On a chilly March evening in New York City, two friends were experiencing an unusual synchronicity.
Onstage at Madison Square Garden, Dua Lipa was giving a capacity crowd the concert they’d waited two years to attend. Her pop masterpiece, “Future Nostalgia,” released just as the pandemic gripped the globe in March 2020, had the seemingly great misfortune of being a dance-party album arriving at one of the worst possible times in human history for a dance-party album, when there were no parties and the only dancing was done on one’s own. But with bangers like “Levitating,” “Physical,” “Don’t Start Now” and the title track, it ended up being lockdown dance therapy, symbolizing what people would do again once they could: dress up, dance, flirt, sing along with strangers and enjoy the closeness of other humans at a time when we all wondered when, or even if, we could be at a concert or on a crowded dance floor again. Two heartbreaking years later, that time was finally here.
More from Variety
Yet an emotional peak of the show came with a song that was simultaneously new and decades old: “Cold Heart,” her duet with Elton John that blended four of his songs — most prominently his 1972 smash “Rocket Man” and 1989’s “Sacrifice.” The inventive song vaulted to No. 1 on multiple charts across the globe, a multigenerational feat that has earned the pair Variety’s 2022 Hitmakers of the Year honor. On that night at Madison Square Garden, Dua and her tireless troupe of dancers sat on a platform toward the front of the stage, singing with their arms around each other while a video of Elton performing the song filled the screen behind them.
Just five miles away, at more or less the same time, the real Elton was playing “Cold Heart” too, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, for a crowd enjoying an equivalent sense of pandemic-delayed renewal and release. It was the 200-somethingth show of his 330-ish date “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” final tour, which launched a planned three-year run in September 2018 but is likely to go on for nearly double that time, concluding in Europe next summer (this particular show had been originally scheduled for April of 2020).
And even though they didn’t see each other that night, the two friends — Elton and Dua, no need for surnames here — were virtually waving to each other across the East River. They’d met in person for the first time when they performed together at the 2021 Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards viewing party, and quickly became close. Yet they hadn’t even been in the studio at the same time when their vocals for “Cold Heart” were recorded. Nor had they performed the song together or even seen each other’s tours.
“Our touring schedules were like ships in the night — we kept missing each other,” Dua says in her crisp London accent. “But there’s also something magical about the same song being played in the same city on the same night with completely different crowds and bringing such a good energy. We had both been performing it across the world separately, waiting for the moment we could do so together.”
That moment finally came on Nov. 20, at the last of Elton’s three concerts at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Those shows represented not only the final North American dates of the 75-year-old icon’s final tour, but also a sort of homecoming for his superstardom: Elton’s ascent truly began with his legendary 1970 show at the city’s 500-capacity Troubadour club and, he has said, climaxed with his two concerts at Dodger Stadium five years later.
The crowd roared as the “Cold Heart” beat kicked in and Elton — clad in a sparkling Dodgers-inspired robe that intentionally evoked a similar outfit he’d worn on the same stage 47 years earlier — greeted Dua, who sashayed onstage in a sleek black gown, her long brown hair a waterfall-like shimmer. The two embraced and finally performed the song together, Elton exhorting the crowd to sing along.
“When we recorded ‘Cold Heart,’ we had no idea of the life it would have — what a privilege for that first performance to be at his final show in North America,” Dua said the next day. “I could have never imagined a night like this — it reminded me to never stop dreaming.”
Calling the performance “a magical moment,” Elton said of his duet partner, “I adore her. She is incredibly talented — absolutely brilliant — and so professional. It’s a pleasure to be around someone who is so young, has done so much already and is so humble. She is also great fun, and we get on like a house on fire.”
