Most of us learned of Elton John in late 1970 with the release of “Your Song”. The song only ranked a respectable #8 in 1971, but it grew to become Elton’s signature song.
The album it was from, Elton John, had been released in April of 1970, and the first single “Border Song” had stiffed at #92. It takes the right song to break an artist, and “Your Song” was the right one for Elton John. His self-titled first U.S. album (second in England) went on to hit #4 in Billboard, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The album also contained “I Need You To Turn To” & “Take Me To The Pilot”, and was strong enough to move Elton John into the stream of singer-songwriters that started at the beginning of the decade.
There was a difference with the songwriter portion of that description, as Elton John had a co-writer, Bernie Taupin. For the most part, Bernie would write lyrics or poems, and Elton would put them to music.
It may seem as if Elton John’s career just exploded from there, but the reality is, he had trouble getting another hit single. From a movie soundtrack, “Friends” only made it to #34. His next album, Tumbleweed Connection, had no Top 40 hits, but “Country Comfort”, “Come Down In Time”, and “Love Song” did get some airplay.
He followed that up with Madman Across The Water in 1971, and “Levon” at #24 was the only (modest) hit.
1972 would be the big breakout year for Elton John.
Producer Gus Dudgeon and engineer Ken Scott recorded the album in a French chateau…thus, Honky Chateau. Normally it takes singles to drive an album, and it had “Rocket Man” (#6) and “Honky Cat” (#8). The album went to #1, and was the first of 7 straight #1 albums for Elton John. Besides the fact that it has some great songs, the thing I remember most about Honky Chateau is it’s wonderfully clear and full audio quality…thank you Gus and Ken.
Here are the other six #1 albums in that streak for Elton John…Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player (1973), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), Caribou (1974), Greatest Hits (1975), Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975), and Rock Of The Westies (1976). That’s a great run, and an amazing output, but that also was the last of his #1 albums, just six years into his 47 year career.
The main point of this article (besides that I like Elton John and bought all those albums) is that as incredibly popular as musicians become, they cannot maintain that level of quality or success. It’s almost always the first part of their careers that give us their truly classic songs.
Above are the songs on Elton John’s Rocket Man: Number Ones collection from 2007…37 years into his career. Out of the 17 songs, 15 are from 1970 to 1976. By the way, not all of them hit number one. I love “Tiny Dancer”, but it only hit #41 in the U.S. and was not released in the U.K. Only 5 of these recordings actually hit #1 in the U.S., but that doesn’t lessen their quality. Also, Elton John has consistently charted songs & albums, and continues to have a career like very few artists have enjoyed. (Update: Elton John on 1/25/18 announced his upcoming massive world tour will be his last.)
Let’s look at “the best years” of some other top artists:
James Taylor…has had a career parallel to Elton John. Of the songs he says he “must play” in concert to satisfy his fans, all of them fall into the 1970 to 1977 time frame. Like Elton, he continues to chart songs and albums…even had a #1 album in 2015, but it’s not the same as when album sales were the true measuring stick.
Carole King…1971 to 1975 for her main songs as a performer. She had decades of hits as a songwriter.
Eagles…they recorded from 1972 to 1979, and then they broke up. They got back together in 1994 and remain popular, but their “must play” songs are from that 8 year period. However, the theory might not apply, since Don Henley has had so much solo success.
Cat Stevens…1971-1974 for his main hits.
Carly Simon…1971 to 1978, with a couple top 20 hits in the 80’s.
Jackson Browne…1973-1982, with a couple top 20 hits later.
Bob Seger…1977-1987, a good 11 year stretch on the singles chart, with pretty steady popularity. His albums sold well long after his singles success.
Bob Dylan…1964-1973, plus 3 more top 40 singles in the ’70’s. Of course he’s one of the most influential songwriters of all time.
The music industry has plenty of one-hit and two-hit wonders, and more often than not artists are only popular for a few years. Above are some of the best and most influential musicians of our time. This info is only meant to indicate their periods of highest popularity.
Elton John is indisputably one of the most successful artists of the rock era, and yet his career was “front loaded” with his defining hits. Compare that with your favorite artists. When were their “best years”?