WASHINGTON — “God bless you, let’s have some music,” said Elton John.
With that, the South Lawn of the White House was transformed into a musical celebration of love Friday night as John played a farewell concert to honor everyday “heroes” like teachers, nurses and AIDS activists. But as it turns out, the event was also to honor the 75-year-old British songwriter – President Joe Biden surprised him with the National Humanities Medal as a “tidal wave” for helping people rise up for justice.
John seemed almost overcome by the cheers, telling the 2,000-strong audience: “I don’t know what to say… I don’t know how to take a compliment very well, but it’s great to be here among so many people who have helped the foundation my AIDS and my heroes, those who work every day on the front lines.”
He said he’s played some beautiful venues before, but the stage in front of the White House, under a huge outdoor tent on a perfect fall night, was “probably the icing on the cake.”
He opened the show with ‘Your Song’, his first major international hit.
The intimate guest list included teachers, nurses, frontline workers and LGBTQ advocates, as well as former first lady Laura Bush, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, education activist Malala Yousafzai and AIDS activist Jeanne White-Ginder and mother of Ryan White, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990;
Biden and first lady Jill Biden spoke about the British singer’s activism, the power of his music and his universal kindness. 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 and hope and history rhyme,'” Biden said. “Throughout his incredible career, Sir Elton John was that tidal wave, a tidal wave to help people rise up and make hope and history rhyme.”
The evening, in fact, was called “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme,” a reference to the Biden poem quoted by Ireland’s Heaney.
Sir Elton — knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II — has sold more than 300 million records worldwide, played more than 4,000 concerts in 80 countries and recorded one of the best-selling singles of all time, 1997’s Renewal of ‘Candle In The Wind’. ” to praise Princess Diana, which sold 33 million copies.
John scored Friday’s hits with emotional elements of his story, including a shout-out to Laura Bush and former President George W. Bush about his administration’s emergency AIDS relief plan and a story about how a dying Ryan White and his mother pushed him to defend himself. at first and helped him get sober.
“I wouldn’t be here to talk tonight,” he said. “They saved my life.”
He then dedicated “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” to Ryan.
Despite the presence of many lawmakers, political talk was kept to a minimum, except when John said, “I wish America was more bipartisan on everything.”
It was his first White House concert since appearing with Stevie Wonder at a 1998 state dinner honoring British Prime Minister Tony Blair. John is on a farewell tour that began in July after performing for more than 50 years.
The show came about after A+E Networks and the History Channel asked the White House and John if they would be open to a partnership to honor the “everyday makers of history” as well as John himself.
It’s unclear if the show will air. John has worked with A+E in the past on its global HIV/AIDS charity, the Elton John Foundation, which has raised more than $525 million to fight the virus worldwide.
John insists on playing a sold-out show at Nationals Park on Saturday.
The president and first lady are big fans. Biden wrote in a 2017 memoir that he sang “Crocodile Rock” to his two young boys as he walked them to school and again later to son Bo before he died of cancer at 46.
“I started singing the lyrics to Beau, quietly, so that it was just the two of us,” Biden wrote. “Bo didn’t open his eyes, but I could see through my tears that he was smiling.”
John played the song on Friday, saying someone told him Biden was singing it to his little boys. “I can’t imagine him singing it,” John said before motioning for the president to take the stage. He did not do it. But the whole crowd did “La-La-Las” from their seats.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, was also a fan of John’s. He tried to get John to perform at his inauguration in 2017, but John refused, saying he didn’t think it was appropriate for a Brit to play at the inauguration of an American president.
The White House insisted Friday’s show was not an attempt to troll Trump, who has praised John in his books and has often featured John’s music — including “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” — on charts. playing it before the rally all these years. Trump called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “rocket man” for his record of missile tests.
Giannis played both Friday, to thunderous applause.