“Cold Heart” isn’t only a hit — it’s a living example of Elton’s legendary patronage of younger artists and represents a new concept in mainstream musical reinvention. While officially titled a remix, it contains elements of past Elton songs fused together by the Australian trio Pnau (who gave a similar treatment to dozens of tracks from his catalog on the 2012 U.K. chart-topping “Good Morning to the Night” album). Along with the chorus from “Rocket Man” and verses from “Sacrifice,” the song includes bits from 1983’s “Kiss the Bride” and 1976’s “Where’s the Shoorah?” It’s a reinvention, reimagining, recycling and reissue all in one, with a musical Easter egg hunt for fans and the golden glow of Elton’s endorsement for Dua and Pnau.
“It’s much more than a remix or a mashup,” Elton explains. “Pnau take elements from old songs and make them into a new song. They came up with the idea, and I’ve sung it so many times myself that I just thought it would be better with a different kind of voice.”
Dua was top of the list for Elton and David Furnish, his husband and manager.
“Luckily enough, I’d met her at the AIDS Foundation event,” Elton recalls. “In our fight against AIDS, we are desperately in need of younger voices to get people to listen, and she is an incredible live performer, so I knew she would be perfect. So David and I took her to dinner and said, ‘We’ve got this song. …’”
“And my first answer was ‘Yes, absolutely,’” Dua says, picking up the story, “but they were like, ‘Well, listen to it before you agree to it,’” she continues, laughing. “I was in Malibu writing for my new album, and they sent it to me very early one morning. We were on FaceTime — even though we’re friends, it’s still surreal being on FaceTime with Elton and David — and I remember I was in my bikini by the pool, wearing a cowboy hat for some reason. … ”
“And I said, ‘You’ve got to listen to it by the pool — loud,’” Elton concludes, “and within a day or so, she said, ‘I’m in,’ and that was that.”
Elton and Dua represent not only a musical meeting of generations but a distinctly British one as well. Both are Londoners, he born in Pinner in 1947, and a definitive product of the postwar Brit baby boom; she born in West Hampstead 48 years later (on the millennial/Gen Z cusp) to Kosovar-Albanian parents. Although she lived for several years in Kosovo during her teens, she is like many U.K. biculturals in that no matter how ethnic the look or name, she is as unalterably British as Elton from the instant she begins speaking in English.
Despite their difference in age, the duo’s personal chemistry was obvious in the hours before they performed at Dodger Stadium. Dua — wearing a hot-pink shorts-and-crop-top ensemble and carrying a furry bag in the shape of a teddy bear — practically skipped across the stage to greet him upon arriving for soundcheck, and the two were playful and animated during the Variety cover shoot at the stadium’s bar, getting even livelier when Blur’s 1994 hit “Girls and Boys” came on the sound system. At one point, as Dua draped herself over Elton, Furnish cracked, “I’m gonna get jealous!”
Dua is hardly the only beneficiary of the superstar’s legendary generosity. Elton’s outreach has spanned his decades-long commitment to the Elton John AIDS Foundation — which in 30 years has raised more than $525 million for HIV/AIDS grants and has reached more than 100 million people with education, prevention and treatment — to his support for artists of all ages, particularly younger ones. In the 1970s, he founded Rocket Records, which revitalized the careers of veteran singers like Neil Sedaka (via the Elton duet “Bad Blood”) and Cliff Richard, and launched Kiki Dee, with whom he duetted on the global smash “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (and which Dee performed with him at Dodger Stadium last week). Over the years, his mentorship has taken many forms: collaboration, public praise, business advice (his company managed Ed Sheeran for several years), assistance with substance-abuse recovery and, in the case of Eminem, tacitly refuting accusations of homophobia against the rapper by performing with him at the Grammys in 2001.
A similar form of timely moral support came earlier this year with “Hold Me Closer,” Elton’s reinvention of his 1971 song “Tiny Dancer” featuring Britney Spears, which was released in August just after the embattled singer won her legal fight with her family over her 13-year conservatorship. “That one was David’s idea,” Elton recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t we ask Britney, because she needs to feel the love.’ We’ve been watching the documentaries and following her career for the last few years, and she’s been through a horrific, traumatic time. But she’s first and foremost a singer, and I just wanted to have her back in the charts and people loving her voice again.” (Both “Cold Heart” and “Hold Me Closer” are available on the deluxe edition of Elton’s “Lockdown Sessions” album of collaborations.)
