Narrated by Marston YorkMusic by Federico Coderoni
Me (2019) is Elton John’s autobiography. It takes a deeper look into the singer’s troubled childhood, his struggles with addiction, and the roles they played in shaping who he is. They also explore his path to stardom, and the celebrity drama he’s encountered along the way.
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Elton John is an icon. He’s been topping the charts and selling out stadiums, right across the world for decades. Just how did this ordinary working-class boy become such a star?
Elton has led a life packed with stories and secrets. It’s quite the journey. So, let’s relax, get comfy, and discover the hidden life of the rocketman.
In 1947, Elton John was born in a working-class suburb of north London. His father, Stanley, was in the Royal Air Force, and he was often away from home. So as a small boy, Elton spent most of his time with his mother, Sheila, and his grandmother.
It wasn’t a happy childhood. Sheila had a dreadful temper; she’d fly off the handle with no warning, and always seemed to be looking for a fight. Elton was regularly the victim of her and anger, and so he was terrified of her and her moods.
His father, when he was around, was no better. He punished Elton for everything. From the way he took off his school blazer to the way he ate celery, Elton could never get anything right.
Sheila and Stanley also fought each other too. They’d argue – constantly. Eventually, they divorced, when Elton was eleven.
Elton’s childhood was full of sadness, but it was filled with music, too.
When Elton was nine, music shook his world. Standing in the local barbershop, he saw a picture in a magazine. It was a photo of Elvis Presley. Who was that? He looked like an alien from outer space! No one dressed or posed like that in suburban London. When his mom came home with Elvis’s new record, “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elton thought he sounded like an alien too. But in a good way.
From that moment on, he was in love with rock and roll.
It was clear from a very early age that Elton John had musical talent. A lot of talent. His family remembers that he could pick out a song’s melody, just by hearing it, and then play it on the piano. You might not think that’s too remarkable. Lots of people can play the piano. Well, maybe. But Elton could do it when he was just three years old.
His musical abilities saw him enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. The Academy was a prestigious institution, and the eleven-year-old Elton had passed a tough exam in order to study there. Every Saturday, he’d spend his morning at the Academy practicing and developing his skills. There was only one problem, the Academy only taught classical music. If it wasn’t classical, it wasn’t allowed in the Academy.
But Elton wanted to play rock and roll, he didn’t want to be a classical musician. So, the lessons at the Academy – as prestigious as they were – started to drag. And Elton started to neglect them. Sometimes, instead of going to his classes, he’d ride the London Underground all morning. On the tube, he read magazines and daydreamed of playing rock and roll instead of Mozart and Beethoven.
Elton was 15 when he got his first paid music work.
His stepfather got him regular gigs at the Northwood Hills Hotel – a rough local pub. He got to play a bit of rock and roll, but mostly play old English drinking songs – that’s what the pub’s clientele really wanted. Sometimes – actually most of the time – the audience would go a little too far. Filled up on booze, fights would break out: glasses would go flying and tables would be upended. To get away from the melee, Elton would sometimes have to jump out of the nearest window. He’d only return to his piano once the fighting had calmed down.
The work was tough, but the pay was pretty good for a 15-year-old. He’d get a pound a night, but with tips, he could end up earning £15 a week. And it was a great lesson in how to play to a raucous and unappreciative audience.
When he was 17, Elton left school and joined a band called Bluesology. The band spent most of their time on the road, playing venues up and down the UK. They had little success. They did release two singles written by Elton, “Come Back Baby” and “Mr Frantic,” but neither of them made a real splash.
Elton made little money with Bluesology. So to earn enough to live, he started working as a session musician on the side. Being a session musician involved going into a studio and recording terrible covers of current pop songs. The work was often hilarious. Elton was once asked to record a version of “Young, Gifted and Black,” a song that doesn’t quite work when sung by a white kid from suburban London. Another time, he had to impersonate the high-pitched voice of Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees. The only way Elton could reach the pitch was by half-strangling himself while he sang.
But it was steady work, and Elton enjoyed the atmosphere in the studios with the other musicians.
In 1967, Elton finally got a break. He was invited to audition for a music label. It would be the start of his rise to fame, but not in the way you’d think.
He failed the audition miserably. But, as Elton was about to slope out of the studio, a music executive handed him an envelope. Inside were some song lyrics from a wannabe lyricist called Berne Taupin.
