If Elton John's conquest of America wasn't obvious to audiences in early 1973, it was by Nov. 10 of that year, when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road became his third straight chart-topper on the Billboard 200 - each of which had only been released in the past 18 months.
But there was something different about Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the singer/songwriter/pianist's seventh studio album. For one, it was his first double album; for another, it was packed with more singles than any of his prior releases. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was Elton John at the arguable peak of his powers, establishing him as an artistic and commercial force that still goes strong nearly five decades later.
Elton and his backing band convened to begin the follow-up to Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player just days after it was released, embarking to Dynamic Sounds Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, where The Rolling Stones' had just started work on Goats Head Soup months before. The sessions ended without much material completed, and by the spring the group was back in the Chateau d'Herouville, where Elton recorded Honky Chateau and Don't Shoot Me the year before.
"When it came out, it took off in a way that none of us expected," Elton wrote in his memoir Me. "It's quite a dark record in a lot of ways. Songs about sadness and disillusion, songs about alcoholics and prostitutes and murderers." Indeed, the extended opener "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" featured a long instrumental dirge that Elton did idly conceive imagining his own memorial service. Tracks like "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-34)" and "All the Young Girls Love Alice" combined Elton's penchant for addictive melodies with lyricist Bernie Taupin's theatrical stories imagining the darker side of society.
But as is typical of an Elton John album, there were plenty of moments of beauty. "Grey Seal," first recorded by Elton as a B-side in 1970, was a classic piano rave-up; "Bennie and The Jets" combined an odd rhythm with pseudo glam-rock touches. Songs like the title track, the Marilyn Monroe tribute "Candle in the Wind" and soaring album closer "Harmony" (a radio staple in America despite never being released as a single) were key examples of the extraordinary songcraft that Elton, Taupin, producer Gus Dudgeon and the band were capable of.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road turned out to be Elton's third of six consecutive No. 1 albums in America. The raucous lead single "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100; "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" followed shortly thereafter at No. 2, and "Bennie and The Jets" became Elton's second U.S. chart-topping song. "Bennie" even crossed over into the Top 20 of the R&B charts, surprising Elton, who didn't even think it made sense as a single. "I fought them tooth and nail...Then [the record company] told me it was being played all over black radio stations in Detroit," he wrote in Me. "Candle in the Wind" just missed the U.K. Top 10 on original release, but a live version in 1987 became a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic; a 1997 re-recording in tribute to the late Princess Diana became the second highest selling single of all time.
When the dust settled, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road became America's bestselling album of 1974; it's since sold some 30 million copies worldwide and was one of Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time. "It was a very exciting time in my life," Elton reflected to Rolling Stone in 2014. "We were running on momentum and adrenaline. And then if you’re a talented enough artist, you find your place within the playing field. And this was our example of being at the height of our creative powers.”