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Annie Lennox, James Hetfield & More Sing Elton John & Bernie Taupin’s Praises at 2024 Gershwin Prize Concert Print-ready version

Artists at the event also tell Billboard which of the duo's songs are their favorites.

by Cathy Applefeld Olson
Billboard
March 21, 2023

Mike Inez, James Hetfield, Robert Trujillo, Billy Porter, David Furnish, Charlie Puth, Jacob Lusk, Joni Mitchell, Monique Ross, Carmen Carter, Brandi Carlile, Kenneth Ehrlich, Honorees Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Chauntee Ross, Adam Chester, Davey Johnstone, Georgey Taupin, Heather Taupin, Annie Lennox, Maren Morris, Nigel Olsson, Kirk Hammett, and Ken Stacey pose onstage during the Library Of Congress 2024 Gershwin Prize For Popular Song at DAR Constitution Hall on March 20, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage) Taylor Hill/WireImage

The stars not only shone over the nation's capital on Wednesday (March 20), when Elton John and Bernie Taupin were honored with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song - they sparkled, glistened and danced.

Only the third writing team - and only the second and third Brits - to receive the honor from the Library of Congress, the acclaimed duo brought a diversity of artists to the stage at DAR Constitution Hall. Joining the serenade were 2020 Gershwin Prize honoree Garth Brooks, Brandi Carlile, Annie Lennox, Metallica, Maren Morris, Billy Porter, Charlie Puth and Jacob Lusk of Gabriels. 2023 honoree Joni Mitchell turned "I'm Still Standing" into a simmering jazz number. All but Metallica were backed by John's own band.

What united the performers were their musical chops and their sheer, unabashed delight to be feting two of their musical heroes. It was a joy matched only by John and Taupin, seated front and center with their families, who could be seen grooving along, hands in the air.

John took a seat at the piano toward the end of the evening to gift the crowd with a trio of songs: "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and closer "Your Song," performed as Taupin stood piano-side. Porter emceed the event, which will be broadcast on PBS on April 8.

Before showtime, Billboard caught up with some of the night's performers - including the men of the hour - on the red carpet. From their inspirations to their favorite songs, here's what they had to say:

Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Billboard asked the honorees to each share their favorite George and Ira Gershwin song, and they not only picked the same one, but started finishing each other's sentences.

John cited "Someone to Watch Over Me" (which he recorded for the all-star 1994 album The Glory of Gershwin) without a second's hesitation, to which Taupin immediately responded, "You just took the words right out of my mouth. It's such a beautiful song, the lyrics, everything about it are incredible. It's the epitome of the great American song."

"I'm a little lamb who's lost in the woods - it's amazing," chimed in John, quoting a lyric.

On the diversity of artists taking the stage to perform their music, John said it's a testament to the range of their songs. "There's not a genre of music we don't love. The longevity of our career has been because the songs vary, and the songs last because they cover different territories. 'Philadelphia Freedom' is not like 'Burn Down the Mission.' 'Daniel' is not like 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting.'"

"Our palette is full of colors," Taupin added. His favorite song they're written together? "Probably 'Sacrifice' is my favorite."

Annie Lennox

Annie Lennox, who is no stranger to political activism and philanthropy, was quick to praise John for his activism. "He's lived his life in a hugely public way, he's taken huge risks and he seems to be very comfortable with his fame," she said. "But he's used it in a way that's made massive global differences in really significant areas. HIV and AIDS is a massive challenge, and yet, Elton has been and is still saving lives. I have so much respect for him."

Picking a favorite of the dynamic duo's songs proved harder to pinpoint. "I'll give you 'Rocket Man,' I'll give you 'Your Song.' I'll give you 'Daniel.' I think I'll give you the whole catalog, to be honest," she told Billboard. "It's very hard to find a song in that whole catalog that isn't as good as the next. Each one is phenomenal."

As for her own music, Lennox hinted there may be more on the way. "The one thing that is difficult for me is touring. That's something I did constantly, and at my age, physically, it's too demanding. But I think there might be other waus to share my music and the music I'm probably going to be making in the future. I haven't stopped."

Song performed: "Border Song"

Metallica's James Hetfield

James Hetfield may rock hard as lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and a primary songwriter of Metallica, but when it comes to his desert island John-Taupin song, he's all in for one of the duo's most poetic tracks. "That would be 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,'" he said. "It's beautiful, it's epic - and I love the lyrics as well. The castle, the wonderful dust ... and what does it mean after that."

Songs performed: "Funeral for a Friend"/"Love Lies Bleeding"

Maren Morris

Morris had nothing but adoration for the honorees pre-show. "I love both of them so much," she said. "Bernie has come to every show I've had in L.A., and his family is so lovely; and it's wonderful being here tonight. I feel like this is certainly the longest partnership in songwriting history. It's amazing they've been able to nurture it for many decades. When you find a partner you have chemistry with, lyrically, musically and can grow through the years with one another, there's nothing more special."

She said her gateway to the Elton John songbook was The Lion King (he and lyricist Tim Rice wrote the music for the 1994 film, including hits "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and "Circle of Life"). "I have to be frank about my age," she laughed. But once she dug in, it was Taupin's lyrics in "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" from the 1972 album Honky Château that's resonated the most. "'Mona Lisa,' when I first moved to Nashville, had the most tremendous impact on me - just about being sort of alone in a city," she said. "Bernie wrote that about New York City, obviously, but I heard Nashville in it. You eventually find a community of friendships and make your own town out of it."

Song performed: "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues"

Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile was emotional on the red carpet as she described what it meant to be celebrating her friends. "It's bringing me back to a time in my life when I really needed Elton and Bernie. I needed their words and I needed them to help sculpt my world view, and show me a future I could be a part of," she said. "And so it's going to be heavy for me tonight, but I'm so proud of them. The Gershwin Prize is the highest honor in songwriting, and it's really beautiful to see them honored in such a profound way for their craft. I don't know that there's ever been anybody better than Elton John and Bernie Taupin."

Songs performed: "Madman Across the Water" and "Skyline Pigeon"

Billy Porter

"Bennie and the Jets" is the song that first grabbed Porter, he told Billboard, but his connection to Elton John transcended the music. "I was really young, yet really connected with him," he said. "And didn't know why. The eccentricity, the flamboyance, the fun. It was like, 'Oh, that's queer.' There was no language for it, but that's what it was, and eventually, that's what we all came to understand. That was the first connection."

Song performed: "The Bitch Is Back"

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