Art isn’t created in a vacuum, and like every other great musician, Elton John was influenced by the music he heard around him. Perhaps one mark of a truly great artist is how they are able to incorporate and ultimately transcend these diverse influences and use them to express something unique and individual.
Elton grew up playing classical music and says that he still loves it. One reason why he stopped pursuing a classical career as a teenager is because his hands aren’t large, and he found it difficult to reach the kind of stretches that Chopin and the other Romantic composers used in their piano compositions. We can still hear the classical influence at work in Elton’s music, and he’s verified this in interviews. Listen to Chopin’s famous Prelude in Cm, and notice how the harmonies are similar to the chords Elton uses in songs like “Your Song” and “Border Song,” among many others.
Chopin Prelude in Cm
The pianist/entertainer Liberace was a household name during the 1950s and 60s, when Elton was growing up. He had a popular TV show and Elton has spoken about the influence Liberace had on him. Check out the clothes that Liberace wears in this video, and think back to some of the outlandish costumes that Elton himself has worn over the years.
Elton has said that when he first heard Little Richard, he knew that Rock and Roll was the music for him. This video shows us why:
Little Richard: “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti”
I was initially surprised to hear Elton cite the female gospel singer Albertina Walker as an influence, but the connection becomes obvious once we listen to her vocal stylings.
Albertina Walker: He Looked Beyond My Fault
Among pianists/vocalists, Leon Russell was an influential role model for Elton when he was first starting out as a featured performer. Elton speaks of the thrill he got when he spotted Russell in the audience at one of Elton’s first shows in the United States. The similar sensibilities of the two performers is demonstrated by the fact that they wrote songs with practically the same titles, both in 1970: Elton’s “Your Song” and Russell with “A Song For You.”
Leon Russell: A Song For You
We can learn a lot by spending some time listening to each of these varied influences, and then going back to Elton John’s music to see how he has incorporated them into his own playing while at the same time expressing something that’s truly unique and individual. Then we can ask ourselves: “What are the influences that have formed us as musicians, and how can we take it further and express something that’s unique to ourselves?”
That’s one of our ultimate goals as musicians.