Elton John and the Expansion of Mainstream Rock

The career of Elton John (born Reginald Dwight, 1947; his stage name came from the first names of fellow band members in his first band, Bluesology) is a testimony to the power of personality. Off stage, he is an unlikely looking rock star: short, chunky, balding, and bespectacled. On stage, his costumes and extroverted style made him larger than life; it rendered his everyday appearance irrelevant. He was one of the top live acts of the seventies and the best-selling recording artist of the decade.

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John’s first hits were melodic, relatively low-key songs like “Your Song,” but his albums also contained harder-rocking songs like “Take Me to the Pilot.” As he repositioned himself in the mainstream, he retained his ability to tell a story in song, largely due to his partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, while infusing his music with pop elements that helped expand the range of his music. He followed “Crocodile Rock,” a fun take on fifties rock and roll and his first No. 1 hit, with “Daniel,” a sensitive ballad. For the remainder of the decade, he veered from style to style. At the center of his music was his husky voice, which changed character from the soul-tinged sound in songs like “The Bitch Is Back” to a much more mellow sound in songs like “Little Jeannie.” Moreover, because of his considerable skill as a songwriter, he was able to fold external elements into his own conception, rather than simply mimic an existing sound.

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