Music Legend Elton John
Growing up in the London projects, Elton says he never could have dreamed of such success. "Music was something I grew up with and I loved passionately and I always wanted to be involved in," he says. "I never really imagined being a singer. I was an organ player in a band, and I got fed up while doing that."
Elton says he then auditioned at a record company, which was also looking for songwriters. "I said I couldn't write lyrics and they said, 'Well, there's some lyrics from a guy from Lincolnshire,' who turned out to be [Elton's longtime collaborator] Bernie Taupin," he says. "I started writing songs for other people and nobody recorded them, and so in the end I recorded them myself and became a recording artist, which wasn't on my radar. Everything that happened after that was the biggest surprise."
Elton says he was inspired to seek sobriety by a very special person, Ryan White, the Indiana teen who was infected with HIV after a blood transfusion. He died in 1990 at age 18. "I was at his funeral, and I spent the last week of his life in Indianapolis with [his mom] Jeanne and his family," he says. "The way they handled themselves pointed out to myself that ... I hadn't become the person I wanted to be."
"There's so many artists that we can look through the history books [at] and say, 'God, they were so brilliant onstage and then they had so many problems off,'" he says. "I became one of those people."
Six months after Ryan's death, Elton says he checked into a Chicago hospital to detox. "It's been 20 years this year," he says. "[It was] the best six weeks I ever did for myself. Then all things happened for me—The Lion King happened. [Elton's partner] David happened. We formed our own movie company. The charity—the Elton John AIDS Foundation."
Elton says his costumes let him unleash his inner rock star. "When you're sitting at the piano, you're not David Bowie, you're not Mick Jagger, you're not Rod Stewart, you're not Freddie Mercury," he says. "So I just needed to put some attention on me."
Years ago, his costumes made a statement. Today, Elton sells most of them for charity. "We sell clothes every two years," he says. "David and I take our personal wardrobe, sell them all and give the money to the AIDS foundation, and sometimes we sell a couple of stage outfits as well."
In 2009, Elton says he and David even tried to adopt two Ukrainian boys. "Unfortunately, it was so complicated that we couldn't do it. There were too many laws that said we couldn't do it in Ukraine," he says. "It broke our heart because we fell in love with these kids. One was 15 months; one was 3. They were brothers. One was HIV-positive, and one wasn't."
Despite their heartbreak—which played out in the media—Elton says he and David are still discussing adoption. "I said until that point no [to fatherhood] because I'm too old," he says. "And I thought: 'You know what, Elton? You're not too old. You're still very young at heart. You've done everything you possibly can in your career—the only thing you haven't done is be a good parent.'"
Elton says he's ready for the challenge of parenting. "I think that life's all about learning," he says. "It's all about as you get older trying to learn a little bit more, trying to change the way you are. And I think that a child probably would be the icing on the cake."
In the musical, Billy's father is initially unsupportive of his passion for dance. Elton says the story reminds him of his own father's reaction to Elton's love of music. "My father never really encouraged me. Even when I became successful as Elton John, he never came to see me," he says. "At the end, [Billy Eliot's] father comes to the opera house in London and sees Billy come onstage and dance on one leg. It made me cry because my dad never, ever saw me."
Still, Elton says his father's reaction gave him the drive to succeed. "I wanted to prove a point," he says. "I just wanted him to say: 'Good, well done. I was wrong.' But, no, that never happened."
A look back at Elton John's style