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The TV Camera Never Lies In The USA!
Monday, April 15 2002

Written by Reggie Zippo.

After television was introduced to the masses at the 1939 World's Fair, musical entertainers from all corners of the globe have utilized this medium in the USA to promote, jump start, inject, enhance, and otherwise display their varied talents to a hungry viewing audience. From Liberace to ABBA, Elvis to Madonna, and The Beatles to U2, the giants and undiscovered talents of the music industry have all had the opportunity to gain popularity and credibility through the small screen we all call TV. And, Elton John is no exception!

Some critics say that Elton was born to be on TV as a great musical talent in part because of the outrageous, funny, animated, and flamboyant way his stage persona attracts fans of all ages. In addition, his heart felt contributions to charity events, the controversial issues he embraces, and the keen sense he has to present himself as fresh each time he ventures out into the public eye are all qualities that ensure a leading success. But, most fans will argue that it is simply his pure musical talent that has kept Elton in the forefront of TV since his USA debut on The Andy Williams Show in 1971.

On January 16, 1971, Elton captured the nation's heart with a solo version of "Your Song", which was his first number one hit in the USA. There were no antics, no strange costumes, and no band. It was just a bare bones approach that mesmerized all who tuned in to watch the program that evening. This was a very smart move on Elton's part. Following in the footsteps of Liberace, Elton's first priority was to gain a fan base for his music. His off-the-wall stage personality would be gradually introduced to the public in years to come. Although Elton would later admit that he was extremely nervous during this particular performance, he appeared flawless and quite confident to the watchful eye of the TV studio camera. His nervousness might have been attributed to the fact that Elton felt greatly honored to be included on the program because he had been a long time fan since it was introduced for syndication in the UK some years earlier.

In England, Elton continued to win fans over on TV in much the same manner as he did in the USA. On December 7, 1971, he appeared on the popular "Old Grey Whistle Test" musical program to perform Tiny Dancer, which was not yet a major hit for Elton. He later recalled that he enjoyed this TV program in particular because of its approach in allowing the guests to perform any song of their choosing. The song didn't have to be a hit. In fact, non-hit songs were encouraged. This gave Elton the unique opportunity to let the TV audience in on what they were missing if they had not yet purchased the album. In this case it was the "Madman Across The Water" album. The only requirement to be on the show was to have no less than two albums already released. By this time, however, Elton more than satisfied that requirement with six albums under his belt.

Jumping forward to 1975 and many costume changes later, the "Cher" variety show introduced a side of Elton that was rarely seen on TV up to that point. Along with Cher and the talented Bette Midler, Elton joined forces as a trio to sing a string of songs, some of which were Elton's own hits. However, when Elton came rolling out in an electric wheel chair dressed up as an aging old man to participate in a comedy sketch about elderly rock stars, fans could hardly believe that he was the same Rocket Man they had previously adored on stage. Who was this convincing old codger that kept Cher and Bette laughing uncontrollably all through the entire skit? He was just Elton being his funny self! In 1977, he would repeat this expression of funny antics on the popular Muppet Show. Dressed up as a colorful, flamboyant chicken, Elton bopped his way through "Crocodile Rock" while surrounded by many Muppet characters, including a crocodile of course. Elton said that this was the most fun he had ever had on a TV variety show, but he was quite intimidated when it came time to sing a duet of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" with Miss Piggy. At first, Elton forgot the words to the song and Miss Piggy stormed off after saying that she was not used to working with amateurs (she was joking of course), but after several takes the pair pulled it off with much success.

While giving a September 1980 concert in Central Park, New York, TV viewers once again witnessed how well Elton could poke fun at himself while dazzling everyone with his own brand of unique showmanship. Donned in a Donald Duck costume, Elton confidently waddled out on stage to thunderous applause. He could barely contain himself from laughing, though, as he attempted to sing both fun and serious songs. It was quite a memorable event for everyone involved and Elton would later say that this event marked the first time that he had ever required a police escort in New York. The sheer volume of fans that had gathered in Central Park that day made it impossible for him to use his own security force. The fun side of Elton would take an about face two years later, however, when he appeared as the guest singer on the hit TV show Saturday Night Live.

Long before Elton chose to shed his wild side image during his "Reg Strikes Back" period, Elton accepted the role of guest performer on Saturday Night Live in New York without the aide of any gimmicks or hilarious clothing props. On April 17, 1982, Elton exposed his serious side to American viewers with a heart-wrenching rendition of "Empty Garden", the classic tribute to his late friend, John Lennon. This performance was significant in many ways. Lennon's death hit Elton very hard, and since Lennon was a resident of New York at the time of his murder, Elton felt it quite fitting to perform this emotional song with every ounce of talent packed into each note and syllable. Although the TV network (NBC) gathered a whopping 16.8 million viewers that evening, this would be Elton's only appearance on SNL.

Elton did not totally abandon his lighter side, though. He continued to wear outlandish costumes for his concert performances. Following his stint with SNL, Elton released the classic video of I'm Still Standing. In April 1983, the world was literally exposed to this very camp video creation that featured an assortment of nearly naked young men dressed in body paint from head to toe. These young bucks did wear bikini underwear, but one could hardly tell because the bit that covered the nuts and berries blended so well with the abstract multicolored paint jobs. Elton later confessed that he was primarily drunk for most of the video production and that he was extremely apprehensive about dancing in front of the cameras. His video acting has always been a bit stiff and unpolished, but at least he was able to complete this video with FANtastic results.

