The untold truth of Elton John

Whether you love him or hate him, there's no denying that Sir Elton John is one of the most recognizable musicians alive. From his humble roots as an aspiring musician to his current status as one of the famous and successful stars in the world, the Rocket Man has done it all. He has tinkered with musicals, Disney movie soundtracks, and Vegas shows. He is one of the best-selling artists in history, and his Princess Diana edition of "Candle in the Wind" is the most successful charted single of all time.

Everyone knows Sir Elton John, the artist: A talented pianist and charismatic performer whose penchant for catchy tunes, fancy glasses, and obnoxious clothes makes him instantly recognizable. However, there's a lot more to the man than meets the eye. He has worked the entertainment industry since the 1960s and has many interesting stories that are unknown to most of us. Let's take a look at the untold truth of Elton John.

His historic tour in the Soviet Union

When the BBC reported in 2015 that Sir Elton John wanted to meet Vladimir Putin to discuss the Russian president's views on gay rights, he wasn't speaking as a typical celebrity who was overestimating his influence (*cough* Dennis Rodman *cough*). John may actually have a lot more clout in Russia than the average celebrity, by virtue of being the first Western megastar to tour the Soviet Union, way back in 1979, as Ultimate Classic Rock describes. (Above, Elton John is pictured with Paul and Linda McCartney in 1978.) John says he got his tour simply because he was the first artist who thought to ask. Others speculate that it was just good timing, as Moscow wanted to show some openness ahead of the 1980 Olympic Games, and John may have been chosen because the Soviet leadership wanted his flamboyance to make good communists recoil in the face of Western decadence.

If this was the Soviets' plan, it backfired pretty hilariously. John knew enough to tone down his usual sparkly look, and just delivered killer shows. According to the New York Times, the people loved the artist and danced, screamed, and clapped to his songs while security had a hard time controlling the situation. High-ranking members of the Communist Party were less thrilled, leaving mid-concert or watching the proceedings with their fingers in their ears.

​His close relationship with Freddie Mercury

As two charismatic performers with sexual orientations that heavily leaned toward men, it was natural that Elton John and Queen front man Freddie Mercury were familiar with each other. In fact, they were good friends who, according to the Independent, even created drag queen personas that they used to refer to each other: John was called "Sharon," and Mercury was "Melina." As Smooth Radio describes, the two were so close that John was among the first people to learn about Mercury's AIDS diagnosis, and he dutifully kept the secret even while he had to watch his friend painfully wither away. After all, the Rocket Man had witnessed several of his friends die of AIDS, so he was one of the few people in the know who understood what was coming as well as Mercury himself did.

Mercury certainly thought extremely highly of John, right until the end. The Queen singer passed away on November 24, 1991. On Christmas Day that year, John was at home when a friend visited him and handed him a pillowcase. Inside, there was a painting by one of his favorite artists, Henry Scott Tuke, and a note from Mercury: "Dear Sharon, I thought you'd like this. Love, Melina. Happy Christmas." During his final days, Mercury had taken time to find a perfect Christmas present for his friend.

He refuses to wear backstage passes

Sir Elton John's concert rider can get fairly elaborate. The maestro is not happy with merely specifying the color of tablecloths and types of flower arrangements he requires for his hospitality quarters — though, to be fair, he definitely does specify both and is decidedly not a fan of chrysanthemums. As Smoking Gun points out, John gets a lot more specific, especially in one particular aspect of hectic backstage life: He refuses to wear a backstage pass.

John's rider specifically points out that the artist is not accustomed to wearing any of those pesky laminated badges that allow the busy venue crew to see that the person is allowed to be there at a quick glance. Instead, it demands that the staff is "to be briefed to whom these people are." The words "these people" are imperative, here, as they raise two possibilities. Either John extends his "no backstage passes" thing to the rest of his personal entourage, forcing the hapless venue workers to memorize tons of faces at the whim of a single star artist … or his official rider refers to the artist with a majestic plural. Either way, it's hard not to be at least a little impressed with the sheer diva antics.

He thinks he accidentally ruined his own eyesight

Elaborate eyewear is so synonymous with Sir Elton John's brand that you'll see about half a dozen glasses just by visiting the front page of his website. It's easy to think that this is just the artist owning the fact that life dealt him some pretty bad cards when it comes to eyesight, but in reality, he started wearing glasses long before he actually needed them. According to Vintage News, John started wearing horn-rimmed glasses as a tribute to Buddy Holly when he was only 13 years old, despite the fact that he didn't need them at the time. At first, his homage was purely about the image — his vision was perfectly fine. However, this well-intentioned imitation turned out to be disastrous to his own eyesight, to the point where he himself has advised his fans to never imitate his look: "After 18 months, I found I couldn't see without them. If any young fans are thinking of copying me, I'd advise them to forget it!"

