You probably remember where you were when you heard the shocking news that Princess Diana had died in a car accident in Paris. It was August 31, 1997 — 25 years ago this week.
Elton John, who was a close friend of Diana, was invited to sing at her funeral in Westminster Abbey six days later. He returned to a classic he and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, had written in 1973 as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe – another world-famous blonde who had died aged 36.
In the days before the funeral, Taupin revised the verse. The song’s mournful, mournful tone proved fitting for the occasion: The ballad resonated with the hundreds of millions of people around the world who mourned Diana’s death.
Taupin said he was inspired to write the original song after hearing the phrase “candle in the wind” used in reference to Janis Joplin, who died in 1970 aged 27.
In a documentary about its creation Goodbye Drome with the Yellow Bricks, the classic album on which the ballad first appeared, Taupin said the song is about “the idea of fame or youth or someone being cut short in the prime of life. The song could have been about James Dean, it could have been about Montgomery Clift, it could have been about Jim Morrison…how we charm death, how we immortalize people.”
It almost goes without saying that John never met Monroe. He was a 15-year-old child when he died. But he was close friends with Diana. Just a month before Diana died, she and Elton had sat together at the funeral of their mutual friend, designer Gianni Versace.
In an interview with the BBC, Elton shed light on his friendship with Diana. He said he admired her commitment to the fight against AIDS, something many celebrities (and non-celebrities) at the time avoided like the plague. “It was thought to be a gay disease,” he said. “And for someone who was in the royal family – and who was a woman and who was straight – and to have someone care on the other side was an incredible gift. He also had this uncanny ability to… put people at ease and make them feel like everything was going to be okay. I have not experienced many people in my life who have this ability. But he could walk into a room of people and make them feel like everything was great.”
By rewriting the lyrics to ‘Candle’, Taupin intended to make the song speak for all of England. “I thought it was very important to put it from a nation’s point of view,” Taupin said. “I wanted to make it sound like a country singing it.”
So he changed the opening line from “Goodbye Norma Jeane, though I never met you…” to “Goodbye England’s rose, may you ever grow in our hearts…”
It’s notable that the original “Candle in the Wind” was not released as a single in the US in the 70s. The first two singles from Goodbye Drome with the Yellow Bricks it was “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and the title track. “Candle in the Wind” was to be released as the third single, but, in a bold move, Elton released the R&B-edged “Bennie and the Jets”, which was much more different than his sound. past singles. (At the time, few albums spawned more than two or three singles.) Elton eventually released “Candle in the Wind” as a single in 1987 as a track from his live album Live in Australia. The single entered the top 10 and received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.
The 1997 Diana-inspired version of “Candle in the Wind” was released as a single on 13 September 1997. Advertising signHot 100 at No. 1 and remained at the top for 14 consecutive weeks. It is one of only three singles in chart history to spend its first 14 weeks at No. 1. (The other is “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, which spent its first 16 weeks at No. 1 in 1995-96, and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” which tied “One Sweet Day’s” record just this week.)
“Candle ’97” was the first single to be certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA has certified the single for sales of 11 million copies in the US. Guinness World Record declared ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’ to be ‘the biggest selling single since records began’. The book estimates worldwide sales of the single at 33 million. (Bing Crosby’s 1942 single “White Christmas” is believed to have sold even more — perhaps 50 million — but record-keeping wasn’t as accurate at the time.)
“Candle in the Wind 1997” sold 8,111,000 copies in the US in 1997, according to Nielsen. This was slightly more copies than the next three best sellers combined. They were “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy & Faith Evans (feat. 112), “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” by Puff Daddy (feat. Mase) and “How Do I Live” by LeAnn Rimes. (The single’s B-side, “Something about the Way You Look Tonight,” received more US airplay than “Candle” in all but its first three weeks on the chart. But it was “Candle” that led the single in sales history.) The song also entered the Official UK Singles Chart at No. 1. The song has sold nearly 5 million copies in the UK. It has been certified as the UK’s best-selling single of all time. 1984’s lead release “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
The song earned Elton a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, his second win in that category. He first won three years earlier for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” “Candle in the Wind 1997” was nominated for Best British Single at the 1998 Brit Awards, but lost out to “Never Ever” by All Saints. Elton, however, received a special award at the Brits that year, the Freddie Mercury Award.
Why did this single do so well? First of all, it’s a great song, well sung and well produced (by the late Sir George Martin, legendary Beatles producer). And many people around the world wanted to get a souvenir associated with the late princess. Also, many wanted to support the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which received all artist and composer rights and record company profits from the sale of the single.
Some of Elton’s biggest accolades have come after the single’s release. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II on 24 February 1998. He received a Grammy Legend Award in February 2000. He received a Kennedy Center Honor in December 2004. In 2013, he received the first Brits Icon Award in recognition of his lasting influence on UK culture.
John was 50 when ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’ was released. He remains the oldest artist to ever enter the Hot 100 at No. 1. Since 1997’s “Candle in the Wind,” he’s had only one other US Top 40 hit: “Written in the Stars,” a 1999 collaboration with LeAnn Rimes. The song was taken from the musical by Elton and Tim Rice Idawhich ran on Broadway from 2000 to 2004.
Elton has not performed “Candle in the Wind 1997” since Diana’s funeral — not even at the all-star Concert for Diana, a benefit concert at Wembley Stadium on July 1, 2007. He continues to sing the original version of the song at concerts of, but not in the revised version. No one wants to think that they are taking advantage of it. He wants to keep it unique and special — like the theme of the song.
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