The biopic Rocketman tells us that Reginald Dwight changed his name to Elton John partly because he saw a photo of John Lennon in his musical publisher’s office, and Dwight decided that what was a good first name would also make a good last name.
That’s not how it went down. We’ve got the real story, and we’ll tell you about the close association between the two Johns.
Why Elton John changed his name
Rocketman does tell half the truth about Elton John’s name — the front half. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, he was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947, in Middlesex, England. After he started to attract attention for his uncanny musical ear, the young man started playing in local bands.
As Bustle notes, one of those bands, called Bluesology, had a saxophone player named Elton Dean. The John came from John Baldry, the singer for the band. Reginald Dwight wanted to be a singer in his own right, and he thought, correctly as it turns out, that Elton John would make a better stage name.
“When I became Elton John, it was like a new lease on life,” he said in a 1987 interview. “I didn’t particularly like being Reg Dwight. It had too many unhappy memories.”
Every biographical movie plays fast and loose with the facts to some degree. Rocketman doesn’t pretend to be literally truthful about every aspect of John’s life. If it were, no songs would be played during his forlorn childhood, which is dramatized with “I Want Love,” a song that came out in 2001.
However, Elton John did have something in common with John Lennon: they both shared the same musical publisher, Dick James, who had been with the Beatles since 1963. Rocketman likely showed that Elton John took his name from John Lennon as a kind of tribute to the Beatle, with whom he had been close.
The friendship between Elton John and John Lennon
The two famous musical Johns met in the 1970s, by which time Elton John was a superstar. The duo recorded together on Lennon’s 1974 album Walls and Bridges, on which Elton John contributed to two tracks. He played piano and sang on “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)” and “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.” Lennon also played and sang on Elton John’s cover version of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” which became a No. 1 hit.
But Elton John had something else in mind. He was so sure “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” would be a hit that he made Lennon a wager: if the song were to reach No. 1, Lennon would play it with John in concert. Lennon accepted, thinking it would never happen since none of his solo songs had hit No. 1 before.
That one did and Lennon kept his end of the deal, appearing with Elton John during a Thanksgiving Day concert at Madison Square Garden in 1974. The two sang their respective No. 1 hits while also playing the Beatles song “I Saw Her Standing There,” which Lennon said was sung by “an old fiance of mine called Paul.”
It turned out to be Lennon’s last concert appearance before his death in 1980. As a tribute to Lennon, John released the song “Empty Garden” and was also godfather to Lennon’s younger son, Sean. With a background like that, it’s not hard to understand why Rocketman half-invented the story about John’s name.
When John was knighted in 1998, the new name stuck: he became Sir Elton Hercules John. The singer has enjoyed a banner year in 2019, with Rocketman having grossed $180 million to-date worldwide. Disney’s CGI remake of The Lion King, with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, recently opened in theaters.