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 Jeane," refers to her birth name: Norma Jeane Mortenson, and how she gave up both her name and her privacy for the sake of celebrity.
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 was issued 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.
The live version was recorded at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on December 14, 1986, the last stop on his Australian tour. Elton had been battling throat problems for months, and in November had to cancel a show in Perth when his voice gave out on him. On the live recording, he sounds strained, but the orchestra and the enthusiastic crowd help mask it. In January 1987, an Australian throat specialist performed surgery on Elton, removing a lesion that thankfully was non-cancerous. He made a full recovery but didn't tour again until September 1988.
The 1987 live version gave this song new life, especially in America where it had not been issued as a single. From that point on, it became a regular selection at his concerts, often played as part of the encore. It also kept Elton on the charts while he was recovering from throat surgery and battling drug abuse. Thanks to "Candle In The Wind," he kept alive his streak of 31 consecutive years with at least one song on the Hot 100.
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 Jeane" 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 five 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. At that point, the only song with a longer stay at the top of the American charts was "One Sweet Day
" by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, with 16 weeks.
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
," released in 1942, 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 33 million sales worldwide and "White Christmas" at 50 million. Both numbers seem ridiculously inflated to us (if "Candle" sold 16 million between America and the UK, that means it moved 21 million elsewhere - we don't buy it), but evidence does suggest that "Candle In The Wind '97" is one of the top worldwide sellers ever.
After performing the song at Diana's funeral, Elton never again sang it with those lyrics. When the song fell off the charts, most radio stations also retired it, going back to the original version of "Candle In The Wind."
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."
Proceeds from "Candle In The Wind '97" raised about £38 million (approximately $62 million) for Diana's Memorial Fund, with another £34 million raised through donations. In 1998, Elton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
The fund distributed most of the money as grants to organizations that supported her causes. In 2012, it shut down.
Elton John won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Candle In The Wind '97."
The Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
album was recorded in France at the Château d'Hérouville studio (the "Honky Château"), where Elton had recorded his previous two albums. The first attempts at recording the album took place in Jamaica, where the crew envisioned a creative paradise but encountered dilapidated equipment and unaccommodating locals. Bernie Taupin planed to write many of the lyrics for the album there, but ended up doing them in France while recording was going on. For both "Candle In The Wind" and "Roy Rogers
," he drew inspiration from movies and TV shows he watched as a kid.
Ed Sheeran, a favorite of Elton John, covered this for the 40th anniversary expanded edition of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
. Peter Asher, a longtime Beatles associate and friend of Elton's, produced the track. "Ed and I sat down and talked about it and he had a tempo and a feel in mind," Asher told Songfacts
. "Just listening to him and his guitar, essentially, was where the idea came from. He's an incredibly smart arranger and composer himself, and he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do."
In 2018, Sheeran and Asher teamed up again to record another version for the tribute album Revamp: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin
. Sheeran also performed the song on the CBS special Elton John: I'm Still Standing Grammy Salute
Bernie Taupin has always loved the phrase "candle in the wind." He told Mojo: "Solzhenitsyn had written a book called Candle in the Wind. (Record industry mogul) Clive Davis had used it to describe Janis Joplin, and for some reason, I just kept hearing this term. I thought, what a great way of describing someone's life."
In his 2019 memoir Me, Elton revealed that the lengthy chart run of "Candle In The Wind '97" made him uneasy. "It felt as if people were somehow wallowing in her death, like the mourning for her had got out of hand and they were refusing to move on," he wrote. "It seemed unhealthy to me - morbid and unnatural."