Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Elton John sobbed visibly. In July of 1997, Elton was at the funeral of the designer Gianni Versace, who’d been shockingly shot dead outside of his Miami Beach mansion. Elton and Versace had been good friends, and Elton had trouble getting through the funeral. In photos from the funeral, Elton looks like a wreck, and Princess Diana helps him through it, almost physically holding him up in some moments.

That funeral marked a reconciliation for Elton John and Princess Diana. Diana and Elton had been friends since 1981, but they’d had a falling-out in 1996. Diana had promised to write the foreword for a coffee-table book of Gianni Versace’s photos, and that book was a fundraiser for Elton’s AIDS charity. Diana had backed out of the commitment, figuring that it wouldn’t be appropriate to have her name on a book with pictures of half-naked men. In his memoir, Elton later theorized that the Royal Family had put pressure on Diana, even though she and Prince Charles finalized their divorce that year. Elton had been furious when Diana changed her mind. He’d written her to tell her how much money she’d cost his AIDS Foundation. Before Versace’s funeral, Diana called Elton to squash the beef. They made plans to meet again the next time they were both in London. That never happened.

A little more than a month after Versace’s funeral, Diana and the guy she was seeing, the ultra-rich Egyptian movie producer Dodi Fayed, both died in a car crash in Paris. At the time, everyone assumed that the crash had been caused by the paparazzi that the couple were trying to escape. In reality, it probably had more to do with driver Henri Paul, who was also killed in the crash, being drunk and pilled-out, and with the fact that nobody in the car wore seatbelts.

The death of Princess Diana was a major cultural event, a moment so shocking that it’s hard to properly explain it to anyone who wasn’t around to experience it at the time. I remember my dad waking me up that morning to tell me about it. As someone who never cared about the Royal Family beyond the curiosity factor, Diana’s death seemed more like a lurid sideshow than an emotional trauma. In that, I was in the minority. At school later that day, my friend Adam unloaded on me. I’d said something about Diana being “some rich lady,” and he shot back that Diana was actually “the white Mother Teresa.” The truth is probably somewhere between those two extremes. Diana was a nice person who worked for charitable causes and who got famous because of her involvement with the Royal Family, an institution that has absolutely no justifiable reason to continue existing. But for people around the world, Princess Diana was evidently a whole other thing.

After Diana’s death, suicide rates spiked in the UK. Thousands of people left flowers outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, and they kept adding more flowers for weeks. When the Royal Family’s public reaction was chilly and formal, the British press responded with outrage. And Elton John’s song for Diana — a rewritten version of a track that he’d recorded a couple of decades earlier — became the biggest-selling single in history.

For whatever reason, the mid-’90s pop charts were full of ballads where celebrities mourned the deaths of other celebrities. Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men saluted C+C Music Factory’s David Cole on “One Sweet Day.” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony sent off Eazy-E on “Tha Crossroads.” Puff Daddy eulogized Biggie Smalls on “I’ll Be Missing You.” The phenomenal, world-crushing success of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997” may have been the apex of this strange little trend, the ultimate celebrity farewell.

The original “Candle In The Wind” didn’t have anything to do with Princess Diana, who was 12 years old when the song first came out. Elton and his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote “Candle In The Wind” about Marilyn Monroe, who had died when Elton was 15. The song is a touching tribute to someone who wasn’t granted a whole lot of dignity in her lifetime, and it’s also a kind of meditation on fame. Years later, Taupin told Rolling Stone that he’d never been especially drawn to Marilyn Monroe but that she made an effective vehicle for what he wanted to say with the song’s lyrics: “It was really about the excesses of celebrity, the early demise of celebrities, and ‘live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.’” He’d taken the title from something that Clive Davis had once said about Janis Joplin.

Elton placed “Candle In The Wind” on his hugely popular 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The song reached #11 in the UK, but it never came out as a single in America. Still, “Candle In The Wind” lingered. In 1987, Elton released a live version of “Candle In The Wind” that he’d recorded in Australia the previous December. At the time, Elton was a month away from getting a throat lesion surgically removed, and his voice was noticeably strained. But thanks to the enthusiasm of both Elton and the fans, the recording still worked, and it became one of Elton’s biggest ’80s hits. In the US, that live take on “Candle In The Wind” made it to #6. (It’s an 8.)

