Rants and Raves
Published in

Rants and Raves

The Legacy of Sir Elton John and the Art of Paying Tribute to a Living Legend

The legendary musical career of Sir Elton John has been the subject of numerous tributes recently. There are few in the music industry more worthy of a tribute, but are the tributes worthy of him?

Elton John performs at his recent Grammy Salute (Copyright CBS)

Note: Click here for a September 2020 follow-up to this article that reviews Sir Elton John’s memoir “Me” and “Rocketman,” the feature film about his life.

“Give Me My Flowers While I’m Alive”

When my mother was growing up, she recalls her grandfather saying, “Give me my flowers while I’m alive.” It was a touching reminder to not wait until those you love and respect have passed on to show how much they meant to you. It is a reminder that has been passed down through the generations in our family.

Paying tribute to influential artists while they are alive is something we as a culture have never mastered. For example, there is the centuries-old adage noting how works of art always exponentially increasing in price after the death of an artist. More recently, there is the trend of major award shows minimizing the Lifetime Achievement Award altogether (the Oscars no longer include it in the main telecast and the Grammys never really did) or cheapening it by giving it to younger stars more likely to grab ratings (in the last 5 years, the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes has gone to 50-year-old Jodie Foster and 52-year-old George Clooney). [Note: Only the Screen Actors Guild Awards seem to get it right. It’s hard to deny the deservingness of giving a tribute to living legends such as Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Carol Burnett, Debbie Reynolds, and Lily Tomlin over the past decade.]

Much more common is the mad scramble to put together a tribute to a recently deceased artist. This is understandable in the case of people who die (relatively) young and (relatively) unexpectedly, like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Prince. But it’s a real head-scratcher when it comes to the host of wildly influential artists who are nearing the end of their careers (and often lives). Is it the lack of interest from the masses (a “don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone”-type thing)? Or is it a lack of interest on the part of the artists (who often report viewing such awards as retirement parties at best and eulogies at worst)? That’s a question worth pondering, but decidedly not one that applies to Sir Elton John, who is bucking the trend by welcoming an onslaught of tributes alongside his recent announcement that he is retiring from touring after a three year farewell tour.

Some of the many memorable, bizarre costumes of Sir Elton. (Copyrights Jim Henson Productions and Rex.)

The Astounding Legacy of Sir Elton John

Few musicians have had a greater impact on popular culture or more enduring success than Reginald Kenneth Dwight, better known as Sir Elton John. In 1970, he had his first smash hit with the timeless “Your Song,” which was released when he was only 23. Here is a list of some of the things he has accomplished in the intervening 48 years:

  1. Released 30 albums (not including compilations or live albums).
  2. Sold 300 million records.
  3. Reached the Top 40 with 27 songs, the Top 10 with 28, and #1 with 9. (He was ranked the third most successful musical act in history on the Billboard Hot 100 behind only The Beatles and Madonna.)
  4. Won 5 Grammys, 5 Brit Awards, an Academy Award (never forget that he’s responsible for the music from The Lion King), a Tony, and a Golden Globe.
  5. Has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
  6. Was honored at the Kennedy Center and knighted by the Queen of England.
  7. Became a pop culture icon with his wild outfits, headline grabbing sound bites, friendship with international megastars (he was a close confidante of Princess Diana and Gianni Versace before their untimely deaths), and self-effacing cameos in countless Hollywood projects (on the small screen in programs like The Muppet Show and Will & Grace and on the big screen in films like Spice World and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.)
  8. Attained LGBT icon status when he came out as bisexual in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1976 and later as gay in a 1988 interview with the same magazine.
  9. Raised over $200 million for the fight against AIDS through the Elton John AIDS Foundation, making him one of the most impactful philanthropists of the last quarter century.
Sir Elton meets Queen Elizabeth II (left) and pals around with Princess Diana (right; Copyright Rex)

Currently, Sir Elton lives with his partner of 14 years, David Furnish (whom he married in 2014) and their two children born via surrogates. He cites spending more time with family as the primary reason he wants to retire from life on the road.

Sir Elton with his husband David Furnish and sons Elijah and Zachary (Copyright Getty Images)

The Dos and Don’ts of Paying Tribute to a Living Legend

In the last six months there has been a slew of tributes to Sir Elton, presumably to boost interest in the tour. These include the release of a 51-track, 3-disc retrospective entitled Diamonds, the release of two all-star tribute albums entitled Revamp and Restoration, and a two hour concert special that was put on by the Grammys and aired on CBS. But how well did they pay tribute to his artistry and cultural influence? And what lessons do these tributes hold for future attempts to lionize living legends?