On July 13, 1985, the Live Aid awareness concert was beamed into the living rooms of 2 billion viewers world wide, and with it brought a who's who music event filled with a spirit of goodwill that has gone unmatched by any means. For his contribution to help save the world from famine and despair, Elton provided 5 songs. Always the crowd pleaser, he sang 3 of his hits and a cover tune, but his crowning glory came when Kiki Dee joined him on stage to sing their trademark duet, Don't Go Breaking My Heart. Speaking of crowns, Freddie Mercury would later say that Elton looked more like the Queen Mum on stage rather than a rock star because of the hat Elton chose to wear. The hat is indescribable, but Freddie was right on target.

Furthering his stance on relief efforts and causes, Elton again graced the TV stage for yet another Aid event on April 7, 1990. The fourth annual Farm Aid concert brought 70 artists together with farmers, environmental and consumer advocates to Indianapolis, Indiana for an event that sold out in 90 minutes. The concert was televised live on The Nashville Network, and a two-hour highlight was rebroadcast to 10 million viewers on CBS. Elton sang Daniel and I'm Still Standing, but it was his Candle In The Wind that brought tears to everyone who witnessed the event. In the months leading up to Farm Aid, Elton revealed his generosity as an artist by becoming a surrogate father to AIDS victim Ryan White, who was in the final stages of the disease by the time Elton had agreed to perform at the concert. He dedicated the song to Ryan, but was shattered to learn that Ryan had succumbed to the disease the very next day. This tragic news, along with his bloated physique and white hair appearance as he sang Skyline Pigeon during Ryan's funeral, sparked Elton to finally shape up and get his personal life in order by shedding most of his pounds and vices. Excessive cocaine and alcohol use were the main culprits to blame for his haggard appearance in the late 80s and early 90s.

Several months later, MTV viewers were treated to a special Elton John event titled MTV Unplugged on August 5, 1990. Originally video taped on May 17, 1990, Elton was brought in to perform without the aid of any electric guitars or synthesizers. It would just be Elton and his grand piano. Although he still looked overweight and aging with white hair, Elton gave a splendid performance nonetheless. The following is an excerpt from the MTV Unplugged book that best describes Elton's appearance on the series: "Somewhere near the end of Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me, it became obvious that Elton was enjoying himself. There can be no other explanation for the fact that the song's ending actually times out longer than the tune itself. Elton's voice vacillated from falsetto to baritone and then drifted into gospel tones. It was a startling, awe-inspiring moment that demonstrated that careers like his don't happen by accident. Elton then asked if he could stay and do some more songs, giving us our first hour long show." This brought him full circle back to the basic bare bones approach he had exhibited nearly 20 years before on The Andy Williams Show.

Throughout the 90s decade and into the next century, Elton continued to amaze TV viewers in the USA and abroad. There was the 1992 Freddy Mercury tribute concert, which shockingly paired Elton with Heavy Metal rocker Axel Rose. Then the 1997 death of Princess Diana and Elton's record breaking tribute song Good-bye England's Rose, which he sang during the televised funeral, endeared him to millions. That alone was an amazing feat. To sing at such a sacred royal event was unheard of at the time, but Elton carried himself off tremendously and honored Diana quite well with a flawless performance. Appearing in such TV shows as The Nanny and Ally McBeal, which helped record sales skyrocket, Elton once again donned his acting cap to show the world that he was more than just a rock superstar. In 1998 and 1999, Elton volunteered to be animated in the true sense of the word when he was turned into cartoon characters for both South Park and The Simpsons respectively. Elton does admit that he stays up late at night just to watch South Park on the Comedy Central cable channel. In December 2000, 10 million TV viewers tuned in to witness Elton's fantastic, hit filled One Night Only concert at Madison Square Garden, which was video taped to coincide with the album release in November of that year.

At the beginning of 2001, Elton teamed up with the controversial rap star Eminem to sing Stan during the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. It was a critic's dream come true, but those dreams were shattered when the pair effortlessly shined as the darlings of the entire evening. Also that same year, the tragic World Trade Center catastrophe brought Elton back to the Madison Square Garden stage, but this time to honor the many lives lost in the ensuing rubble and for those who had tried in vain to rescue the missing people. As 16 million TV viewers witnessed rock's finest superstars giving their best, Elton and Billy Joel offered their Face To Face version of Your Song, while Elton individually sang I Want Love and the New York laced Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters. The year 2001 also marked another special event in Elton's career. For the first time ever, Elton chose not to act in one of his music videos. It has been well documented that he has always loathed making music videos, but this time he decided to do something about it by not participating in front of the camera at all. While actor and friend Robert Downey JR. lip-synched to Elton's new hit, I Want Love, Elton was on holiday in France. This formula would repeat itself again in 2002 when the video for This Train Don't Stop There Anymore was released with NSYNC's Justin Timberlake providing the action in place of Elton. One can only wonder what lies ahead for Elton to top himself.

Even though he admits that he is no longer the "main express", Elton has proven that he is still in sync with his fans and the general public during every TV event that he has ever become involved. He has shocked us, moved us, and made us laugh, but through it all, Elton has shown just how important TV can be to a rock star's career because the camera never lies!

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