hand gesture, to which John replied, “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player”. The Marx Brothers movie Go West is featured on the album’s cover art.
- Elton John
CHART POSITION: #4 in the US, Australia and Canada, #5 in the UK
SINGLES: “Border Song” (#92 in the US, didn’t chart in the UK), “Your Song” (#8 in the US, #7 in the UK)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Your Song”, “Take Me to the Pilot”, “No Shoe Strings on Louise”, “Border Song”
FUN FACT: John’s UK debut Empty Sky wasn’t released in the States until 1975, so Elton John was his US debut.
- Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
CHART POSITION: #1 in the US, Australia and Canada, #2 in the UK
SINGLES: “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (#4 US, #22 UK)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (the semi-autobiographical account of John’s 1968 suicide attempt), “Better Off Dead”, “We All Fall in Love Sometimes”
FUN FACT: The cover art by Alan Aldridge drew inspiration from The Garden of Earthly Delights, a Renaissance triptych painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
- Rock of the Westies
CHART POSITION: #1 in the US and Canada, #4 in Australia, #5 in the UK
SINGLES: “Island Girl” (#1 US, #14 UK), “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”/”I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)” (#14 US)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Island Girl”, “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)”, “Medley: Yell Help / Wednesday Night / Ugly”
FUN FACT: Oscar-nominated film composer James Newton Howard, then a virtual unknown, played keyboards for Rock of the Westies. Howard also arranged strings for several other Elton John songs, including “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”.
- Tumbleweed Connection
CHART POSITION: #5 in the US, #2 in the UK
SINGLES: None in the US or the UK
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Come Down in Time”, “Burn Down the Mission”, “Country Comfort”
FUN FACT: Although the album is an ode to Americana, the cover photo was taken at the Sheffield Park railway station in East Sussex. Musically, the album was influenced by The Band’s Music from Big Pink.
CHART POSITION: #25 in the US, #5 in the UK
SINGLES: “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with George Michael, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” with Marcella Detroit, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with RuPaul
FUN FACT: Duets was initially conceived as a Christmas album.
- Bonus – Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin
CHART POSITION: #18 in the US
SINGLES: “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Oleta Adams (UK only, #33), “Rocket Man” by Kate Bush (#2 Australia, #12 UK)
MY FAVORITE TRACKS: “Rocket Man”, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” by Joe Cocker, “The Bitch is Back” by Tina Turner, “Madman Across the Water” by Bruce Hornsby, “Tonight” by George Michael, “Sacrifice” by Sinead O’Connor
FUN FACT: The title refers to a song on John’s album 21 at 33 titled “Two Rooms at the End of the World”