There are a few different stories about the circumstances surrounding the 1997 rewrite of “Candle In The Wind.” In his memoir, Elton writes that Virgin Records boss Richard Branson called him up and asked him to remake the song, telling Elton about all the people who were quoting “Candle In The Wind” lyrics in Diana’s Book Of Condolence. Elton also speculates that someone in Diana’s family may have put Branson up to the task. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, though, Bernie Taupin tells another story.

Elton John had already been asked to sing at Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, and he wanted to sing a new song. The Bronson book claims that Elton called Taupin in Los Angeles and asked him to write some new lyrics, and he also mentioned that “Candle In The Wind” had been getting a lot of radio play since Diana’s death. Taupin “misunderstood” and thought that Elton was asking him to write new lyrics for “Candle In The Wind,” so that’s what he did. Taupin spent two hours adapting “Candle In The Wind” to meet these changing circumstances. A song about corrosive celebrity became a fond, sentimental farewell, and “goodbye, Norma Jeane” became “goodbye, England’s rose.”

Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were both pretty, glamorous white ladies who died at the age of 36, but they didn’t have a lot in common beyond that. On one level, it’s pretty cheap to rewrite a beloved old song, taking out all the nuance and applying all the sentiment to a completely different person. But Princess Diana had always loved “Candle In The Wind,” and she’d come to identify with the song’s image of fame. From that perspective, then, the rewrite was Elton honoring a friend by repurposing one of her favorite songs. It might’ve been cheap, but it wasn’t cynical.

Plenty has been written about the Royal Family’s reaction to Diana’s death, and Helen Mirren eventually won an Oscar for playing a Queen Elizabeth who had to be badgered into any kind of public expression of grief. The Royal Family definitely wasn’t into the idea of Elton John performing at Diana’s funeral, thinking that the spectacle would be too sentimental. But the Royals were talked into it. Billions of people around the world watched Diana’s funeral on TV, and those billions saw Elton singing his new version of “Candle In The Wind.” It would be the only time that he’d ever sing it live. Elton has said that he’ll only sing the song again if asked by Diana’s sons.

The Royals were right; that “Candle In The Wind” performance was a sentimental spectacle. The footage of the performance — of all the people outside Westminster Abbey openly sobbing while watching it — is truly affecting. Elton’s voice sounds strong and stentorian. Taupin has talked about how he wanted his rewritten version of the song to resemble an entire country saying goodbye, rather than a single person. In that moment, Elton John succeeded in giving voice to a whole lot of sad people. As a singular performance, it’s a powerful gesture.

Directly after the funeral, Elton John went to London’s Townhouse Studio and recorded that new “Candle In The Wind” with Beatles producer George Martin. It would be the 23rd and final Hot 100 chart-topper that Martin produced, and it would also be the first since Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s “Say Say Say” got there 14 years earlier. Martin added a string quartet, which was the only thing that accompanied Elton’s voice and his piano.

As a piece of music, removed from its cultural moment, that rewritten “Candle In The Wind” suffers in comparison to the ones that came before. Elton’s original version of the song had an in-the-pocket rhythm section, glam-rock guitar accents, and wailing backup vocals. The 1986 live version had a slick, moody synth. “Candle In The Wind 1997” has none of that. The revamped lyrics go for full-on mythic schlock: “You called out to our country, and you whispered to those in pain/ Now you belong to heaven, and the stars spell out your name.” The moment didn’t call out for anything complicated, and Elton John did what the moment required. He turned his own song into a musical sympathy card. Elton knew Diana as a real person, but the real person isn’t what we get in the song. What we get in the song is sheer idealized projection.

Idealized projection is what the world wanted. Princess Diana had lived a strange public life. When she got married, the world treated her as a real-life Disney princess living out a storybook ending. But that storybook ending hadn’t been the ending, and Diana had made it through her husband’s tawdry tabloid affairs and the kind of public divorce that was still shocking to some commentator types in the ’90s. Diana remained popular — so popular, in fact, that her continued post-divorce presence in public life threatened the public image of the Royal Family. (There’s a persistent conspiracy theory that the Royals had Diana assassinated.) A significant slice of the public had identified with Diana, who seemed like a real person in unreal circumstances, and these people had watched Diana’s storybook ending devolve into disgrace and death. “Candle In The Wind 1997” treated Diana with a shallow sort of dignity, and it connected.

