Elton John Pays Homage to Aretha Franklin, Raises $3.9 Million to Fight HIV/AIDS at 2018 Gala

Elton John
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Elton John speaks onstage during the Elton John AIDS Foundation's 17th Annual An Enduring Vision Benefit at Cipriani 42nd Street on Nov. 5, 2018 in New York City. 

Sheryl Crow, Gayle King and more joined Sir Elton at his annual fundraiser.

On a rainy Manhattan Monday (Nov. 5) evening, Elton John, his husband David Furnish and a slew of celebrities and philanthropists gathered in the elegant Cipriani 42nd Street for the annual gala to raise money for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The evening, entitled An Enduring Vision, raised $3.9 million for the EJAF, thanks in part to an auction that saw a signed Tony Bennett painting go for $100,000 and a photo of Elton from the iconoclast David LaChapelle fetch $87,000.

While Sheryl Crow was the musical guest for the fall 2018 gala, Elton couldn't help but open his comments by paying homage to last year's musical performer, Aretha Franklin.

"We witnessed the final performance of the Queen of Soul," John said. "You don't see greatness like that often."

Telling the room he wept during her soul-stirring performance last year at St. John the Divine ("Bridge Over Troubled Water" in particular was a cathartic highlight of Franklin's final public performance), John was clearly still reeling from the loss, but grateful Franklin gave some of her last moments to his cause.

"It was clear she was unwell," John recalled, "But she smiled her sweet smile and said, 'I didn't want to let you down. I was supposed to play the year before, and I didn't want to let you down.'

"Cherish those artists – they don't come along very often," he urged the crowd.

He also exhorted the audience – which host Gayle King pointed out was made up of white, black, straight, gay, transgender, Democratic and Republican people all committed to ending HIV/AIDS – to cherish each other more readily. "We need to start hugging each other more or there's gonna be trouble," John said. Elton's comments followed an invigorating speech from Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who seamlessly melded personal anecdotes with historical fact and political proselytizing. Urging activists and philanthropists to put themselves in uncomfortable situations and closer proximity to those in need versus doling out donations from an ivory tower, Stevenson's speech was a refreshingly spirited challenge more than a collective pat on the back.

When Sheryl Crow took the stage to run through her roster of irresistible hits, she was clearly in high spirits, all smiles as she and her band ripped through "If It Makes You Happy," "Soak Up the Sun," "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and a new song called "Wouldn't Want to Be Like You" about "someone who can't tell the truth," which she insisted with a wink was "not about anyone in particular." Even if midterm election anxiety was nipping at the heels of the evening – and Crow nodded to it by saying that "love and facts do matter" – she still kept the mood jovial, even joking about her love life. "I've been engaged three times," she said. "I had a great time not getting married. I had an even better time not getting divorced."

Elton John is currently in the midst of his rapturously received Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. The Elton John AIDS Foundation is in its 26th year. This year saw Patricia Hearst, Joe McMillan and Darren Walker honored for their commitment to EJAF.