Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics to most of Elton John's songs, but Elton would occasionally suggest titles. Elton requested a song with the title "Philadelphia Freedom" in honor of his friend, the tennis player Billie Jean King. At the time, there was a professional tennis league in America called World Team Tennis, and in 1974 King coached a team called the Philadelphia Freedoms, becoming one of the first women ever to coach men. Taupin had no obligation to write lyrics about King, and he didn't - the song was inspired by the Philadelphia soul sound of groups like The O'Jays and Melvin & The Blue Notes, and also the American bicentennial; in 1976 the US celebrated 200 years of independence.
Elton John and Billie Jean King became good friends after meeting at a party. Elton tried to attend as many of her matches as he could, and he promised King a song after she gave him a customized track suit. Elton and Billie Jean King would become icons of the gay and lesbian community, but at the time, they were both still in the closet, since athletes and entertainers faced a backlash if they revealed their homosexuality. Elton was often answering questions about why he hadn't settled down with a girl, and King avoided the subject as best she could, but was forced to come out in 1981 when a former lover sued her for palimony. King was married to a man up until her outing, and Elton was married to a woman from 1984-1988.
On the single, it said this song was dedicated to "B.J.K." (Billie Jean King) and "The Soulful Sounds Of Philadelphia."
This song was a huge hit in America, following up another #1 single from Elton John, his cover of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
." Elton dominated the charts at this time, but it didn't always make him happy, as he felt he was being overexposed. He told Melody Maker
in June 1975: "In America I've got 'Philadelphia Freedom' going up the charts again. I wish the bloody thing would piss off. I can see why people get sick and tired of me. In America I get sick and tired of hearing myself on AM radio. It's embarrassing."
Running 5:21, this was one of the longest dance hits of the '70s. A few months earlier, a national radio programer declared that he would no longer play any Elton John song over 4 minutes long because they were screwing up his playlists. (Program directors liked short songs because they could play more of them. Elton's opuses like "Daniel
" and "Funeral For A Friend" had a way of screwing up the "14 Hits In A Row" format). Elton knew "Philadelphia Freedom" would be a hit, and was happy to screw the programmer by making it long, knowing he would have to play it anyway.
Elton said this was "one of the only times I tried to deliberately write a hit single."
Elton often put interesting B-sides on his singles, which made them more valuable. On this, the B-side was a live duet of The Beatles hit "I Saw Her Standing There" that Elton recorded with his friend John Lennon. Elton had previously sung on Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Through The Night" and also released a version of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
," which was written by Lennon.
On May 17, 1975, Elton become one of the first white performers to appear on the TV show Soul Train
, which was an honor for him. He performed this song and "Bennie And The Jets
Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy was the first album to enter the US charts at #1. This was due to advance orders, as the album was widely anticipated.
Depending on where he was performing, Elton would sometimes alter the lyrics of the song, swapping "Philadelphia" for his present location. He would only do it if he could make it fit, so "Cincinatti Freedom" was a go, but Cleveland didn't get customized.