Today, Sir Elton John, the legendary pianist and singer-songwriter, turns 76, having been born on March 25, 1947 in Pinner, Middlesex. His legacy places him among a list of incredible names as one of the music industry’s biggest stars, with his work revered as both critically and commercially successful. Throughout his life, the star forged a number of friendships, including with Diana, Princess of Wales, and her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
In 1997, after news emerged that Diana had been killed in a tragic car accident in Paris, Sir Elton joined millions across the world in mourning the loss of the woman dubbed ‘the People’s Princess’.
Her funeral was held on September 6 and was televised around the world. The event was watched by more than 32 million people in Britain, becoming the most-watched event in TV history. Around two billion watched elsewhere.
Sir Elton, who had grown close to Diana, regularly attending events together after meeting in the Eighties, was expected to attend the funeral as a mourner. However, he was unaware of just how pivotal his role would become.
The singer was invited to perform at the event and decided to perform a rendition of his hit Candle in the Wind, which had originally been penned as a love song for Marilyn Monroe.
He decided to rework the lyrics, removing the phrase “goodbye Norma Jean, though I never knew you at all”, and replacing it with “goodbye England’s rose, may you ever grow in our hearts”.
The song was released as a single, and became, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the second highest-selling physical single of all time, behind only Bing Crosby’s 1942 recording of White Christmas.
But Sir Elton’s landmark moment came only after Virgin tycoon Richard Branson suggested he perform it at the funeral, making arrangements on his behalf.
Speaking on Smooth FM, the entrepreneur, who was also friends with Diana, revealed he was the one who gave Sir Elton the idea of rewriting the historical song.
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He told listeners in 2017: “I rang Elton John and said how about re-writing Candle in the Wind and I’ll try to get the Archbishop to accept it into the funeral service, which he did. The song was magical.”
Bernie Taupin, who was Sir Elton’s lyricist, recalled how the song had to be changed and it was “very important to project it from a nation’s standpoint”. He continued: “I wanted to make it sound like a country singing it.
“From the first couple of lines I wrote [which began “Goodbye England’s Rose”], the rest sort of fell into place.”
Harry detailed his experience of Diana’s funeral — when he was just 12 years old — and the eyes of the world on him in his recent memoir, Spare. He also reflected on his relationship with Sir Elton in the book, which was released earlier this year.
He recalled asking Sir Elton to perform the track on the 10th anniversary of Diana’s death during a special concert for his mother. But the singer declined, claiming it would be too “macabre” for what was expected to be a celebration of her life.
Instead, he opted for Your Song. When sharing his recollection of the funeral, Harry added: “The funeral began with a series of readings and eulogies, and culminated with Elton John.
“He rose slowly, stiffly, as if he was one of the great kings buried for centuries beneath the abbey, suddenly roused back to life. He walked to the front, seated himself at a grand piano.
“Is there anyone who doesn’t know that he sang Candle in the Wind, a version he’d reworked for Mummy? I can’t be sure the notes in my head are from that moment or from clips I’ve seen since. Possibly they’re vestiges of recurring nightmares.”
The songwriter himself also outlined his nervousness at singing the track in his 2019 autobiography Me: Elton John.
As a performer, Sir Elton had always refused to use a teleprompter, fearing it would impact his performances. Yet, on September 6, 1997, he admitted to wishing he had one — particularly as he didn’t want to sing the wrong version of Candle in the Wind.
“It wasn’t suffering from stage fright,” Sir Elton said. “What if I went into autopilot and sang the wrong version?
“Up until then, I’d been against their use. Partly because it seemed antithetical to rock and roll’s spontaneous spirit — I’m pretty sure Little Richard wasn’t reading off an Autocue when he recorded Long Tall Sally — and partly because I just thought: Come on, do your job properly.”
Eventually, he gave in and had a teleprompter just in case. He continued: “I’d performed Candle in the Wind hundreds of times. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might lose myself in the performance, forget about the teleprompter and start singing the original lyrics.”
Reflecting more generally on how Diana’s sons were treated in the aftermath of Diana’s death, Sir Elton was incensed at what he claimed was the “absolutely inhuman” reception they were given by those in their immediate family.
He added: “They were forced to walk through the streets of London behind their mother’s coffin, told to show no emotion and look straight ahead. It was a horrendous way to treat two kids who’d just lost their mum.”