Inside Elton John's Troubled Relationship with His Father: 'I Never Had His Approval'
“It’s a pretty unnatural thing to do to be a singer. You’re living a lie, it’s not really who you are,” the man born Reggie Dwight recalled in 1999. Of course, he’s best known by the name he gave himself: Elton John. “It’s just a craving for attention and love.” As a superstar he earned both from millions, but there was one person he never felt he got it from — his father, Stanley. Their difficult relationship forms the emotional core of the new “based on a true fantasy” biopic, Rocketman. “I never had his approval,” John said of his father in a 2008 interview with PEOPLE. “My mother had letters from him saying, ‘He’ll never become a star.’ … He instilled in me the drive to become who I am.”
Born on March 25, 1947 in the sleepy London suburb of Pinner, young Reggie spent much of his early life in fear of Stanley, a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force who would remain a cold and distant presence in his life. “I was afraid of my father. I was walking on eggshells the whole time,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. Rare moments of physical contact between father and son usually took the form of beatings and made the shy boy even more reserved. “He was a very unhappy, lonely only child,” John’s husband, David Furnish, tells PEOPLE.
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To drown out the sound of his parents’ constant fighting (they would divorce when John was a teen), he listened to the radio. “I was happy when I was surrounded by music,” he told PEOPLE. Before long, the young boy was picking out tunes on the family piano. He started taking lessons at the Royal Academy of Music on the weekends, but a promising career as a classical pianist fell by the wayside when he discovered the early rock ‘n’ roll of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Stanley, a jazz aficionado and something of a record snob, was horrified — doubly so when his son made moves to pursue the devil’s music on a professional level. “His father didn’t want him to be a musician at all,” Furnish says. “He thought he’d be better suited to being an accountant or something sensible like that.”
In later years, John would recall his father forbidding him from wearing anything too far out, including decidedly unfunky boots called Hush Puppies. It would fuel his desire to break away and be his own person. “His condescension about what I was doing drove me on,” John told PEOPLE in 1974.
His gargantuan fame allowed him to shake off this restrictive upbringing. Feather boas, colored sequins, and diamond tiaras became an integral part of his performance attire, and by the mid-’70s he’d amassed 200 of his trademark specs, valued at more than $40,000. Instead of wearing Hush Puppies, he wore sparkly heels. The transition had more than a tinge of rebellion. “It’s a reaction against everything that I wasn’t allowed to do as a child or a teenager,” he said in a 1973 documentary. “I was kept well under wraps. And now I’m making up for lost time. I enjoy the freedom…I really like eccentricity.”
Stanley, meanwhile, had started a family with his new wife — leaving his firstborn son stinging with rejection. “It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to relate to kids. He left us, remarried and had another family, and by all accounts was a great dad to them,” he told the Sunday Times in 2011. “It wasn’t children, it was me.” As John’s fame grew, he vented his frustrations about his father to the press. In a 1976 interview with Playboy, he painted a portrait of Stanley as an absentee father who didn’t even see him until two years after his birth (a claim contradicted by records), and would erupt with anger if he chewed celery too loud.
It’s a characterization that John’s estranged half-brother, Geoff Dwight, has rejected. “When I was growing up, Elton was always there and we had a lot of fun on family holidays and things like that,” he told the Times in 2011. “He would come up and visit us almost every weekend and with him being older it was always exciting to hear the stories of what he had been up to.” Stanley’s second wife, Edna, echoed the sentiment in an interview with the Daily Mail. “Stanley’s been made out as an overbearing monster. But it’s just not true. He was a lovely man, a good father and a loving husband.”
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Geoff recalls a 1973 visit (alluded to in Rocketman) during which John gave the family a 2,000 pound check to buy a new car. The generous act had an unintended downside when the car proved too expensive to maintain, leading Stanley to reportedly sell it a short time later. Geoff speculates that this sewed the seeds of further resentment between father and son. “Was it this that led Elton, three years later, to give an interview in which he pilloried his father, claiming that he cadged new cars from him?”
Most hurtful to the superstar, John has said on multiple occasions that his father failed to attend a single one of his shows. “My dad never came to see me and it really hurt. It still does,” he told Australian journalist Molly Medrum in 2012. “I just wanted him to see that I was really good. But it never happened.” (Edna, for her part, has claimed that they “went to listen to him many times.”)
Sadly, the pair were never able to fully mend their relationship before Stanley’s death in 1991. John, not wanting to appear a “hypocrite,” didn’t attend the funeral. “In the end, he was proud of me,” he admitted to PEOPLE in 2008. But he still bears the scars of their troubled bond. “He’s been dead for a long time, and I’m still trying to prove things to him,” John told Rolling Stone. “I still do things and say, ‘Dad, you would’ve loved this.’”