Lesson #1: Go on a farewell tour but don’t drag it out too long.

Sir Elton’s supposed final tour will kick off in September. Entitled Farewell Yellow Brick Road (a play on the title of one of his most loved songs “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), it promises 300 shows over 3 years in North America and Europe. It will undoubtedly be a grand spectacle that celebrates his near half century of music. By clearly labeling it the farewell tour, it allows his legion of fans — the diehards and the casual ones — the opportunity to see him in tour before it’s too late…for a hefty price-tag of course.

I received an advertisement that tickets were going on sale for one of Sir Elton’s upcoming shows in my city. When I clicked the link, it was for 16 months from now (September 2019) and tickets were astronomically expensive. Unfortunately having such lengthy tours with pricey tickets can undermine the purported reasoning for a tour (if it’s really about spending more time with his family and not about generating cash, why is he going on the road for three years?), deplete fan interest (it’s hard for me to get excited about something and shell out that much money for something that’s two years away), and risk having everyone discount it as a disingenuous goodbye (a la Cher’s Farewell Tour which was initially slated for a 1 year, 59-date run in North America and was turned into a 3 year, 325-date run spanning the globe; the fact that she continued to do separate tours after that also complicated manners).

Cover art for new Elton John tribute albums (Copyright Virgin EMI and Universal Music Group Nashville)

Lesson #2: Highlight the impact of the artist(s) on numerous generations of musicians with a tribute album, but don’t overemphasize hot young artists at the expense of seasoned contemporaries.

The most ambitious part of the recent Elton tributes are definitely the two tribute albums that were released on April 6th. Each album utilizes an impressive line-up of well-known musicians to cover 13 songs that Sir Elton John composed alongside his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (who has written the vast majority of Elton’s songs over his nearly half-century career). But aside from the concept, the two albums differ markedly.

Revamp, the pop oriented collection, boasts a great deal more star power and features better-known songs from Elton’s catalogue. The album gets off to a rocky start with a cover of “Bennie and the Jets” that makes great use of P!nk’s incredible vocals, but becomes a hot mess when Logic’s rap is introduced. Unfortunately, the lead off song isn’t the only disappointment. Q-Tip and Demi Lovato’s bizarre cover of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” is equally jarring, although it is arguably the classic hit of Elton’s that is most in need of updating. The most egregious sin on the album occurs in the form of Ed Sheeran’s cover of “Candle in the Wind.” His voice sounds nice, but the rearrangement is wildly inappropriate for the subject matter. (The song is about the tragic life and untimely death of Marilyn Monroe but he plays it like he’s at a bouncy jam session trying to flirt with a bunch of girls.) Then there’s Coldplay’s utterly listless cover of “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and the utterly bizarre choice of Miley Cyrus to cover one of his most powerful songs, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (most famously recorded as a live duet with the late, great George Michael).

But thankfully the other 8 songs work quite well. Relative newcomer Alessia Cara adds grit to “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” Mumford and Sons does an affecting rearrangement of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Mary J. Blige wrings every last painful drop out of “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” Sam Smith soulfully evokes the deep sadness inherent in “Daniel.” The Killers do an excellent rendition of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” one of Elton’s best-loved album cuts. Queens of the Stone Age cap the album with a powerful take on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And then there’s the two best tracks on the album, Florence + the Machine’s cover of “Tiny Dancer” and Lady Gaga’s cover of “Your Song.” It is no easy feat making a cover of two of the most beloved songs in Elton’s catalogue work, but Florence and Gaga knock it out of the park, further establishing themselves as two of the greatest artists of their generation.

Restoration, the country oriented collection, uses somewhat lesser known stars and covers more obscure songs from Elton’s catalogue, but ultimately works better as a whole. In fact maybe it’s because the artists and the songs are less recognizable that it works better. But it’s not without it’s missteps. As good as Maren Morris sounds, we didn’t need a second cover of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (interestingly the only song duplicated on both albums). And we most definitely didn’t need a second appearance of Miley Cyrus, this time covering “The Bitch is Back.” But most of the rest of the album works exceedingly well. Little Big Town’s “Rocket Man,” Don Henley & Vince Gill’s “Sacrifice,” and Dierk Bentley’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” are stellar covers of some of his most well-loved songs. Miranda Lambert’s “My Father’s Gun,” Brothers Osborne’s “Take Me to the Pilot,” Kacey Musgrave’s “Roy Rogers,” and Rhonda Vincent & Dolly Parton’s “Please” give deserved second lives to lesser known album cuts. Although they aren’t the musical highlights of the album, Lee Ann Womack’s “Honky Cat” and Willie Nelson’s “Border Song” emphasize the songs’ impressive lyrical arrangements. And, Chris Stapleton’s “I Want Love” and Rosanne Cash & Emmylou Harris’s “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore” are superb covers of two of the most under-appreciated songs of the later stage of Elton’s career.

