Elton John keeps a diary. Every week, for decades now, he has carefully noted -- by hand -- his Billboard chart positions. “I’ve written them down from the word go,” says John, reeling off where his greatest-hits set, Diamonds, sits on the Billboard 200. (At the time we spoke, it was No. 32.) “I get the Billboard [albums] charts sent to me on Monday. Then I get the [Hot] 100 sent to me on Wednesday. Billboard is my bible.”
If John tallied all those entries, he’d clearly see why he’s the top male solo artist on Billboard’s list of the 125 top artists of all time. He has charted 57 songs (including nine No. 1s) in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 40, and he holds the record for the most consecutive years charting a top 40 hit, at an astonishing 30. On the Billboard 200, he has landed seven No. 1 albums.
Today, the celebrations continue for John, with his sold-out Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour ongoing; his biopic, Rocketman, a global success; and his autobiography, Me, a bestseller. The Royal Mail even issued a set of postage stamps with his likeness. “I’ve probably had the greatest year of my career at 72 years of age,” he says. “I’m thrilled.”
Growing up in England, how much attention did you pay to the charts?
I started reading the Billboard charts in the late ’60s, when Billboard used to come into the Dick James office [in London] when Bernie [Taupin] and I were there. Since then, it has been a big staple.
Your first appearance in the top 40 was as a songwriter with Aretha Franklin’s version of “Border Song,” which reached No. 37 in 1970. Did that give you and Taupin a sense of legitimacy as you were starting out?
God, it was such an amazing thing to have her record our song. Seeing our names on an Aretha Franklin record, let alone getting onto the chart, it was extraordinary. Those sorts of things have such an effect on you as a songwriter and artist; they give you so much confidence. Every time I saw her in the future, I always thanked her.
After several top 40 hits of your own, you landed your first No. 1 with “Crocodile Rock” in 1973. What was that like?
I wasn't really a singles artist. There were no singles taken off Tumbleweed Connection. The only two singles taken off Madman Across the Water were “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer,” which weren’t big chart numbers. I had “Rocket Man” and “Honky Cat” and then “Crocodile Rock,” a complete pastiche of things like [Pat Boone’s] “Speedy Gonzalez,” all the great 45s from the ’50s and ’60s. When you get a No. 1 record, it’s always amazing. It never, ever gets old.
You took nine songs to the top of the Hot 100. Were there any you were surprised went all the way?
“Bennie and the Jets” and “Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” I couldn't see them as singles. I wanted “Candle [in the Wind]” to be the third single from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the record company was trying to persuade me for so long [to put out “Bennie”]. Finally, they said, “What if we were to tell you [‘Bennie’] was a No. 1 R&B record in Detroit?” I went, “Are you kidding me? I’m on black radio. Put it out.” (Laughs.)
I liked “Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but I didn’t see it as a single ever. [On] AM radio, you had two minutes, 30 seconds, maybe two minutes, 45 seconds. And I think what we did with “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” we put out 6-minute records and radio played them and a lot of them didn't edit it. I think that was a big turning point for radio. I was surprised “Don't Let the Sun” [was] a No. 1 record because it was so long and it was so slow. I think we changed AM radio and making long singles possible.
“Candle in the Wind 1997,” memorializing Princess Diana, spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, the most of any of your songs. Was its success bittersweet?
I would have preferred not to have made the record and for her to still be alive, but it was what it was. It raised 37 million pounds for her foundation because Bernie and I gave up [our] writing credits. We sold 60,000 in India in one day, and I had never sold a record in India before. It was a memento of grief and love for her. I didn't play that song for a couple of years on the road because it was too close to home. Other than at Princess Diana’s funeral, I’ve never, ever played it in front of Prince William or Prince Harry. Even the Marilyn Monroe version, I wouldn’t play it in front of them.
In 1975, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy became the first album to ever debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Were you aware at the time of the enormity of that feat?
Absolutely. No one can ever take that away from me. It’s probably my favorite album that I’ve ever made. It had one single from it, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and [the album] came in at No. 1 and we will never, ever forget that.
Five months later, your next album, Rock of the Westies, also came in at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. From what you write in Me, though, it sounds like you couldn’t enjoy it.
I always enjoyed the chart positions, but it was a tough time. When I was going through those tough times, I still worked and made records. My love of music kept me alive and kept me from killing myself, although I had a good attempt at it. After Blue Moves [in 1976] it got really bad, and that was the final straw, probably.
In the ’70s, you had seven No. 1 albums in a little over three years, including a greatest-hits set. Was your label at the time, MCA, pushing you, or were you and Taupin just that prolific?
We were so prolific. We were contracted to do two albums a year, but we sometimes did three. And we made separate singles like “Philadelphia Freedom” and different B sides. We couldn't stop ourselves. The energy and the adrenaline we had just drove us, and we were so happy being able to do what we did. It was not a chore. It was just a golden, golden period. I have someone who writes lyrics and I write very quickly to those lyrics. If it doesn't come within an hour, I go away and try and come back again. But you know, most of the songs, they’re mostly done within 45 minutes. So it wasn’t as if I’m stomping around looking for lyrics or melodies. And I had a great band and a great producer. Every album took about 10 days or, at the most, two weeks, because we had budgets in those days to stick to and we did.
Blue Moves was the end of that golden run. And when it did happen, because of my chart infatuation, I knew that was coming. Billboard really prepared me for when I wasn’t going to be No. 1 all the time. It didn’t matter to me because I had a huge back catalog of music and I knew that livewise I could always have a great career. Because I’m such a chart enthusiast, it really readied me for the fact that it’s someone else’s turn now. But it’s still nice to get high positions on the charts.