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A Gershwin Prize jam for a grateful Elton John and Bernie Taupin Print-ready version

The legendary British songwriting duo thank their American influences as Joni Mitchell, Garth Brooks, Metallica, Billy Porter and others perform in their honor

by Emily Yahr
Washington Post
March 21, 2024

Bernie Taupin, left, and Elton John arrive Wednesday at Washington's DAR Constitution Hall for the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. (Kevin Wolf/AP)

While much of the world is fixated on whatever is happening with the royals in the United Kingdom right now, two British legends came to Washington to receive one of America's highest cultural honors.

Elton John, 76, and Bernie Taupin, 73, were awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song - a lifetime achievement award given annually to an artist whose music has left a lasting impact - during a nearly three-hour tribute concert Wednesday night at DAR Constitution Hall. The duo's songwriting launched John's six-decade career and spurred record sales of some 300 million and counting. The men are the third pair of writing partners to win the prize since it was established in 2007. (Burt Bacharach and Hal David received the Gershwin Prize in 2012; Gloria and Emilio Estefan received it in 2019.)

John and Taupin are also the second and third Brits to receive the honor (after Paul McCartney in 2010), though in their acceptance speeches, they gave nearly all the credit to musical influences from the United States.

"When I grew up as a little boy in suburban London, the only good music that I heard was American. British music sucked," John said, name-checking his inspirations such as Nat King Cole, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, whose "Heartbreak Hotel" made him want to play rock-and-roll. "Thank you, America, for the music you've given us all over the world. ... I'm so proud to be British and to be here in America to receive this award because all my heroes were American."

John shares a laugh with Taupin, left, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on Wednesday. (Kevin Wolf/AP) "Pretty much everything that I've written emanates from this country, whether it's the heartland, whether it's the urban jungle. It's all been a palette for everything I've written," said Taupin, who noted that he has lived in the United States since 1970. "I have an American heart, an American soul. ... I have an American family, I have an American wife, I have American children. I am America, believe me."

"But he drives a Volvo," John said dryly.

John and Taupin, who specialize in irresistible up-tempo rock along with ballads that still bring listeners to tears, have perfected a system since they started working together in 1967: Taupin writes lyrics and gives them to John, who composes and creates the song on his piano.

"Elton's music and Bernie's words are so embedded in our collective songbook it instantly takes you over," Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, told the crowd. "First, you hear Elton in the opening crescendo of the piano. Then you hear Bernie's writing in the opening lyrics: 'I remember when rock was young.' And before you know it, you're on your feet singing the famous chorus of 'Crocodile Rock.'"

"And you know that feeling," said Hayden, who looked like she was ready to start dancing. "I'm getting it now."

The audience - which included members of Congress, British Ambassador to the United States Karen Pierce and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson - was on its feet quite a bit; John and his husband, David Furnish, sat front-row center alongside Taupin and his wife, Heather, and beamed throughout the event. Recent Gershwin Prize winners Joni Mitchell and Garth Brooks were featured performers, as Brooks sang two ballads and Mitchell brought down the house with "I'm Still Standing" (she was given permission from the duo to change some of the lyrics for the occasion), accompanied by Annie Lennox and Brandi Carlile.

Earlier in the night, Carlile sang "Madman Across the Water" and said that the songs of John and Taupin changed her life when she first heard them at age 11.

"Elton was wild and outrageously, dangerously fabulous, and he sang the most beautiful stories I had ever heard. I'll never stop thanking them for the wonderful life their music allowed me to dream into existence," Carlile said. "Elton John and Bernie Taupin are complexity hidden inside of gorgeous and free-spirited rock-and-roll."

Metallica kicked things off with a rollicking rendition of "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," while Billy Porter (who also served as host) lit up the audience with "The Bitch is Back." Jacob Lusk of the band Gabriels delivered an electrifying "Bennie and the Jets" for one of the biggest standing ovations of the night - particularly poignant given that Lusk is a former "American Idol" contestant who once sang "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" on the show and now counts John as a friend.

An emotional segment highlighted the duo's charitable giving, particularly the Elton John AIDS Foundation that started in 1992 and has raised more than $600 million; Carlile returned to the stage to sing "Skyline Pigeon." Charlie Puth took on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," and Maren Morris belted out a soaring version of "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." On the red carpet before the event, Morris spoke admiringly of John and Taupin's working relationship.

"I feel like this is certainly the longest partnership in songwriting history. It's amazing that they've been able to nurture it for many decades," she said. "But when you find a partner that you have chemistry with lyrically, musically, and can grow through the years with one another - I mean, there is nothing more special."

During his speech at the end of the show, John concurred. "Bernie and I have been together for over 50-something years. We're closer than we've ever been, and I think that's pretty remarkable in this day and age for two people in the business to be closer than they were when they started. I'm thrilled to be here with him. Because if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here," he said, adding, "Being able to share success with somebody is the greatest thing you could ever have."

"I love what he's become, how happy he is. I love what I've become and how happy I am," John continued. "We've both been through hell, and we've come through the other side, and it feels good."

John wrapped up the night behind a red piano with "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." Hayden, the librarian of Congress, asked him to play just one more.

So John launched into "Your Song," and as Taupin leaned against the piano right near him, John sang the lyrics that his friend wrote: "I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do / My gift is my song, and this one's for you."

"Elton John & Bernie Taupin: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song" will air Monday, April 8, at 8 p.m. on PBS.

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