It's worth mentioning that although John personally believes that wearing unneeded glasses played a part in ruining his eyesight, actual ophthalmologists have disagreed with his version of the story — and pointed out that his eyesight could very well have been deteriorating during his teenage years, with or without Buddy Holly's influence.

​He's (partly) named after a horse

Most super fans know that Sir Elton John's birth name was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, and he even performed as regular old Reg Dwight for the first years of his musical career. The book Rock Band Name Origins tells us that when he met his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, he decided to choose a better stage name than "Reg." In 1972, he officially changed his name to his current full name, Elton Hercules John. The name was a combination of things that he found meaningful or cool. He took "Elton" from Elton Dean, who played saxophone in his old band, Bluesology. "John" was a homage to his mentor, Long John Baldry. However, the third name — the rarely seen "Hercules" — didn't come from the obvious demigod hero from Greek legends. Instead, Elton decided to adopt it from a horse that starred in a British sitcom called Steptoe and Son.

Although John may have intended the horse-inspired middle name as little more than a funny little personal joke, it was actually a strangely prescient choice. As the Guardian points out, and possibly unbeknownst to Elton John, Steptoe and Son was a fun and popular show — but behind the scenes, its star Wilfrid Brambell was a tortured, hard-partying man who was struggling with substance abuse and his own homosexuality. In much the same way, Elton's colorful shows and music hid his own personal struggles for a long time.

​His bet with John Lennon

Sir Elton John is one of the few people in history who has measured his pop music insight against a Beatle … and won. In 1974, the artist joined forces with another titan of the entertainment industry: The one and only John Lennon. As Ultimate Classic Rock describes, Elton featured on two of Lennon's songs and was particularly certain that the piece called "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" would be a #1 hit. Lennon was more skeptical because strangely, at that point he was the only Beatle whose solo songs had never reached the top spot in the charts. Yes — as amazing as it seems, Lennon's highest-ranking U.S. single at that point was "Imagine," which reached the #3 spot, while even Ringo Starr had topped the chart with not one but two singles.

Undaunted, John made a bet with Lennon: If "Whatever" made it to the top spot, Lennon would join him onstage at Madison Square Garden to play a few songs as the coolest surprise guest in history. The song topped the charts, Lennon honored the bet, and on November 28, 1974, the pair proceeded to rock the socks off the audience. The performance ended up being even more important than anyone could have thought at the time, as it was the last time Lennon performed in a concert before Mark David Chapman gunned him down in 1980.

His opulent "million dollar piano"

Elton John is nothing if not a flamboyant performer, so it makes sense that his preferred instrument is equally theatrical. Most artists might be happy with the fact that they're playing the grand piano, but John has managed to take this already impressive instrument and glam it up several notches. As the BBC describes, one of his more showy instruments was the "red piano," which was precisely what it says on the tin — a bright red grand piano that he used for a series of concerts at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Yamaha also produced 30 red Elton John Signature Series Limited Edition Grand Pianos, which can be played like a normal grand piano but which also features hidden speakers and an electronic system for uploading and downloading music files, so the piano can essentially play itself.

Somehow, the red piano isn't even the most absurdly amazing grand piano the artist has played. That honor goes to the "million dollar piano," the instrument he played during his second Las Vegas residency. Its manufacturer, Yamaha, describes it as a custom-built grand piano that has an array of LED monitors embedded in a clear, acrylic case. The LED screens mean the piano can be a seamless part of the light show, allowing the instrument to transform and change its appearance while its clear, triangular legs work as light-reflecting prisms.

​His biggest vice is his massive photo collection

It probably comes as no surprise that Sir Elton John is a noted patron of fine arts, but his particular passion is both surprising and incredibly specific. As Fine Art Multiple notes, John used to collect paintings, but he sold his large collection at a Sotheby's auction in 1989. Six months later, he managed to kick his long-standing drug and alcohol addiction and started to collect modernist photography. Initially, he knew very little of the art form, but was attracted to the way a good photograph makes your imagination come alive. Over time, his expertise grew, as did his collection (part of which is pictured above). Today, it's considered one of the largest private collections in the world and contains works from famed photographers such as Man Ray, as well as legendary photographs such as Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother."