The contents of that envelope changed Elton’s life.
Bernie Taupin was a budding lyricist. And just like hundreds of other budding lyricists, he’d sent some of his work to the record label in the vain hope that someone – anyone – would read them and like what they saw. Taupin got lucky that the person who read his was Elton John. Elton was just as lucky the music executive gave him Taupin’s envelope, instead of someone else’s.
Elton was intrigued by Taupin’s lyrics. His words were esoteric and haunting – filled with emotional depth. They were certainly a lot better than anything Elton had written himself.
Elton and Taupin decided to meet in person. Taupin impressed Elton; he was handsome and sophisticated.
They decided to give the partnership a go, and they even moved in together. Taupin wrote lyrics on a typewriter and then gave them to Elton, who set them to music. In the beginning, it didn’t go well. After months of trying and failing to get noticed, they were forced to move in with Elton’s mom. They shared Elton’s childhood bedroom and even slept in bunk beds.
Of course, they wouldn’t have realized it, but these were the humble beginnings of a musical partnership that has lasted 50 years and spawned dozens of hit records.
The moment everything changed – the instant when Elton John and Bernie Taupin moved from failed songwriters sharing bunk beds to becoming stars – happened over breakfast. Taupin was sitting at the breakfast table when some lyrics came to him. He jotted them down and passed them over to Elton. Elton sat at the piano, and in just 15 minutes, he’d written a hit.
The song was “Your Song.” And not long afterward, a record label gave them £6,000 to make an album – a huge amount of money at the time.
Elton’s career was about to go off with a bang.
The Elton John album got rave reviews, and it was nominated for a grammy.
After the album’s release, Elton went on his first tour of America. He arrived at Los Angeles airport and found a red London bus waiting outside. On the side it said, “Elton John has arrived!”
A few days later, Elton played the famous Troubadour nightclub. Rock and Roll legends that he had dreamed of meeting, like The Beach Boys and Neil Diamond, came to watch him play. The next day, the LA Times newspaper declared that rock music had a new star.
He’d made it.
It was the start of an intense period. Hit album followed hit album. He moved out of his small bedroom flat into a home with a swimming pool. He even found himself being chased by screaming girls. It all felt a bit strange. But fun too.
It was in this period that Elton perfected his world-famous stage design, costumes, and entrances. He believes this reached its peak in 1973, at his performance at the Hollywood Bowl. Before he even went on stage, he was preceded by pornstar Linda Lovelace, and a string of lookalikes – including the Queen, Batman and Robin, and the Pope. Then Elton appeared wearing what he calls his “Incredible Cheese Straw Outfit” – clothing covered in white marabou feathers. As he made his way to his position on stage, five grand pianos sprang open. A letter written on each lid spelled E-L-T-O-N – Elton. At the same time, 500 white doves were supposed to appear. They didn’t. To this day, Elton doesn’t know why.
And his records kept selling by the bucket load.
Back in 1968, before Elton was famous, he’d met a woman in a club in Sheffield. Her name was Linda Woodrow. They struck up a conversation and their relationship developed over the following weeks and months. They moved in together. Then they got engaged.
When Elton asked a friend to be best man, he was shocked by the response he received. Why are you getting married? You’re gay! He’d never considered himself to be gay, he wasn’t even sure what being gay actually meant. That very evening a very drunk Elton and Linda ended up in a massive argument. They split that night, and never saw each other again.
It was soon after, at the age of 21, that Elton came to understand his sexuality. He told his closest friends, colleagues, and his family, although he didn’t publicize his sexuality widely as he wasn’t sure how people would take it. Nevertheless, he never tried to hide the fact he was gay.
Elton came out in a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. And he was shocked that the story became big news. Didn’t everyone know? He’d hardly kept it a secret; his relationship with his manager John Reid was public knowledge throughout the music business. Reid and the record company were worried about what people would make of the news. Would his record sales be affected? Would he lose fans?
In the end, the fall out of Elton’s interview was exactly as he’d expected, there wasn’t any. Most people simply didn’t care.
In October 1976, Elton John experienced the highpoint of his career so far.
