We are selecting Diamond Moments from Elton's 50-year career to celebrate the release of Elton’s ultimate greatest hits collection, Diamonds.
Already one of Elton’s most identifiable songs, and a concert showstopper since 1974, 'Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me' was given new life in 1991 when George Michael asked Elton to join him in a live cover of his own song. The resulting #1 single appears on all formats of 'Diamonds.'
The original track appeared on Elton’s 8th studio album, Caribou, and was its first single. Released on May 20, 1974, in the UK and on June 10 in the US, it peaked at #16 and #2 on those countries’ respective singles charts in the summer of 1974.
Recorded in Colorado in January of that year, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me had a rocky start. Elton and Bernie, along with producer Gus Dudgeon, went for a Beach-Boys-meets-Phil-Spector feel on the track…something akin to Let's Go Away For A While and the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. But try as he might, Elton just could not perform the lead vocal to his satisfaction.
In a 1993 interview, Gus said that Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me gave him chills the first time Elton played it for him. “I just love that song,” he exclaimed. And drummer Nigel Olsson also flipped out when he first heard it while in another room at the Caribou studio as Elton was writing it. “I ran downstairs right to [Elton] and said that it would be a number one hit.” Nigel was right…but it took 17 years.
But Elton’s many attempts at a vocal led to such frustration that he pretty much gave up, telling Gus to not include the song on the album and to, “Give it to Englebert Humperdinck…or Lulu” to record instead.
Thankfully, Gus did neither. The producer built the song even further upon its Spector and Beach Boys base, even going as far as to have Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston from the famed California band sing – and, in Johnston’s case, co-arrange – backing vocals. Toni Tennille also stood behind the mic for the track, and her husband, Daryl Dragon, helped with the background vocal arrangement. (In a year or so, the couple would begin a very successful run as Captain & Tennille.)
Gus also added a Del Newman horn arrangement to the song – using the acclaimed Tower of Power horn section on this and other songs on Caribou – and resisted the urge to somehow fix, or bury, Elton’s pronunciation of the word “discard” in the second verse after Toni Tennille told him she loved how Elton sang it as the exaggeratedly American “dis-cord”.
Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me went on to receive a "Best Pop Vocal Performance – Male" Grammy nomination for Elton.
“Not only is it one of Taupin’s finest set of lyrics, Elton’s vocal and Dudgeon’s production work convey brilliantly the desperation and urgency of the words.”
1991 live version with George Michael:
Elton and George Michael first performed Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me together at Live Aid in 1985, but Elton did not join George on the vocals that evening.
Six years later, George included the song on his Cover to Cover tour and asked Elton to join him for it on his concert at Wembley Arena in March 1991…two days before Elton’s 44th birthday. This performance would become the single and, on it, George put an indelible vocal stamp upon an already classic Elton song. To this day, one can hear audience members sing George's ad-libs at Elton concerts – a true testament to the late vocalist's incredible talent and sincere love of the source material.
George invited Elton to shoot a live video for the song during his concert at the Rosemont Horizon arena near Chicago on October 20, 1991 (following rehearsals at an airline hanger in Burbank, CA) with a band that included three musicians who had also appeared on Elton's own recordings and tours: drummer Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett (Sleeping With The Past and the 1988-99 World Tour), bassist Deon Estus (Ice On Fire), and background vocalist Shirley Lewis (Leather Jackets).
As at the Wembley show, Elton’s appearance was a surprise to the audience...and they reacted with wild abandon.
Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me was released by George Michael (the single benefitted ten charities) on November 30, 1991…and once again Elton had his reservations. Upon hearing of George’s plans to issue the live recording, Elton left a voice message on his answering machine telling him that the song was not strong enough to be released and to do so would mean the end of George’s career.
And, once again, Elton underestimated the song.
The single reached #1 in seven countries, including the US and UK (becoming George’s last chart-topper before his untimely death last year) and placed in the Top 5 in six others. It remained in the Billboard Hot 100 for 20 weeks and spent two weeks at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and, similarly to its original incarnation, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
When the single jumped from #72 to #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 on December 14, 1991, it allowed Elton to tie Elvis Presley’s record of 23 consecutive years with a song in the US Top 40. He would go on to break it the following year with the release of Simple Life.
Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me has been Elton’s “in memorium” song for the past number of years in concert. He has dedicated it to, amongst others, producers Phil Ramone and George Martin, musicians Leon Russell and Andrae Crouch, and friends like writer/editor Ingrid Sischy.
But since December 2016, he has performed it as a tribute to his late friend and collaborator – the man who truly made one of Elton's biggest hits his own...
“On Christmas Day, George Michael passed away, which is one of the saddest moments of my career because I’d known George more or less from the start of Wham! and got to know him very well. Played with him, recorded with him, played on the last Wham! show at Wembley Stadium. It was the most awful news because he was on the road back, supposedly, to good health. But apart from the music, which is outstanding, and for those of you who don’t know his music go and listen to it. It stands up so brilliantly. What a singer. What a songwriter. But more than anything, as a human being, he was one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous people I’ve ever met. He gave so much money to so many great causes without telling anybody. He was constantly trying to help people. And the saddest thing is he couldn’t help himself. So I’m going to dedicate this song…and I just wish he was here to sing it with me.”
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