Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Fairweather friends: Elton John’s best collaborations, from Aretha to A Tribe Called Quest

Fairweather friends: Elton John’s best collaborations, from Aretha to A Tribe Called Quest

Photo: Elton John (Jack Robinson/Getty Images), with Q-Tip (Samir Hussein/Getty Images), and Kate Bush (Michel Baret/Getty Images), Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Elton John has assumed many guises throughout his more than 50 years in music. Campy, glammy pop star. Earnest piano balladeer. Bluesy troubadour. Incisive, emotional storyteller. Disney soundtrack kingpin. However, his appearance on Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For”—a 1985 single that benefitted the American Foundation For AIDS Research that also features Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder—embodies the unifying theme of his work: the power of collaboration.

The most obvious example is John’s lengthy partnership with the lyricist Bernie Taupin, which stretches back to 1969’s Empty Sky and has produced dozens of hits. (To name just a few: “Rocket Man,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Candle In The Wind,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Your Song.”) But he also maintains good long-term creative relationships with instrumentalists; for example, his current live drummer is the white-glove-favoring Nigel Olsson, with whom he first played live in 1970.

However, John balances such creative stability with a relentless desire to work with new musicians. Look no further than his eclectic 1993 album, Duets, which boasts vocal appearances from Bonnie Raitt, P.M. Dawn, Don Henley, and Leonard Cohen (among others), and the staggering amount of collaborations within his catalog. In a nod to John’s voracious music fandom, all genres are fair game; he’s performed with or released songs featuring pop iconoclasts (Lulu, Lady Gaga), influential rappers (Kanye West), country artists (LeAnn Rimes, Tammy Wynette), rock ’n’ roll icons (Little Richard), and classic rockers (Eric Clapton, members of Queen).

Narrowing down John’s best collaborations is difficult, but the following piano-heavy Power Hour illustrates the breadth and depth of his musical abilities.

Elton John and Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976)

John topped the charts around the world (including in the U.S. and U.K.) with this frothy, imploring disco-soul duet with smoky belter Kiki Dee. Effervescent strings swirl around the pair as they trade off lyrics (John: “Right from the start” / Dee: “I gave you my heart”) and come together in agreement to sing the titular sentiment. Although it’s tough to top the original, John has certainly tried over the years: He performed “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” on TV with both the Spice Girls and Miss Piggy, and nabbed a massive dance hit in 1994 thanks to a pulsating, high-energy remake featuring RuPaul.

Elton John and Millie Jackson, “Act Of War” (1985)

One of the (unfairly) lesser-known duets in John’s catalog is this feisty, urgent rocker with Millie Jackson, a.k.a. the Mother Of Hip-Hop. Electric guitars blaze and keyboards smolder behind the pair, as they channel a romantic couple having a vicious argument. Jackson’s soul snarl is well-matched by John’s more freewheeling, seething tone—making the failure of “Act of War” to even chart in the U.S. a head-scratcher.

Aretha Franklin and Elton John, “Through The Storm” (1989)

John deeply respected the late Aretha Franklin, who had actually covered his early single “Border Song” in 1970. When the pair teamed up several decades later on the title track of Franklin’s 1989 album, that mutual admiration coalesced into a pop/R&B barn burner about harnessing strength from someone else when faced with adversity. Co-written by the songwriting greats Albert Hammond and Diane Warren, “Through The Storm” gives both John and Franklin a platform to show off their vocal largesse. The former especially turns his soulful emoting up several notches to match the latter’s gospel-driven delivery.

Elton John and George Michael, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me (Live)” (1991)

Originally released as a John solo single in 1974, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” turned into one of his greatest duets—if not one of the best duets of all time—thanks to the late George Michael. The pair initially teamed up to sing the song at Live Aid in 1985, and reprised their collaboration at Michael’s March 1991 Wembley Arena concert. Michael starts off singing by himself, utilizing first a delicate croon and then a powerful, rafter-reaching vibrato. To the delight of the crowd, John then makes a surprise cameo and kicks in with his own nuanced, wounded delivery. Having two voices amplifies the song’s double meaning: The heartbroken protagonist is both begging a romantic partner to reconsider a breakup, and trying to find a reason to keep going despite despair. Michael and John’s updated version topped the charts in the U.S. and U.K.