John is so serious about this hobby that he happily admits that he kicked his former addictions only to get hooked on rare modernist photography instead. PetaPixel estimates the size of his collection at around 8,000 prints, which are normally on proud display in his homes, such as the massive apartment in Atlanta, where the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with these works. He has been known to occasionally loans small selections for exhibitions such as the "The Radical Eye" at London's Tate Modern.

​His epic and hilarious feud with Rod Stewart

Sir Rod Stewart and Sir Elton John have known each other since the 1970s, when the two megastars in the making were neighbors in London. According to The Morning Bulletin, they have nurtured a strange, long-running frenemy relationship ever since. Privately, they appreciate each other's sense of humor and keep in regular touch. However, in public they're fiercely competitive, brutal and gossipy, to the point where a common friend nicknamed them "Sharon" and "Phyllis" for their catty antics early on. To this day, Sharon and Phyllis indulge in regular pranks and rivalry, constantly sabotaging each other in a game of one-upmanship that makes notorious practical jokers like George Clooney pale in comparison. On a safari trip they once took together, members of the party "stole" Elton's expensive Cartier jewelry. (Elton's reaction: "Don't worry, darling, it's only the daytime stuff.") Another time, Elton hired an air rifle sniper to shoot down the giant blimps Stewart was using to promote a series of concerts.

The pair can't even exchange formal gifts without trading barbs. When Stewart moved to a new house with his second wife, Elton congratulated the multimillionaire with a small gift voucher and a message that said: "Get yourself something nice for the house." Stewart later returned the favor by giving the famously balding Elton a giant hair dryer for his 50th birthday with a card that read: "The only thing I forgot to buy was the hair to go with it."

​He once played a concert dressed as Donald Duck

Sir Elton John's dress sense is famously on the glitzy and glamorous side, so it's easy to see the artist as a fairly refined, if decidedly over-the-top Liberace type. While most images you'll ever see about the artist will confirm that this is certainly true, there's also another side to the man: He's not afraid to poke fun at himself and his audience. As Ultimate Classic Rock describes, this penchant for comedy was on full display in 1980 when he played a massive concert at New York's Central Park. Some artists would have used that huge visibility by dressing in tight leather pants and custom-made shirts. Others would have donned expensive suits. Elton John, however, decided to flaunt his lighter side. During his encore, he treated the audience of 400,000 to a full-sized Donald Duck costume, which he wore during the climax of the concert.

This wasn't just a weird Halloween costume he happened to have lying around. The duck suit was lovingly designed by Bob Mackie, the man who provided Cher with her most outrageous stage apparel. It was also surprisingly difficult to get into, and an assistant had to literally shove the Rocket Man into the costume in what the artist later described as "the longest costume change in history."

​He had a long-running feud with his mother

Sir Elton John is not a person to shy away from conflict, and even his closest family members aren't safe from the drama. According to People, the artist even had a nasty eight-year feud with his own mother, Sheila Farebrother. Their relationship took a nasty bump in June 2008, when John fired two long-time employees with close ties to his mother. Farebrother wasn't too amused when her son proceeded to demand that she must also cut all ties with the men. Farebrother refused to comply with her son's wishes, and tempers flared. John accused his mother of favoring his former workers over her own son, and Farebrother shot back by calling John's husband, David Furnish, "that f*cking thing you married." The argument escalated to a point where Elton suddenly declared that he hated his mother and ended the conversation. That was the last time they spoke for years, apart from occasional barbs traded in the media.

Fortunately, their attitudes mellowed over time. In 2015, John started mending fences by sending Farebrother a massive bouquet of flowers for her 90th birthday. Out of respect for his mother, John kept relatively quiet about their reunion, but Instagram posts and kind public remarks suggest the two managed to fully mend their fences by the time of her passing in 2017.

He was rejected by two famous prog rock bands in his youth

Sir Elton John might seem like he was always destined to become a solo star, but if his stars had been slightly differently aligned in the late 1960s, his chapter in music history could have read very differently. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the young musician almost got a major break in 1969, when prog rock giants King Crimson hired him to sing the vocals on their upcoming second album, In The Wake Of Poseidon. However, no one knows what this session singer gig might have turned into because someone handed band leader Robert Fripp a copy of the future Rocket Man's first album, and Fripp decided their styles didn't mesh.

Because life was determined to show young Elton that a career in progressive rock wasn't in the cards, this was not the only time famous prog bands would cut him from their lineup. Derek Shulman of Gentle Giant has said young Reginald Dwight used to play with them when they were a more hit-oriented band called Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. When they started transitioning to the more progressive Gentle Giant, changes were imminent — and the young keyboard player was one of the musicians who didn't make the cut.

