WASHINGTON — Elton John said Friday that he’d played in some beautiful venues, but the stage in front of the White House, beneath a massive tent on a perfect autumn night, was “probably the icing on the cake.”
Then he kicked off the show with “Your Song,” his first big international hit.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the 75-year-old singer, talking about his activism, the power of his music and his all-around goodness. The event was dreamed up and paid for by A+E and the History Channel.
“Seamus Heaney once wrote, and I quote, ‘Once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme,” Biden said. “Throughout his incredible career, Sir Elton John has been that tidal wave, a tidal wave to help people rise up and make hope and history rhyme.”
At the end of the show Biden surprised John with the National Humanities Medal, for his songbook and his long legacy of advocacy.
Tearing up, John said he was “flabbergasted and humbled.”
The 2,000-person guest list included teachers, nurses, frontline workers and LGBTQ advocates, plus former first lady Laura Bush, civil rights advocate Ruby Bridges, education activist Malala Yousafzai and Jeanne White-Ginder, an AIDS activist and mother of Ryan White, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1990.
The night, in fact, was called “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme,” a reference to the poem Biden quoted by Ireland’s Heaney.
It was John’s first White House gig since he performed with Stevie Wonder at a state dinner in 1998 honoring British Prime Minister Tony Blair. At age 75, John is on a farewell tour after performing for more than 50 years.
The show came together after A+E Networks and the History Channel, which footed the bill, asked the White House and John if they’d be up for a collaboration honoring “everyday history-makers” as well as John himself, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
It’s not clear whether the show will be broadcast. John has worked with A+E in the past on his global HIV/AIDS charity, the Elton John Foundation, which has raised more than $525 million to combat the virus around the world.
John will be in town Saturday playing Nationals Park as part of his final tour. He opened the final leg of his North American farewell series in Philadelphia in July.
The president and first lady are big fans. Biden wrote in a 2017 memoir about singing “Crocodile Rock” to his two young boys as he drove them to school, and again later to son Beau before he died of cancer at age 46.
“I started singing the lyrics to Beau, quietly, so just the two of us could hear it,” Biden wrote. “Beau didn’t open his eyes, but I could see through my own tears that he was smiling.”
John played the song Friday, saying someone told him Biden used to sing it.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, was also a fan of John. He tried to get John to perform at his 2017 inauguration but John declined, saying he didn’t think it was appropriate for a Brit to play at the swearing-in of an American president.
The White House insisted Friday’s show wasn’t an effort to troll Trump, who has praised John in his books and has often featured John’s music — including “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” — in his pre-rally playlists over the years. Trump nicknamed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “rocket man” for his record of test-firing missiles.
John did play “Tiny Dancer” Friday, to thunderous applause.
Sir Elton — he was knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II — has sold over 300 million records worldwide, played over 4,000 shows in 80 countries and recorded one of the best-selling singles of all time, his 1997 reworking of “Candle In The Wind” to eulogize Princess Diana, which sold 33 million copies.