Earl Scruggs and Elton John, “Country Comfort” (2001)

When the late banjo legend Earl Scruggs released his own spin on a duets album, 2001’s Earl Scruggs And Friends, Elton John was naturally right there in the mix. More specifically, John remade his Tumbleweed Connection song “Country Comfort” for the occasion, giving the chestnut more of a folk-driven vibe courtesy of swinging piano and twangy vocals—a perfect match for Scruggs’ loping banjo and flourishes such as fiddle and woodsy guitars.

Pet Shop Boys and Elton John, “Alone Again, Naturally” (2005)

Elton John and Pet Shop Boys have collaborated here and there over the years, including on the 1997 variety show An Audience With Elton John. However, this droll, sighing cover of the Gilbert O’Sullivan smash remained tucked away on an obscure 2005 promo until a 2017 expanded reissue of Pet Shop Boys’ Release. The pairing is inspired: Glacial synths, percolating beats, and lush horns cushion subdued vocal deliveries from both John and Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. The latter is his usual stoic self, although his voice blends with John’s perfectly to create rather affecting melancholy.

Scissor Sisters, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” (2006)

You would’ve been forgiven if you thought “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” was Scissor Sisters actually excavating a lost John ’70s B-side. After all, the jaunty keyboards, strutting disco beats, and Jake Shears’ funky falsetto aren’t a far cry from some of Elton’s output from that decade. Still, John did earn a co-writing credit on “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” for showing up and sprinkling some of his piano magic across the song, like a groovy, campy cherry on top.

Brandi Carlile and Elton John, “Caroline” (2009)

Alt-folk darling Brandi Carlile is a huge Elton John fan who has been known to bust out a raucous version of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” or a bluesy, affecting take on “Madman Across The Water.” Naturally, her brisk 2009 duet with John—which features him contributing velvety vocal harmonies and buoyant, boogie-woogie piano—has more than a little extra oomph. The song’s hook is bolstered by a jubilant chorus of voices, and Carlile’s theatrical delivery shows she’s clearly over the moon to be performing with a hero.

Alice In Chains featuring Elton John, “Black Gives Way To Blue” (2009)

Alice in Chains’ first studio full-length since a 1995 self-titled effort—and the group’s debut album with new singer William DuVall—ends with a grief-stricken tribute to the band’s late vocalist, Layne Staley. John ended up contributing mournful piano to the song, which is also driven by searing guitars and a wrenching Jerry Cantrell vocal performance, and in the process helped shape “Black Gives Way To Blue” into the perfect elegy.

Kate Bush, “Snowed In At Wheeler Street” (2011)

In the 2014 BBC documentary The Kate Bush Story: Running Up That Hill, Elton John reveals that “Don’t Give Up,” Bush’s duet with Peter Gabriel, “saved my life. That record helped me get sober… So she played a big part in my rebirth. That record helped me so much.” The feeling is mutual, as Bush is an avowed fan who once covered John’s “Rocket Man.” Naturally, their first actual collaboration—a gorgeous, jazzy piano ballad on Bush’s 50 Words For Snow—lived up to expectations. The musicians portray star-crossed lovers who can never seem to connect, time-travel–style; accordingly, their vocal performances are warm, empathetic, and brimming with emotion.

Queens Of The Stone Age, “Fairweather Friends” (2013)

Duets-wise, Elton John dislikes being pigeonholed—and always likes to keep people guessing as to where he might show up next. Case in point: His cameo in the middle of the Queens Of The Stone Age’s charred rocker “Fairweather Friends,” a song driven by majestic metalhead riffs and panicked drumming. When John shows up and adds tangled piano to the fray, the extra chaos is just enough to tip “Fairweather Friends” into epic territory.

Fall Out Boy featuring Elton John, “Save Rock And Roll” (2013)

Who better to help Fall Out Boy conclude its ambitious comeback album than Elton John? The slow-burning, piano-driven tune finds John singing alongside frontman Patrick Stump (which illustrates just how much the latter’s vocals take from blue-eyed soul and ’70s rock) and imparting wise lines such as “You are what you love / Not who loves you.” The cumulative effect is that of an elder statesmen doling out a pep talk to his protégés, which is a perfect fit for the song’s message.

A Tribe Called Quest, “Solid Wall Of Sound” (2016)

Elton John is a massive, long-time A Tribe Called Quest fan. This affection (and knowledge of their catalog) shows on his contribution to the We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service cut “Solid Wall Of Sound.” The song not only samples “Bennie And The Jets,” but John also contributes shape-shifting piano and a dreamy vocal duet with ATCQ majordomo Q-Tip later in the track. The end result is an adventurous, pastiche-like composition that feels like a wholly fresh direction for both acts.

Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.