Elton John By The Decade
From blues and gospel to synthesizers, the “humble, confident, kind, and very gracious” music legend has kept changing his sound.
By Glenn Peoples, Music Insights and Analytics at Pandora
Sir Elton John has reached a major milestone this year. The 70-year-old legend, born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, is celebrating his 50th year of working with his lyricist, Bernie Taupin. He’s also nearing another major achievement. 1.9 billion Pandora streams, one of the highest counts for a rock or pop artist whose most popular songs were recorded in the 70s and ’80s (a legacy artist in music business parlance). Two billion isn’t far away.
With his new greatest hits collection, Diamonds, out today, I dove into Pandora’s Music Genome Project to see how Elton’s music’s style and sound changed since his first album, Empty Sky, was released in 1969.
In the 70s, Elton’s songs overwhelmingly had acoustic piano and rhythm guitar. Along with vocal harmonies, his songs had some blues and gospel influences. “Tiny Dancer” from 1971 and “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” are good and well-known examples of this period, but lesser-known songs “Honky Cat” and “Susie (Dramas)” from the 1972 album Honky Château are more steeped in roots music.
In the ’80s, use of synthesizers and electric pianos peaked while acoustic pianos become less common in his songs. The 1982 album Too Low For Zero has one of his big hits and MTV staple, “I’m Still Standing.” For heavier synthesizer, listen to the title track. The same album has another beloved song, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.”
In the ’90s, Elton’s songs were more romantic and orchestral. He also got duet crazy that decade. “I believe in love, it’s all I’ve got,” he sang in “Believe,” the first single from his 1995 album, Made in England. In “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the top 10 hit from The Lion King soundtrack, Elton is backed by soaring strings and a no percussion save a tambourine.
In the ’00s, acoustic pianos made a return as Elton used more acoustic instrumentation and returned to gospel and blues roots. His first album of the decade, Songs From the West Coast, “aims to recapture the expansive sounds and sensibility” of his early ’70s album, wrote Rolling Stone. The Captain & the Kid, the 2006 follow-up to 1975' Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, not only returned Elton to the acoustic sounds of his ’70s material, it also has a song about a ’70s president Richard Nixon.
The Genome describes Elton’s recordings, but it doesn’t speak to the man and his personality. Fortunately, a long-time Pandora employee has spent some time with Elton. Music analyst Danny Eisenberg met Elton while playing piano and organ for Ryan Adam on his 2001–2003 tours supporting the album Gold.
Elton was already a big fan of Adams in the early ’00s, and in 2002 VH1 paired the two for a taping for its Crossroads series. Adams’ band was feeling nervous before stepping on stage — they were playing a show with Elton John, after all. But Elton was able to change the mood. “Elton was like a great coach or great music producer,” Eisenberg recalls. “He gets the best out of the players he’s using. He made jokes to put us all at ease and get our best performance.”
“He was humble, confident, kind, and very gracious,” Eisenberg added. Adams’ manager, Frank Callari, had a term his demeanor: pro-gracious.