The scholarship kid

If scores of hit songs and millions of album sales weren't enough proof that Sir Elton John is something of a musical prodigy, there's also the fact that the Royal Academy of Music in London once considered giving him a scholarship as a kid. According to Biography, the school took notice of young John, who had taught himself to play the piano when he was just 4 years old, and offered him a scholarship to attend their youth program. However, fate beckoned, and John ultimately found that rock 'n' roll was closer to his artistic sensibilities. At 17, the artist decided that formal education was not his jam, and dropped out in order to make his name in pop music.

While this was certainly an excellent career move, John didn't really intend to rebel against his school — at least, not in the long run. As John's website notes, the musician is very much a believer in higher musical education, to the point where he has his own scholarship fund at the Juilliard School of Music … and, of course, at his own alma mater.

His insanely prolific year

It's not entirely surprising that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has a thing or two to say about Sir Elton John. While they happily compare the musician to giants of the industry such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, there's one particular part in their description of John's career that shows his artistic might better than any hyperbolic statement or flattering comparison: Namely, what he got up to in 1971. In this early year of his career, John had no fewer than four different albums hit the charts: His Western-themed album Tumbleweed Connection, a live album called 11-17-70, a soundtrack to a little-known movie called Friends, and finally Madman Across the Water, which included one of John's most beloved songs, "Tiny Dancer." John was already such a red-hot star that all four albums made it on the Billboard album chart.

After a year like that, most artists would have had the decency to at least pretend they're slightly out of gas, if only to prevent every other musician from developing an inferiority complex. However, Elton John is not most artists, so he immediately followed his insane four-record year with 1972's Honky Chateau, which included a little song called "Rocket Man."

He's a massive soccer fan

Sir Elton John's greatest love is obviously music, but soccer is a close second. John is a keen fan of English football, and particularly Watford Football Club, which the BBC tells us he has supported since he was a boy. Young John saw his first game at the age of 6 and was so impressed that when his career took off, he started getting more and more involved behind the scenes. John became Watford's chairman in 1976, and according to The 18, he was far from your average celebrity sports team owner. John played an active role, and his thick wallet and excellent taste in managers lifted the club from the pits of the fourth division to the top flight. Only the legendary Liverpool F.C. managed to stop them from winning the league in the 1982-83 season.

John served as Watford's chairman on three separate occasions, and though he's "just" the club's honorary life president these days, Watford holds him in such high regard that in 2014 a new stand at Vicarage Road (the club's home stadium) was named after him. John called the unveiling one of the greatest days of his life. And it looks like future generations of his family will probably continue his association with the club. As ESPN reports, the singer's 7-year-old son Zachary Furnish-John joined Watford's youth player academy in 2018.

​His relationship with Princess Diana

When Sir Elton John honored the deceased Princess Diana with his 1997 mega-hit rendition of Candle In The Wind, it didn't come out of nowhere. As Harper's Bazaar tells us, John has been a friend of the royal family since the 1970s, and met Princess Diana in 1981 at Prince Andrew's birthday party. The princess and the musician danced alone for 20 minutes and became fast friends. (Incidentally, John has also danced with the Queen herself.)

Their relationship was friendly and warm until 1997, when John and Gianni Versace released a coffee table book called Rock and Royalty, which featured pictures of the royal family alongside photos of semi-nude male models. The shocked Diana placed John in "deep freeze" and refused to speak to him for months, and the two only reconciled when Versace was murdered later that year. Tragically, their rekindled relationship would only last for a few weeks before Diana herself died in a car crash and John found himself playing at her funeral. To this day, the musician considers the late princess "an angel" and has remained on friendly terms with her family. In 2018, he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

His gig at Rush Limbaugh's wedding

Despite the fact that his style seems better suited for arenas, stadiums, and opulent Las Vegas casino shows, Sir Elton John has been known to take the occasional smaller gig. As the Guardian describes, he played a particularly strange one in 2010, when he performed at the wedding of Rush Limbaugh, the controversial right-wing radio host who has been accused of homophobia and AIDS denialism (among plenty of other things).