He was playing Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Fifty-five thousand screaming fans were in attendance. The weather was perfect. And his performance had been perfect too. In fact, the whole trip was going pretty well. The city of Los Angeles had declared that week “Elton John Week.” Two days earlier, he’d unveiled his new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
As he played for three hours, until his fingers bled, Elton had a realization: he was experiencing the peak of his career. And he was sensible enough to realize that things couldn’t last at this pace much longer.
He’d been pushing himself to the limits for years. In 1972, he recorded his hit album, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player with glandular fever. And he’d hardly stopped touring since he’d made it big, flying around the US on a private Boeing 720 airliner, nicknamed the Starship.
It had been nonstop. But, as he played Dodger Stadium, Elton knew it had to end. He was even slightly relieved when his next single, Grow Some Funk of Your Own, didn’t do as well as expected. Could it mean that things could finally calm down?
Elton was in need of a break.
In the 1970s, Elton had the world at his feet. But deep down, he still felt like the shy little boy who was afraid of his parents.
When he tried a new drug called cocaine, he thought he’d found the answer to his anxiety. Suddenly, he was confident and euphoric, and his shyness evaporated.
Cocaine may have made him confident, the combination of cocaine and alcohol made him destructive. After one night of heavy substance abuse, he trashed his personal assistant’s hotel room. In the morning, his assistant showed him the damage. “What happened?” Elton demanded to know “You happened!” was the reply.
Drugs made Elton irresponsible, too. Once, he awoke from a cocaine binge to hear his phone ringing. The caller was ringing to arrange delivery of his new tram carriage. Apparently, it would require two helicopters to lower it into his garden. Elton had no memory whatsoever of buying it.
It was only in July 1990, that Elton finally decided to get help. He went to a clinic in Chicago. After just six days, he walked out again: the clinic expected the patients to make their own beds and wash their own clothes – all things that Elton paid other people to do for him. He was embarrassed about not knowing how to use a washing machine, so he checked himself out.
By the time he got to the car park, he’d changed his mind. Where was he going to go? Back to the drugs and chaos? He went back inside, and finally got sober. He even enjoyed the experience. For the first time in years, he felt like an ordinary person. In rehab, he wasn’t a megastar, he was just another addict – like everyone else in there.
Elton’s been clean since.
On February 14, 1983, before he got clean, Elton John did something no one expected. He got married. His bride was Renate Blauel, a sound engineer from Germany. Renate and Elton were close friends, and fed-up with the loneliness and a string of broken relationships, he’d proposed to her.
His friends and family were naturally quite shocked, but Elton was adamant he wanted to get married. So they did.
The marriage wasn’t a happy one. Elton was going through a turbulent period; he was at the height of his drug addiction, and he was struggling with his voice. He was also suing the infamous British tabloid newspaper, the Sun. The paper had written an article with the headline “ELTON IN VICE BOYS SCANDAL.” It was a complete fabrication, and Elton sued. The paper struck back with more and more lies. Each time, Elton issued another writ. In the end, he issues seventeen writs against the Sun.
In the end, he won. He got one million pounds in damages and a front-page apology. But it had been a stressful affair. Unsurprisingly, in 1988, Renate and Elton divorced; to this day, he realizes how hard the marriage must have been for Renate.
Elton understands how hard life must have been for all his lovers. He knows he wasn’t an easy person to be in a relationship with. Most of his relationships followed a similar pattern. He’d fall madly in love with someone, he’d demand they give up their normal life to spend time with him. He’d shower them with gifts, get bored, and then ask an assistant to send them away for him.
The run of bad relationships finally ended in 1993. That was the year when Elton met David Furnish, a producer and filmmaker from Canada. The two have been together ever since. In 2005, they entered a civil partnership together. Then in 2014, when same-sex marriage became legal in the UK, they married. They have two children, Zachary and Elijah.
Thanks to his rapid rise to the heights of fame, Elton John has always found himself in situations no working-class boy from the London suburbs would expect to be. And all this has given him quite a few stories to tell.
Consider the quiet lunch party that Elton hosted in the 1990s so that his mom could meet his new boyfriend – later husband – David Furnish.
One of the lunch guests was a psychiatrist. At the last minute, he asked if one of his patients could join them. That patient turned out to be Michael Jackson. Michael arrived, covered in badly-applied makeup, and insisted that the whole party sit indoors with the curtains closed. After remaining almost completely silent throughout the lunch, he disappeared. He was found two hours later – playing video games with the housekeeper’s son.