Elton released “Candle In The Wind” as a single barely a week after the funeral. The song came packaged with “Something About The Way You Look Tonight,” the lighthearted and vaguely soulful first single from The Big Picture, the album that Elton was already planning to release that month. “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” got radio play, but it’s absolutely not the reason that the single sold the way that it did. That’s just pure zeitgeist magic. The single might’ve technically been a double A-side, but that’s not how people took it.

In the UK, the “Candle In The Wind 1997” single sold a million and a half copies in its first week. The release stretched CD-pressing plants to their breaking point. People were buying multiple copies of that single just to have them. In the US, something similar happened. “Candle In The Wind 1997” didn’t get a ton of radio play. Instead, the song maintained a 14-week stranglehold on the #1 spot through singles sales alone. The new “Candle In The Wind” became the first single ever to rack up diamond-certified sales, moving 11 million copies in the US alone. Around the world, it moved something like 33 million units. Since the single was a benefit for Diana’s favorite charities, it raised a fortune for various good causes.

“Candle In The Wind 1997” was never supposed to last. Elton still performed “Candle In The Wind” live, but he always did the original version. When the single finally fell from the charts, radio stations stopped playing the 1997 “Candle In The Wind” and returned to the other versions. In his memoir, Elton himself expresses discomfort for how that new “Candle In The Wind” caught fire. He said that he never even listened to the song, except once, to OK the mix, and that he couldn’t imagine why anyone else would want to listen to it. When Elton kept seeing footage of the funeral on Top Of The Pops every week, “it almost felt like wallowing in her death, as if the mourning for her had got out of hand.” He never included that version on any greatest-hits album or any other re-release.

In retrospect, “Candle In The Wind 1997” was some kind of perfect storm. A newly sober Elton John had aged into comfortable elder-statesman status, but he’d never stopped being a pop star. Five years earlier, Elton had returned to the #1 spot for the first time in more than a decade when he and George Michael released their live version of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” another much-loved ’70s Elton ballad. (Nobody has ever been smarter about repackaging their old songs than Elton John.) Elton John had made a bunch of hits in the ’80s, but that George Michael duet led to an even bigger commercial moment for Elton. Shortly after that song hit #1, Elton made it to #9 with his single “The One.” (It’s a 7.)

In 1992, Elton John played with Queen and Guns N’ Roses at Freddie Mercury’s memorial concert at Wembley Stadium, and then he played with GN’R again at the VMAs. Two years later, Axl Rose inducted Elton into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. That same year, Elton had one of his biggest-ever commercial successes. He and Tim Rice wrote the songs for The Lion King, and both that movie and its soundtrack were massive, overwhelming hits. At the Oscars in 1995, Elton and Rice got three of the five nominations for Best Original Song, and they won the award for the #4 hit “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” (It’s a 7.)

In 1997, the 50-year-old Elton John was about as established as a pop star could possibly be, and he was riding a whole new wave of popularity. The world knew about his friendship with Princess Diana, and the song became a kind of avatar for its moment. “Candle In The Wind 1997” doesn’t really work in dialog with the other pop music of 1997, except maybe with that little wave of dead-celebrity ballads. I suspect that many of the people who bought the CD single were not active consumers of pop music. In a way, though, Elton John did something similar to what Puff Daddy did with “I’ll Be Missing You” a few months earlier. He adapted a familiar piece of music to say goodbye to a famous friend who’d just suffered a sudden automotive death. It’s just that the song Elton adapted was his own.

By just about every measure, “Candle In The Wind 1997” is now the biggest-selling single in history. There’s some possibility that Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” the previous champion, had sold more copies in the US, but it’s a little harder to trace the numbers on something that came out in 1942. By contrast, we know exactly how huge “Candle In The Wind 1997” was. This was a one-off phenomenon, and it didn’t really apply to the rest of Elton John’s career. His album The Big Picture, which did not include the “Candle In The Wind” rewrite, went platinum, just as Elton’s previous album had done. That means it sold about a tenth of what the “Candle In The Wind” single racked up. His next single, 1998’s “Recover Your Soul,” peaked at #55.

