The Number Ones: George Michael & Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


Usually, imperial-level pop stars have to be dragged out of the spotlight kicking and screaming. It doesn’t matter how huge an artist is; at some point, the hits inevitably dry up. When that happens, artists generally get more and more desperate, using every gimmick at their disposal to keep themselves in the public eye. That’s not what George Michael did. George Michael essentially ended his own imperial period, following up the insane monster smash Faith with 1990’s conscious step back Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. For that album, Michael refused to tour, to film music videos, or to allow his record label to put his pretty face on the album cover. The gambit worked all too well.

Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 was the end of George Michael’s imperial run. After that album, he never returned to the center of the pop conversation, at least in the United States. “Praying For Time,” the album’s absolute masterpiece of a first single, managed to eke its way to #1, but “Freedom ’90,” another masterpiece, stalled out at #8. (It’s a 10.) The album sold two million copies — about a fifth of what Faith had moved. Soon afterwards, Michael got into a court battle with his label, and the planned second volume of Listen Without Prejudice never came out. George Michael moved away from the music industry, and the music industry moved away from him.

So when you’ve successfully ended your own run of pop glory, then what? At a strange career crossroads, George Michael figured that maybe he should go out on the road and sing some other people’s songs. In January of 1991, when Listen Without Prejudice was still fresh, Michael embarked on the first leg of his global Cover To Cover tour. Michael insisted that this tour was not in support of Listen Without Prejudice, even if he did sing some of his own hits at those shows. Instead, this tour would be George Michael’s chance to sing a bunch of older songs that he loved. He took on songs from artists like Stevie Wonder and David Bowie and the Doobie Brothers, and he also covered contemporaries like Seal and Soul II Soul.

For George Michael, a tour like that was a way to challenge himself and to reconnect with what he loved about music. At the time, Michael said, “One of the main attractions of a song written by someone else is that there’s nothing personal about it. There is some kind of release for me in the middle of a performance to actually stop singing me and just say, ‘Right, this is an instrument, and this is using it to the best of my ability.'” For someone who’d been writing and producing his own songs for as long as he’d been famous, this represented a kind of escape. Unexpectedly, that exercise also led to George Michael scoring his final #1 hit and, in the process, bringing one of his idols back to pop-chart prominence.

When George Michael was just a child, Elton John brought his own imperial phase to an end, though that ending presumably wasn’t intentional. In the mid-’70s, John was arguably the single biggest pop star in the world. Two of his albums debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart, back in the pre-SoundScan era when that never happened. Between 1973 and 1976, six of Elton John’s songs made it to #1, and that’s not even counting the times when he helped take friends like John Lennon and Neil Sedaka to the top. Then, in 1976, Elton John told Rolling Stone that he was bisexual: “There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex. I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be.” He was right, of course, but the world wasn’t ready to hear that.

In 1976, when a pop star came out publicly, it was a big deal. Walter Cronkite reported on Elton John’s sexuality, and John’s career didn’t fully recover for years. Earlier in 1976, John’s Kiki Dee duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” had spent a month at #1. After that Rolling Stone interview, John didn’t even get back into the top 10 for a few more years. (John’s Thom Bell-produced Philly soul pastiche “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” peaked at #9 in 1979. It’s a 7.) Elton John hadn’t even fully come out of the closet, but that one interview came perilously close to ending his career.

But Elton John didn’t go away, and he didn’t stop making hits. After a few years in the pop-chart wilderness, John got back to cranking out big songs, becoming an inescapable MTV presence and adjusting to a more synth-heavy era. Over the course of the ’80s, John struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction and eating disorders. He married and divorced a woman, the sound engineer Renate Blauel. He also headlined arenas around the world and played for 400,000 people in Central Park in 1980. John landed six top-10 hits in the ’80s. He was also one of the four singers on “That’s What Friends Are For,” Dionne Warwick’s all-star AIDS-fundraiser single that topped the Hot 100 early in 1986. On his own, Elton John got as high as #2 with the 1988 single “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.” (It’s a 6.)