Since John is a leading AIDS activist, it may seem weird that he agreed to play at the wedding reception of a shock jock who has been known to actively downplay the disease. However, there's a pretty good chance that the singer knew perfectly well what he was doing and that he had the last laugh. After all, John reportedly charged Limbaugh $1 million for the performance and every last cent of the profits went to … the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

​His strange relationship with Bernie Taupin

It's impossible to talk about Sir Elton John's career without mentioning Bernie Taupin. As Biography tells us, Taupin has been John's songwriting partner for over 50 years, and they are described as absolutely crucial to each other. And they only met because of a complete coincidence. In 1967, the two men both happened to answer a job advertisement that Liberty Records had placed to find singer/songwriter talent. John was a prodigious pianist and could write a mean tune, but he struggled with lyrics. Since Taupin happened to be a competent and prolific lyricist, Liberty decided to pair the two. As a result, they wrote about 20 songs before they even met for the first time.

John and Taupin work in an odd but highly effective way. Taupin writes the lyrics first, and John almost auto-composes the song based on the text. Their process is remote, to the point where they've only ever worked on a song in the same room a couple of times. The way they've handled the fame and fortune their songs have brought them has been equally peculiar because while John has embraced the limelight and been, well, Elton John, Taupin has managed to dodge the kind of celebrity that usually follows when you write dozens of iconic songs and sell 255 million records. Of course, during the early years of their partnership, Taupin actually led a wilder lifestyle, so maybe he just got it all out of his system up front.

​He names his grand pianos

Many musicians name their instruments: B.B. King had his Lucille, Neil Young plays the Old Black, and Queen's Brian May is known for his Red Special. Sure, those are all guitars, but why would it be any different for a man whose main instrument just happens to be a 9-foot grand piano? According to Parade, Sir Elton John owns plenty of grand pianos, and each one has a name of its own. The five he owned in 2013 were called Aretha, Kay, Nikita, Nina, and Winifred. John uses the pianos on different legs of his tours, and they're often located on different continents. Reuters tells us that even the massive, LED-plated, very expensive piano he added to his array for his "Million Dollar Piano" Las Vegas show has a name: Blossom.

These aren't just random nicknames John comes up with on the fly, either. As Las Vegas Sun reports, all the artist's grand pianos are named after his favorite jazz singers — Blossom, for instance, is named after jazz singer Blossom Dearie.

His charity work

Sir Elton John has been known to be something of a diva, and his hedonistic lifestyle used to be legendary. So some people may be surprised to hear that the artist is not only perfectly capable of gazing beyond his own navel, but that he frequently does so. As the Grammy Awards website tells us, John is a noted philanthropist who does a frankly absurd amount of charity work. In 1992, he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which both advocates for awareness and attempts to eradicate the disease from the world. (Motto: "We believe AIDS can be beaten.") He and fellow music legend Sting also co-founded the Rainforest Foundation (which is exactly what it sounds like).

Apart from big picture stuff, John also gives back on a smaller scale. He has both a sports fund and a musical scholarship for helping promising young athletes and musicians to reach their potential, and he also frequently cooperates with MusiCares, a health and human services organization for the music community.

His falling-out with David Bowie

Sir Elton John and David Bowie pretty much ruled the rock scene of the 1970s, and they were both fairly eccentric figures who bent the norms of typical sexuality. As the Independent reports, it was virtually impossible for the men to avoid each other. John says they were initially very good friends who used to hang out and go to gay clubs and music venues. However, their friendship was not destined to make it out of the 1970s — the relationship was irreversibly fractured when Bowie decided to call John "rock 'n' roll's token queen" in an interview with Rolling Stone. John felt the comment was "a bit snooty," and the friendship never recovered.

Despite Bowie's unsavory remark, John never lost respect for his former friend's musical talent. Rolling Stone says when Bowie died in 2016, John gracefully paid his respects to his colleague, pleasantly reminisced about their early connection, and even paid tribute to the Starman with an "extended instrumental reading of 'Space Oddity'" in a concert.

​His husband controls his career

As Harper's Bazaar tells us, Sir Elton John first met Canadian ad executive David Furnish in 1993, and the couple were together for decades until they finally married in December 2014. Being in a relationship with one of the world's most famous and successful musicians for such a long time can get weird, and as Australian Financial Review reports, Furnish fully recognizes that he essentially lives with a brand … and, as a result of this, he also understands his "brand" better than anyone.

In 2015, Furnish became the chief executive of Rocket Entertainment, the umbrella company he set up to lead all the management companies and other smaller businesses that have accumulated around John over the decades. He also relieved some of the old guard of their duties, created a logo for the singer, and even wrote the first long-term business plan John has ever had. So, while John is still the breadwinner of the family, it seems that Furnish is now the one pulling the strings of the singer's career.