The Beginner’s Guide To Elton John
Because Elton John’s career and musical output is so vast, it can be a little tricky to get a good overview of how his music has evolved over the years. My goal with this Beginner’s Guide is to share some of his biggest hits as well as a few lesser-known songs with you, so that you can “place” each piece within the arc of his development as a musician.
Elton initially because famous during the very early 1970s, as part of a wave of singer/songwriters that also included James Taylor, Carole King, and, a little later, Billy Joel. His music is both highly personal and highly commercial, and he’s composed dozens of hit songs as well as many lesser-known songs that are equally wonderful.
Elton was born Reginald Dwight, in 1947, and grew up listening to classical music, The Great American Songbook of Cole Porter, George Gershwin et al, English pub tunes, and blues. He was a teenager when rock and roll was created and he quickly fell in love with the energy, as well as the piano playing, of Little Richard. He was also influenced by the flamboyance of the popular classical pianist/entertainer Liberace, as well as by gospel music.
In 1967, Elton teamed up with the lyricist Bernie Taupin through a newspaper ad, and over time they became one of the all-time great songwriting teams.
Elton’s early performing group was a trio of piano, bass, and drums, which meant that Elton had to sing and play with enough energy to keep audiences captivated night after night. Although he played a lot of amazing piano during this period, he was soon confiding to friends that he couldn’t maintain the necessary amount of energy to keep doing this indefinitely. One person suggested that he hire a guitarist to fill out the group’s sound and take some of the pressure off himself, which he did.
Although the original Elton John trio didn’t make any studio recordings, a recording was made of a performance they did for a New York City radio station. Titled 11-17-70 because the performance took place on November 17th, 1970, the recording gives us a rare glimpse into the energetic piano-playing that Elton used to take the musical world by storm. Here’s the song “Take Me To The Pilot” from this performance. Check out the lively piano solo that begins at 4:07.
The song that really made Elton famous was “Your Song.” As Elton has explained, he composed the song by writing a series of church hymn-like chords, and then playing them with acoustic guitar-style arpeggios. Here’s Elton performing (OK…lip-synching) the song on England’s Top Of The Pops TV show in 1971:
Elton’s “Bennie And The Jets” features one of the most recognizable piano intros of all time. It also features the type of piano solo that recalled his early days with the trio.
No introduction to Elton John’s music would be complete without his novelty song “Crocodile Rock,” which kids all over the world enjoy singing along with. Here’s a fun appearance by Elton on The Muppet Show.
One of the great things about Elton John is that no matter how famous he became, or how many hits he had, he has always come back to his musical roots as a pure musician. He’ll follow a dance song with a tender ballad, and he’ll sometimes tour as a solo pianist, without a band. He challenges himself and nurtures all of the diverse stylistic elements that make up his unique musical identity.
In 1994, Elton composed the soundtrack for the Disney film The Lion King, which was later adapted for the Broadway stage. Entire new generations of young people discovered him through this music, especially the show’s big ballad, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.”
In 2010, Elton did something very special: he called up one of his early idols, Leon Russell, and suggested that they record an album together and go on tour. Russell had been through some health problems and this was Elton’s way of saying “thank you” for Leon’s early support and inspiration. The resulting album The Union featured both of them singing and playing piano, and we can hear some of their special music in this video:
These songs are just the tip of the iceberg with Elton John. He’s had a long career with many ups and downs, and his musical output is huge. He’s given us a lot of music to explore, both as listeners and especially as pianists.
To learn more:
Elton John: Wikipedia