In the ’80s, Elton John also got to know George Michael, another gay superstar who remained closeted for his entire imperial era. Michael had always been a huge Elton John fan; when they were kids, he and future Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley bonded over Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In 1985, George Michael won Songwriter Of The Year at the Novello Awards in London, and John presented Michael with his trophy. A few months later, John brought out Michael as a surprise guest during his Live Aid set at London’s Wembley Stadium. (Andrew Ridgeley came out with Michael, but Elton John barely managed to say Ridgeley’s name.) At Live Aid, Michael sang the living shit out of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” an Elton John ballad that had come out when Michael was 11 years old.

When Elton John first recorded “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” the song was his take on the outsized, majestic pocket-symphony pop of Phil Spector or the Beach Boys. John’s collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote a demonstrative, flourishy lyric about trying to save a dying relationship, and John wrote a vast orchestral pop song around those lyrics. Frustrated by the limitations of his own singing voice, John recorded his vocal over and over. He also planned to include a whole battalion of famous backup singers, including Brian Wilson, Dusty Springfield, and Cat Stevens. But those voices didn’t mix together well, so John ditched most of them — though the final version of the song does feature the voices of Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston, the latter of whom would later write “I Write The Songs” for Barry Manilow. The song also features backing vocals from Toni Tennille and vocal arrangements from Johnston and from Tennille’s husband “Captain” Daryl Dragon. At that point, the Captain And Tennille were still touring keyboardists for the Beach Boys. A year later, “Love Will Keep Us Together” would become their first #1 hit.

“Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” might’ve been a pain in the ass to record, but it stands as one of the best things Elton John did during that ’70s run. The song sighs and soars and sprawls over nearly six minutes, and it achieves a sort of bittersweet, vulnerable grandeur. For me, a lot of Elton John’s ’70s stuff is just too showy and schticky to really stick, but that song just sweeps me away. It was a big hit, too. John released it as the first single from Caribou, the 1974 album that came out just eight months after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Caribou topped the Billboard album chart and went double platinum, and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” peaked at #2 behind John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” (It’s a 9.)

Over the years, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” became a kind of standard. Artists like the Three Degrees and Joe Cocker recorded covers. The Who’s Roger Daltrey did a solo version of the song on the soundtrack of the 1986 movie The Lost Boys. On the 1991 Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album Two Rooms — which also had George Michael singing “Tonight” — the jazz artist Oleta Adams took on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” Elton John himself sang it on his MTV Unplugged episode in 1990.

When George Michael sang “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” at Live Aid, he was able to command a full-stadium singalong. That Live Aid version wasn’t a duet. Elton John didn’t sing at all; he just played the piano and made excited faces. Andrew Ridgeley and Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” duet partner Kiki Dee were among the backup singers, but it was clearly a George Michael spotlight moment, and he absolutely owned it.

After Live Aid, George Michael and Elton John remained close and kept working with one another. Michael helped out on a few songs from John’s 1985 album Ice In Fire, and he sang backup on the hit “Nikita, which peaked at #7. (It’s a 5.) A year later, Elton John played piano on Wham!’s farewell single “The Edge Of Heaven,” which peaked at #10. (It’s another 5.) In 1988, George Michael played in Hawaii — officially, his first solo show in the US — and Elton John came out to sing “Candle In The Wind” with him. (A version of “Candle In The Wind” will eventually appear in this column.)

In March of 1991, George Michael’s Cover To Cover tour came to London’s Wembley Arena, and Elton John showed up backstage. The official story is that Michael and John decided on the spot to sing “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” together that night. Their duet doesn’t sound like a spontaneous affair; it’s too clean and meticulous for that. (Michael is also credited as producer for the live version, which makes me wonder whether he did some fussing over the recording after it had been captured.) But the live version of the song still absolutely rules, so I don’t particularly care whether it was an in-the-moment decision or a planned-out hit single.

“Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” might be Elton John’s song, but George Michael sings him under the table. On “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” Michael sounds tender and lost, afraid of what might happen when this relationship falls apart. His live band conjures the slow uplift of the original studio recording. With all that crowd noise, there’s a bit of gospel catharsis in the way that first chest-thumper chorus finally swells up after that long two-minute build-up. Live songs almost never hit #1, but I could imagine Michael’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” getting there even without the surprise-event factor of Elton John’s appearance.

When Elton John does show up on the song, it’s awesome. George Michael picks the exact right moment, and it comes during the long hanging pause after that first chorus: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!” John comes bulldozing into the track, his voice deeper and less controlled than Michael’s exquisite tenor. Michael whoops and trills and pushes Elton John upwards. John, who’d been so meticulous about his vocal on the original record, almost sounds like a real soul singer. When he and Michael get to the chorus again, they’re like two ocean liners smashing into each other. They make all that bombast into a virtue. It’s really something to behold.

