A couple of days after Diana’s death, Richard Branson called me. He told me when people signed the book of condolence at St James’s Palace, a lot of them were writing down quotations from the lyrics of Candle In The Wind. Apparently, it was being played a lot on the radio as well.
He asked if I’d be prepared to rewrite the lyrics and sing it at the funeral. I think he’d been contacted by the Spencer family, because they felt the funeral should be something that people would really connect to.
So I called Bernie [Taupin], who’d written the original lyrics. He was fantastic: he acted as if writing a song that the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to check through first was all in a day’s work and faxed the altered lyrics over the next morning.
Focused: Elton John performing at Princess Diana’s funeral at Westminster Abbey
I insisted on having a teleprompter by the piano, with Bernie’s new lyrics on it. Up until then, I’d been against their use.
Partly because it seemed antithetical to rock and roll’s spontaneous spirit — I’m pretty sure Little Richard wasn’t reading off an Autocue when he recorded Long Tall Sally — and partly because I just thought: Come on, do your job properly.
You’ve only got three things to do onstage — sing in tune, play the right notes and remember the words. If you can only be bothered to do two of them you may as well find another job instead.
But this time, I relaxed the rules. It was a unique experience. There was a sense in which it was the biggest gig of my life — for four minutes, I was literally going to be the centre of the world’s attention — but equally, it wasn’t an Elton John moment, it wasn’t about me at all.
William and Harry with Earl Spencer and Prince Charles at the funeral service in 1997
We were seated in the inner sanctum of the church, right where the Royal Family came in. William and Harry looked completely shell-shocked. They were 15 and 12, and I thought the way they were treated that day was absolutely inhuman.
They were forced to walk through the streets of London behind their mother’s coffin, told to show no emotion and look straight ahead. It was a horrendous way to treat two kids who’d just lost their mum.
But I barely took any of it in. I wasn’t suffering from stage fright, more a very specific fear: What if I went into autopilot and sang the wrong version?
I’d performed Candle In The Wind hundreds of times. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might lose myself in the performance, forget about the teleprompter and start singing the original lyrics.
How bad would it be if I did that? Appalling. Huge chunks of the lyrics were completely inappropriate for the occasion.
You’d have a hard time bluffing your way out of singing about Marilyn Monroe being found dead in the nude, or how your feelings were something more than sexual, at a state funeral.
Elton with Princess Diana at a television awards ceremony in 1993
But one lesson I’ve learned is that sometimes, you just have to step up to the plate, even if the plate is miles outside your comfort zone. You forget about whatever emotions you may have, and think: No, I’m a performer. This is what I do. Get on with it.
So I got on with it. I don’t remember much about the performance itself, but I remember the applause afterwards.
It seemed to start outside Westminster Abbey and sweep inside, which I guess meant that Diana’s family had achieved their aim: the song connected with the people outside.
After the funeral, I went straight to a studio in Shepherd’s Bush, where George Martin was waiting: they were going to release the new version of Candle In The Wind as a single to raise money for a charity set up in Diana’s name. I sang it twice and went home.
Me: Elton John Official Autobiography by Elton John is published by Macmillan on October 15, £25. © Elton John 2019
When I got there, David was standing in the kitchen, watching the coverage on TV. The funeral cortège had got to the M1: people were throwing flowers at Diana’s hearse from the bridges over the motorway.
That was when I finally broke down.
I hadn’t felt able to show emotion all day. I’d had a job to do, and how I felt about Diana’s death might have interfered with my ability to do it.
The funeral version of Candle In The Wind became the biggest-selling single since the charts began. There was part of me that couldn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it.
Under what circumstances would you play it? I never did. I listened back to it once at the studio to OK the mix and that was it: never again.
In the end, I started feeling really uncomfortable with the single’s longevity. Its success meant there was footage of Diana’s funeral week after week on Top Of The Pops — it almost felt like wallowing in her death, as if the mourning for her had got out of hand. I really didn’t think that was what Diana would have wanted.
And I didn’t want to do anything to prolong it any further. So when Oprah Winfrey asked me on her talk show to discuss the funeral, I said no.
The Diana version of Candle In The Wind has never been included on any Greatest Hits album I’ve put out, and it’s never been re-released.
I’ve always tried to avoid the topic with journalists. It wasn’t that I wanted to forget it — or her. I just wanted life to get back to some semblance of normality.
Focused: Elton performing at Diana’s funeral. Inset: William and Harry with Earl Spencer and Prince Charles
Me: Elton John Official Autobiography by Elton John is published by Macmillan on October 15, £25. © Elton John 2019.
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