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Bernie Taupin, Carla Hayden and Elton John stand onstage in front of a red grand piano
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden presents Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin with the 2024 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Photo: Elaina Finkelstein.

Elton John & Bernie Taupin: Rocking the Gershwins

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“My gift is my song,” the lyric goes, and on Wednesday night America repaid the writers with the nation’s highest honor for achievement in popular music.

The Library of Congress bestowed its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on Elton John and Bernie Taupin, the songwriting duo that over 50-plus years conquered the pop music world. They sold some 300 million records and co-wrote dozens of classics — songs whose timeless melodies today simultaneously bring back a now-long-ago era of music and win over new generations of fans.

“Thank you, America, for the music you’ve given us all over the world. It’s an incredible legacy that you have,” John told the audience at Constitution Hall. “All the wonderful blues, jazz, classical music, all the songs the Gershwin Brothers wrote. … I’m so proud to be British and to be here in America to receive this award, because all my heroes were American. … I’m very humbled by tonight.”

Taupin wrote the lyrics, John composed the music and, together, they produced a string of hits that made Elton the biggest, and most outrageously dressed, rock star on the planet. “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Daniel,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” – the list goes on and on.

Some of the duo’s biggest fans — major stars in their own right — appeared onstage to pay tribute, a thrill for both the audience and the honorees. It’s like an acid trip, John quipped, seeing all these great artists onstage performing his songs.

There were previous Gershwin Prize recipients Garth Brooks and Joni Mitchell. There were ’80s pop diva Annie Lennox and rising country star Maren Morris, heavy metal icons Metallica and modern folkie Brandi Carlile. And there were contemporary popster Charlie Puth, Jacob Lusk of the Gabriels and SistaStrings, who provided support on violin and cello.

Metallica kicked off the performances, blazing through “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” — doubtlessly the heaviest sounds in Gershwin Prize history. After blowing the roof off the place, the band walked offstage to a raucous standing ovation, guitarist James Hetfield and bassist Robert Trujillo tossing guitar picks to members of Congress on their way out.

Brooks gave a tip of his cowboy hat to the honorees, then delivered the plaintive ballad “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” for which, in a reversal of their usual practice, John wrote the music first as well as the stark opening lyrics: “What have I got to do to make you love me? What have I got to do to make you care?”

Mitchell took the stage, supported by Carlile and Lennox on vocals. She has suffered serious health problems in recent years, and on Wednesday turned a high-energy John-Taupin song about living through a romantic breakup into a personal, bluesy statement of perseverance. “I’m still standing better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor,” she sang, tapping her cane in time to the shuffling beat.

But the highlight in an evening filled with them went to the relatively little-known Lusk, who took “Bennie and the Jets” to church and stole the show. Sitting next to the pianist, Lusk preached the gospel of John and Taupin’s brilliant work, then began “Bennie” as a slow-rolling gospel song. Then came the familiar, pumping beat of John’s smash-hit version, Lusk danced his way to the front of the stage, the audience rose to its feet, clapping along and trading shouts of “Bennie” with Lusk, who exited to enormous applause.

As a performer, John paved the way for other rockers with his often-outrageous stage moves and outfits. His career has been a decades-long parade of wild wigs, giant glasses and preposterous feathers, broken by the occasional appearance onstage dressed as Donald Duck or in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform covered in rhinestones.

The evening’s host, Broadway star Billy Porter, picked up the mantle of flamboyance with a flurry of costume changes — a faux-furry white outfit with silver boots swapped for a fringed black dress with high, high heels. His appearances culminated with a performance of “The Bitch Is Back,” a number John once called, more or less, his “theme song.” Porter began in the audience, detoured by John and Taupin in the front row to sing a few lines with a bared leg propped up on their seats, then finished onstage with a flourish, tossing his jacket to the audience.

Near evening’s end, John took the stage. Seated at a red piano, he performed “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)” — the latter derailed by a false start. John laughed and said he’d forgotten what key the song was in, and then kicked back into it.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden then came onstage, along with members of Congress, Madison Council Chairman David M. Rubenstein and the two men of the hour.

“Their music has touched the nation and become part of the American songbook,” said Hayden, who, feeling the spirit earlier in the evening, had donned a pair of Eltonesque glasses. “They gave us ‘Your Song,’ and now we give them the nation’s highest award for influence, impact and achievement in popular music: the Gershwin Prize.”

John and Taupin each gave thanks for the honor and delivered a heartfelt tribute to America, its music and the musicians who inspired them long ago: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles.

“The only good music that I heard was American music — British music sucked,” John said. “Then, suddenly, I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by Elvis Presley, and my whole world changed. Thank God it did.”

Said Taupin: “Pretty much everything that I’ve written emanates from this country. … I have an American heart, an American soul. I have an American family, I have an American wife, I have American children. I am American.”

“But he drives a Volvo,” John deadpanned to laughter.

They also paid tribute to each other, to a songwriting partnership — and a friendship — that changed the course of pop music and, after 57 years, still is going strong.

“Being able to share success with somebody is the greatest thing you can ever have,” John said. “He is some special person; I love him so much.” And, he added, “Without the lyrics, I’d be working in Wal-Mart.”

Hayden asked John and Taupin if they would favor the audience with another number. She had a particular tune in mind: “Your Song,” the ballad that in 1970 became John’s first top 10 hit — a hit that remains one of those songs everybody knows.

They obliged, together in the spotlight on a darkened stage, Taupin leaning on the piano, listening, as John played and sang: “My gift is my song, and this one’s for you.”

In return, on Wednesday at Constitution Hall, America offered them its thanks and the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

“Elton John: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” will be broadcast on PBS stations at 8 p.m. EST on April 8.

Set list

Metallica, “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”

Annie Lennox, “Border Song”

Garth Brooks, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”

Brandi Carlile, “Madman Across the Water”

Billy Porter, “The Bitch Is Back”

Jacob Lusk, “Bennie and the Jets”

Maren Morris, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”

Charlie Puth, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”

Brandi Carlile, “Skyline Pigeon”

Garth Brooks, “Daniel”

Joni Mitchell, I’m Still Standing”

Elton John, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”

Elton John, “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)”

Elton John, “Your Song”

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Comments (2)

  1. Where can I see the entire show of Elton John and Bernie taupin?

    • It will be streaming on PBS for the next few weeks. Check PBS online or your local affiliate!

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