In 1987, just after the breakup of Wham!, George Michael duetted with Aretha Franklin on the #1 hit “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” and he did everything in his power to keep up with her. Five years later, singing with another legend, Michael found a completely different dynamic. On “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” Michael sings figure eights around Elton John without overshadowing him. Along the way, he somehow makes Elton John sound better, and this years-later duet eclipses the fussed-over original. I’m generally not too fond of nostalgia-driven hits, but “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” didn’t lose any power between 1974 and 1992. For that matter, it hasn’t really lost any power since 1992, either.

The live “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” single came out in November of 1991 as a one-off, raising money for a bunch of different charities. That version of the song eventually ended up on Elton John’s 1993 album Duets. Curiously, though, it was left off of Five Live, the EP that George Michael released that same year. The song’s video wasn’t filmed at that London show. Instead, Michael and John taped most of it at a California airplane hangar, with Michael’s longtime collaborator Andy Morahan directing. Morahan also filmed Michael’s Cover To Cover show in Chicago, where John came out as a surprise guest and where the crowd reportedly lost its shit, even if the 44-year-old John looked like an eccentrically dressed office manager when standing next to George Michael.

George Michael kept making hits for a few years after that “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” cover, but he never returned to #1. Later in 1992, Michael got to #10 with his dancey single “Too Funky.” He’d originally intended that one for Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, but when he scrapped that album, he released it instead on the benefit compilation Red Hot + Dance. (It’s an 8.) Michael also got to #30 with his tremendous cover of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” recorded with Queen’s surviving members at the Freddie Mercury memorial show at London’s Wembley Stadium in April of 1992.

Because of his battles with Sony, George Michael didn’t return to the pop charts for a few more years. In 1996, Michael was finally able to release “Jesus To A Child,” his tribute to his partner Anselmo Feleppa, who had died of AIDS in 1993. The song was a worldwide smash, and it peaked at #7 on the Hot 100. (It’s an 8.) “Fastlove,” Michael’s next single, made it to #8, and that was Michael’s last time on the Hot 100. (“Fastlove” is a 6.)

In 1998, police in Beverly Hills arrested George Michael for “engaging in a lewd act”; an undercover cop had propositioned him in a public bathroom. Michael hadn’t yet come out publicly, but he handled that whole shitshow with grace and humor, lampooning it in his “Outside” video. But in an eerie echo of Elton John’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile, the arrest pretty much killed George Michael’s career in the US.

George Michael remained hugely popular in the UK and in Europe, where he kept racking up hits. Michael also did a lot of cool things with the rest of his life. He became one of the few prominent celebrities to loudly oppose the Iraq war. He recorded with Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige. He covered New Order. Ahead of his first US tour in more than a decade, Michael gave a great performance on the 2008 season-finale episode of American Idol. He gave a lot of money to a lot of good causes, and he often did it in secret. By all accounts, George Michael was one of the few gigantic pop stars who was fantastically nice to just about everyone.

On Christmas day in 2016, George Michael died at the shockingly young age of 53. The cause of death was an enlarged heart, which would seem like some truly hacky symbolism if it weren’t true. We sadly will not see George Michael in this column again, though his music still resonates. Wham!’s 1984 holiday standard “Last Christmas,” for instance, was a chart-topper in the UK when it was new, but it didn’t come out as a single in the US until 30 years later. These days, though, “Last Christmas” reliably crashes the charts once a year. Right now, as I write this, “Last Christmas” is the #7 song in America, and that’s where the song has peaked. “Last Christmas” has literally outlived George Michael. (It’s a 6.)

But this column’s sun has not yet gone down on Elton John. In the years after his George Michael duet reached #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, John went into comeback mode. You might argue that he even found the extremely rare second imperial era, even if that second era was largely driven by songs that John first recorded in the ’70s. We’ll see Elton John in this column again.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the pop-punk cover of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” that Me First And The Gimme Gimmes released in 2008:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” that Miley Cyrus released on yet another Elton John tribute album in 2018:

(Miley Cyrus will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” scene from the vaguely experimental 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman: