“Goodbye England’s rose, may you ever grow in our hearts / You were the grace that placed itself where lives were torn apart.”
With those words, Elton John rechristened “Candle in the Wind” from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as “Candle In the Wind 1997,” a tribute to the late Princess of Wales, Diana. And 17 years ago today (Oct. 11), that homage to the late princess began its 14-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“Candle In the Wind 1997” may be one of the biggest anomalies in music history. In a year dominated by Spice Girls, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men and Puff Daddy, a 24-year-old song from a 50-year-old classic rocker dominated the charts. Not to mention it’s the rare No. 1 hit that was performed just once in a live setting — at a funeral.
Furthermore, it remains one of the most divisive hits of the decade. While “Candle In the Wind 1997” sold in excess of 10 million units in the U.S. alone — it achieved diamond status and remains the best-selling physical single of all time in the U.S. — British listeners voted it one of the most-loathed No. 1 hits just four years after its international success.
Haters aside, the rewritten “Candle In the Wind” came from a place of deep reverence. Like most of the world, John was shocked when a car crash claimed the life of 36-year-old Diana on August 31, 1997. But unlike most of the planet, John was a close, personal friend of Lady Di’s.
So while the world mourned and coverage of Diana’s death dominated the news, John called up his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, with the idea of rewriting their ode to Marilyn Monroe (which was not released as a U.S. single in the ’70s) as a tribute to Princess Diana. George Martin wrote a string arrangment for it, and less than three weeks after her funeral, it was officially released.
Released as a single on Sept. 23, 1997, as a double A-side with “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” (from his forgotten album The Big Picture), “Candle In the Wind 1997” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Oct. 11 and stayed there for 14 weeks straight. To reiterate, 14 weeks: That’s more than three months of a classic rock ballad dominating the Hot 100 in an era characterized by Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and Hanson’s “MMMBop.”
Even if “Candle In the Wind 1997” stuck out like a sore thumb on the charts musically, thematically, it made more sense. Two months before it topped the Hot 100, Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” was wrapping its 11-week run atop the Hot 100. Like John’s song, it was a tribute to a lost friend (in this case, the Notorious B.I.G.). Also like John’s, it was a reworking of a previous hit (in this case, the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”).
And consider this: Seven weeks after “Candle In the Wind 1997” dropped from the top slot, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” — another song inextricably linked with death — went No. 1.
Of course, although Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic character Jack wasn’t real, he probably seemed as much of a human being as Princess Diana to the tweenage girls sobbing along to those “My Heart Will Go On” remixes augmented by audio snippets (“Never let go!”) from the film.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but maybe there was something about mournful ballads to lost lovers and friends (real or fictional) that struck a chord with America at that time.
Either way, it’s hard not to tear up when you hear a line like, “Now you belong to heaven and the stars spell out your name.”