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This song is a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, a famous actress and sex symbol who died of a drug overdose in 1962. The "candle in the wind" represents her short, but eventful life.
The song makes various references to the press coverage of Monroe. The famous opening line, "Goodbye Norma Jean," refers to her birth name: Norma Jean Mortenson, and how she gave up both her name and her privacy.
The lyrics were written by Elton's writing partner, Bernie Taupin, who got the idea for the title from a quote he read about Janis Joplin. According to Taupin, the song is more of a take on fame and celebrity than an ode to Marilyn Monroe. Said Taupin: "I think the biggest misconception about 'Candle In The Wind' is that I was this rabid Marilyn Monroe fanatic, which really couldn't be further from the truth. It's not that I didn't have a respect for her. It's just that the song could just as easily have been about James Dean or Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain. I mean, it could have been about Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. I mean, basically, anybody, any writer, actor, actress, or musician who died young and sort of became this iconic picture of Dorian Gray, that thing where they simply stopped aging. It's a beauty frozen in time.
In a way, I'm fascinated with that concept. So it's really about how fame affects the man or woman in the street, that whole adulation thing and the fanaticism of fandom. It's pretty freaky how people really believe these people are somehow different from us. It's a theme that's figured prominently in a lot of our songs, and I think it'll probably continue to do so."
When Elton got the lyrics, he had no trouble writing the music. He understood the stress caused by constant media attention, and felt Monroe must have been in terrible pain her whole life.
On April 7, 1990 Elton dedicated this to Ryan White, one of the first high-profile AIDS patients, when he performed it at Farm Aid 4. White, who got the disease from a blood transfusion, died the next night at age 18.
This wasn't released as a single in the US until 1987, when a live version came out from Elton's Live In Australia album featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. This version made #6 in the US, and in the UK, where it was also released, made #5. When it was first released as a single in the UK in 1973, it hit #11.
Elton's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, rewrote the lyrics to this song after Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident on August 31, 1997. The 36-year-old princess had divorced Prince Charles, but remained a beloved celebrity, revered for her humanitarian efforts and grace. Diana was friends with Elton John and also a big fan - she identified with the sentiment in "Candle In The Wind," especially the lyrics, "They made you change your name, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in" and "even when you died, the press still hounded you."
With the song rewritten, most notably with the first line changed from "Goodbye Norma Jean" to "Goodbye England's Rose," Elton played it at Princess Diana's funeral on September 6. The global TV audience for the funeral was estimated at 2.5 billion, and Elton's heartfelt performance provoked an outpouring of support for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. The new version of the song, which was produced by Sir George Martin of Beatles fame, was released as a single as "Candle In The Wind '97," this time dedicated to Princess Diana and with proceeds going to the Fund.
Within a month, it became a #1 UK hit, where it topped the charts for 5 weeks. In America, it had an even more sensational chart run, going to #1 on October 11, and staying there for an astounding 14 weeks. The only song with a longer stay at the top of the American charts is "One Sweet Day
" by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.
The sales milestones attributed to the 1997 version of this song are a little confusing. In the UK, the single sold 1.54 million copies the first week and has since sold close to 5 million, both of which are records. These figures are tracked by BPI, which certifies sales of British music.
In America, the RIAA certified sales of 11 million copies of the single, making it the only single in history to earn a Diamond certification for sales of more than 10 million. While this is a record for the Rock Era, it's likely that Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" has sold more, although sales figures are unreliable. Where the numbers get really fudgy is in attempting to chart worldwide sales numbers, as these figures can be easily manipulated. The authority most often cited for worldwide sales is the Guinness Book of World Records, which estimates "Candle In The Wind '97" at 37 million sales worldwide and "White Christmas" at 50 million. Both numbers seem ridiculously inflated to us (if "Candle" sold 16 million between American and the UK, that means it moved 21 million elsewhere, which we don't buy), but evidence does suggest that "Candle In The Wind '97" is one of the top worldwide sellers ever.
Elton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997 shortly after the death of Princess Diana. He is a close friend to the Royal Family, and offered emotional support after the tragic incident. Because of his close friendship with the Royal Family, he refuses to play that version at concerts, and his performance at the funeral was his only live rendition of the song. Radio stations quit playing it a month after her death.
Another good friend of Elton's, designer Gianni Versace, died shortly before Princess Diana.(thanks, Patrick - Conyers, GA)
Elton and his songwriter Bernie Taupin got some heat from muggles who objected to the 1997 rewrite of this song, feeling that is should remain a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. Taupin responded by stating, "As regards that remake, I'm not really sure what to make of it. I did it because EJ asked me to and I felt good enough. I don't know why it seems to bend a lot of people out of shape, which is rather peculiar, if you consider the outcome. I mean, it's a bit uncharitable. After all, it raised I think something like $14 million for the Princess trust. And then my original handwritten lyrics fetched like a further half million at auction for the LA Children's Hospital.
So, you know, I guess my conscience is clean. Hey, I guess if you hear anything enough, it's going to get up your nose. But at the same time, in this case, I think it might be in your best interest to hold your breath and cut it some slack. Whatever you think of it, it's totally your prerogative. But it would serve you much better to get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say, 'I wonder what I can do today to really make a difference.' So, you know what they say, people in glass houses and all that."
Elton John won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Candle In The Wind '97."
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