The albums include an impressive slate of famous musicians and classic songs from his catalogue, but they are not without notable omissions and missed opportunities. I, for one, would have loved to have heard covers of three of my favorite songs — the heavy and haunting “Believe,” the exceedingly romantic “Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” and the utterly masterful “The One.” And although it is moving to see how much the younger generation has been influenced by Elton, I would have loved to see more of his contemporaries make an appearance. Throughout his career he has had so many storied collaborations and personal relationships with music legends that it seems an utter shame so few true legends are featured on the album. Where’s Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and Dionne Warwick? Not to mention Madonna, who his love-hate relationship is a tabloid dream. And for better or worse (probably better), there’s no cuts from The Lion King soundtrack (Elton’s best selling album) to be found (although this is clearly explained by the fact that Elton created those songs with lyricist Tim Rice and not Taupin).

Lesson #3: Celebrate the legacy of the artist(s) with an all-star TV special, but don’t just make the tribute concert a promotion of the tribute albums.

On April 10th, CBS aired a two hour special called Elton John: I’m Still Stranding — A GRAMMY Salute. Even moreso than the tribute albums the special was somewhat shamelessly promoting the show was quite uneven. There were some strong performances, no doubt. Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, and Alessia Cara did superb live renditions of their cuts from the tribute album. In a wonderful twist, John Legend took over “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” from Miley Cyrus and gave the brilliant song its just due; Kesha provided a typically raw and powerful take on “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” that matched Queen of the Stone Age’s take of it on the album; and Shawn Mendes and SZA did a cover of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” that blew the album version by Q-Tip and Demi Lovato out of the water. And then Sir Elton himself capped the show with a three song performance. He was in fine form, although I can think of several better songs than “Philadelphia Freedom,” “I’m Still Standing,” and “Bennie and the Jets” to highlight his incredible knack for performing live.

Interspersed with these rousing moments were a bunch of head-scratching and eye-rolling moments. Miley Cyrus’s tacky rendition of “The Bitch is Back” was a tone-deaf way to star the show. Coldplay and Ed Sheeran’s live renditions of their tribute album cuts worked no better this time around. Two attempts at turning Bernie Taupin’s lyrics into spoken word performance art were cringe-inducing. The tacky set design was cheap and uninspired (the worst being Maren Morris being forced to perform “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” alongside a replica of the table from Alice in Wonderland — get it?!?). And, most notably, other than a touching shout out to his AIDS activism the show said almost absolutely nothing about Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin as people. I would have gladly excised a few of those performances for some words by people who actually know them or one of the countless classic clips that the Grammys surely has in its archive.

Elton John’s latest greatest hits collection (Copyright Virgin EMI)

Lesson #4: Release/rerelease classic music in a new, remastered package, but don’t ignore the die hard fans when crafting it.

Diamonds, the 51-track collection of Sir Elton’s greatest hits that was released last November in preparation for the farewell tour announcement, is great for the more casual fan looking to get a lot of his best known hits in one great-sounding collection. However, as the slew of negative reviews on the internet will tell you, it fell far short for his diehard fans. Many of them asked why a seventeenth (!) greatest hits collection was needed, when so many B-sides, live performances, soundtrack and compilation cuts, and other rarities remain so difficult to find. And they aren’t wrong.

But then again, collections that dive deeper into Sir Elton’s catalogue may still be forthcoming. After all, Sir Elton has made it quite clear that while he is done touring in 2021, he is not done with his love affair with music. And the world is better off for that.

Click here to read another article about a legendary music legacy: https://medium.com/rants-and-raves/counting-down-mariahs-48-best-songs-to-celebrate-her-anniversary-128535300326

Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RichardReflects

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Richard

Richard

3.7K Followers

Passionate cinephile. Music lover. Classic TV junkie. Awards season blogger. History buff. Avid traveler. Mental health and social justice advocate.