It’s a crazy story, but it’s just one of many.
Elton’s most surreal experience was at Windsor Castle, where he attended Prince Andrew’s twenty-first birthday party. The party’s DJ was so worried about offending the Queen that he turned the music down as low as it would go. In the middle of this strange silent disco, Her Majesty herself appeared. She started dancing with Elton. But instead of enjoying the experience, Elton had to concentrate on barely moving, so that the creaking floorboards wouldn’t drown out the music.
As he shuffled around the dance floor, Elton marveled at how an ordinary working-class kid had ended up dancing with royalty.
We’ve looked a fair bit at Elton John’s private life, but we shouldn’t forget his music.
Since what he considers to be his peak of popularity, in 1976, Elton has explored a range of musical directions and projects. Just look at what happened in the 1990s alone.
In 1994, he received a phone call from the lyricist Tim Rice. Rice wanted to ask him about the possibility of doing a soundtrack together. Elton wasn’t sure. The last time he’d tried a film it’d been a complete flop, one reviewer called it a “sickening piece of corrupt slop.” But Elton overcame his misgivings and agreed to write the music for the film. It was a wise choice. The film was Disney’s Lion King, and it was a massive hit. Elton’s music was also very well received. He even took home an Academy Award for his song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
But the 1990s also brought some of Elton’s lowest points.
Elton John had always been a massive fan of Versace. He’d worn their extravagant clothes since the 1980s. When he met the designer and owner of the fashion house, Gianni Versace, he found they had a lot in common. They shared the same sense of humor and interests. They also both loved shopping. Although Versace was in his own league when it came to buying things. The two became very close.
Then, in July 1997, tragedy struck. Gianni Versace was murdered outside his home in Miami Beach. Elton was devastated. He sat in a hotel room, watching the breaking news, and wept. What a loss, it was such a senseless killing.
Versace’s family asked Elton to sing at his funeral, and he agreed to. He managed to get through the song, but he couldn’t stop crying throughout.
Then, just a couple of months later, another tragedy hit. Princess Diana, a very close friend of Elton’s, died in a car crash. Again, Elton was hit with a terrible shock, and once again, he’d have to perform at a loved one’s funeral. Days before the funeral, Diana’s family asked if Bernie Taupin could rewrite the lyrics to the song “Candle in the Wind.” Elton performed this new version during the service, in front of a TV audience of billions.
But Elton wasn’t just grieving during his performance, he was terrified too. What if he sang the wrong words? The original lyrics talked about Marilyn Monroe being found naked and mentioned “sexual feelings.” Might he lose focus in the moment and sing the wrong version? In the end, it all went smoothly. Elton has never performed Diana’s version of “Candle in the Wind” after that day, though.
In fact, for years afterward, he refused to even play the original song at his shows.
Throughout his long career, through the ups and downs, there is one thing that Elton has continuously enjoyed – playing live. Despite many attempts to give it up and slow down, Elton was never able to. He kept coming back to play more shows.
At his gigs, Elton’s done everything. He’s played drunk, sober, and high. He’s dressed as Minnie Mouse, a baseball player, and Ronald McDonald. And he’s never stopped! Touring and playing live has been part of Elton’s life for decades – he estimates that he’s played around 120 to 130 shows a year.
But, as a father of two small children, things would have to change. He couldn’t jet around the world and be there for his kids. Or could he? He wasn’t sure what to do.
Then fate stepped in and made the decision for him. First, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Luckily, doctors caught the cancer early, and Elton had surgery to cure the condition. Then, in 2017, he suffered a serious infection on tour. He was rushed to hospital in London. Doctors told his husband that he had been 24-hours away from death. Elton spent eleven days in hospital before he was finally allowed back home. It took him much longer to completely recover.
After these illnesses, Elton realized it was definitely time to stop. And so, in 2018, he set off on his farewell tour.
He’s spending his newly found spare time writing and recording, and, well, being normal. He’s enjoying taking his kids to the shops and restaurants. For the first time in decades, he can live a fairly normal life.
Elton might regret some of his wilder experiences, but would he change them? Not at all, they have made him who he is.
About the author
Sir Elton John, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, is an English singer, songwriter, and composer. He’s one of the world’s best-selling music artists, and has sold over 300 million records. John has also received five Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards, and an Academy Award.