In the 25 years since “Candle In The Wind 1997,” Elton John has done a whole lot of things. He won a Tony for teaming up with Tim Rice again to write the songs for the 1999 Broadway musical Aida. The Lion King also became a Broadway musical — the most successful Broadway musical in history. Elton went on to write music for the West End adaptation of Billy Elliot, the play that helped turn current Spider-Man Tom Holland into a star. Elton kept making his own records, and he became a frequent guest on records for other people — for Alice In Chains, Lady Gaga, Queens Of The Stone Age, Kanye West, and a gang of others. Famously, Elton sang “Stan” with Eminem at the Grammys in 2001, giving Em an easy out on all of his extremely justified accusations of homophobia. (“Stan” peaked at #51. Eminem will eventually appear in this column.)

These days, Elton is a regular at big and glamorous to-dos like the Grammys. He got his own biopic, and he won a second Oscar for writing a song for that biopic’s soundtrack. I liked it when Elton played himself in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, doing a CGI-assisted action scene. Elton is a fun person to have around, mostly because he seems to really love music. On things like his Apple Music radio show, Elton has enthusiastically supported artists way younger and less famous than him, and his tastes are strange and fascinating. I love the story about Elton going into a Vancouver record store to ask if they had anything by the cultish Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne, then buying out the store’s whole Scritti Politti selection when they didn’t have any Tech N9ne.

“Candle In The Wind 1997” was a remarkable late-career #1 hit, and Elton hasn’t been back to #1 since. Right now, Elton John is 75 years old, and he’s in the midst of a farewell tour that started way the hell back in 2018. In just about any other circumstance, this is the point where I would say that we won’t see Elton John in this column again. With this guy, though, I’m not so sure, especially given what happened earlier this year.

Last year, Elton John teamed up with Dua Lipa for “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix).” (Dua Lipa’s two highest-charting singles, 2019’s “Don’t Start Now” and 2021’s “Levitating,” both peaked at #2. “Don’t Start Now” is a 9, and “Levitating” is an 8.) “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix)” stitches together a bunch of lyrics and melodies from songs that Elton originally recorded in the ’70s and ’80s, putting them over a streamlined dance beat. Once again, Elton John has found a smart way to take songs that he wrote decades ago and to present them, once again, to the public. “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix)” hit #1 in the UK, and this past January, it reached a peak of #7 in the US. (It’s an 8.) That song is Elton’s first top-10 hit in America since “Candle In The Wind 1997,” and it’s a hell of an end-cap on a career that’s lasted more than 50 years. Given that kind of savvy, I will not be remotely surprised if we see Elton John in this column again.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “Candle In The Wind 1997” that Euro-dance duo La Bouche also released in 1997:

(La Bouche’s highest-charting single, 1995’s “Be My Lover,” peaked at #6. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Craig David covering the OG “Candle In The Wind” live on some goofy-ass TV show in 2003:

(Craig David’s highest-charting US single, 2000’s “7 Days,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chris Pratt singing a kind of “Candle In The Wind” parody on a 2011 episode of Parks & Recreation:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lauren Alaina singing OG “Candle In The Wind” on a 2011 episode of American Idol:

(Lauren Alaina’s highest-charting single, 2011’s “Like My Mother Does,” peaked at #20. American Idol will eventually figure into this column. Judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will show up here, too.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Elton John’s occasional duet partner Ed Sheeran has released a few different covers of OG “Candle In The Wind.” Here’s the version that Sheeran recorded for a 2018 Elton tribute album:

(Ed Sheeran will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Usher’s weightless R&B jam “You Make Me Wanna” peaked at #2 behind “Candle In The Wind” 1997. It’s an 8.

THE ASTERISK: While “Candle In The Wind 1997” was at #1, Sugar Ray’s Super Cat-assisted corndog-rock sunburst “Fly” kicked off a four-week run at #1 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart. This is one more case of a hit song that never charted on the Hot 100 because it was never officially released as a single in the US. If “Fly” had been able to compete, it probably would’ve made it to #1. It’s a 9.

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