From George Michael and Mary J. Blige to Lady Gaga and Lil Nas X, it’s hard to think of major artists who haven’t performed with him. Dinners, phone calls, lasting friendships and vacations together often ensue — Gaga is godmother to his and Furnish’s two sons — and literally hundreds of musicians have basked in that glow over the years. Since 2016, his “Rocket Hour” radio show on Apple Music has supercharged that endorsement process, allowing him to rave about multiple artists in a single episode, of which there are now more than 350. On the show, he’s spotlighted everyone from Sheeran and Joni Mitchell to lesser-known artists like Ten Tonnes and Nao — it’s often the first notice they have of his impending glow.
“He featured a couple of my singles on his radio show, and then he wanted to interview me on it,” recalls Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama, whose friendship with Elton and Furnish has progressed to the vacationing-together level. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh, he’s gonna give me a shout-out and that will be it,’” she continues. “But he calls every two weeks. And even though he’s so famous, I just saw so many similarities with my queer friends and the humor that we have. He’s helped me so much behind the scenes — he’ll be like, ‘OK, what do you need?’ and two minutes after you hang up, you’ll get a call back. He makes dreams come true; it’s incredible. He’s like Santa Claus — actually, strike that,” she laughs. “He’s more like a fairy godmother.”
As a young artist, Dua herself felt the impact of Elton’s cosign long before they met. “He had championed my music on ‘Rocket Hour’ early on,” she says. “You can’t imagine how amazing is it to have somebody like Elton John champion you. Then we got to perform my favorite song of his, ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ at the AIDS Foundation event, and we’ve remained friends, going out for dinner and hanging out. He’s such a big, big fan of music — he knows all the new artists.”
Elton’s voracious fandom stretches back to his early childhood: The young Reginald Dwight was not only an extraordinarily gifted pianist who could play songs perfectly by ear after one listen, he was captivated by the radio and his mother’s record collection. As a youth he studied at the Royal Academy of Music, performed in a succession of pubs and clubs (solo and with his early band, Bluesology), worked at a music publisher’s office, helped out in the London record stores he haunted (usually for no pay), and followed the charts obsessively, making arcane lists of songwriters and producers. He is a rare combination of artistry, industry and superfan, with a deep understanding of all three.
“He scours, scours YouTube for new stuff,” Sawayama says. “He’s 75 and he teaches me about new music.”
In a characteristically British display of modesty — which contrasts dramatically with his flamboyant stage persona — Elton doesn’t say much about mentorship in his wildly entertaining 2019 autobiography, “Me.” But he tells Variety, “It comes from when I first came to America and played the Troubadour. Neil Diamond introduced me onstage — I was gobsmacked — and Leon Russell was in the audience, who was my idol. I got to meet [Beach Boys mastermind] Brian Wilson and the Band on that trip, and George Harrison sent me a telegram saying congratulations. It was so kind for all of those people that I’d idolized growing up to take the time to say, ‘Well done.’ It kind of ratified what I was doing. I was so blown away by it and so touched, and it’s been in my DNA ever since, that you must always ring up someone if they are doing good work. I do the same with photographers and artists and actors and anyone like that — it’s good for the soul.”
Asked about some of his recent favorites, Elton calls to an assistant, “Where’s my list?” and over the course of several minutes rattles off Sawayama, Sam Fender, Gabriels, Oliver Sim, Wet Leg, Let’s Eat Grandma, Omar Apollo, Lewis Taylor, Burna Boy, Fred Again, Sharon Van Etten, Parker Millsap, Little Simz, Jessie Reyez, Loonie, Sarah Rose, Courtney Marie Andrews, Phoebe Bridgers, the Nova Twins and Lord Huron before saying, “I’ve probably forgotten half of them — I’m sorry; you’ve put me on the spot!”
As 2022 draws to a close, with both Dua and Elton still promoting projects that have stretched on for longer than they could have expected, they’re both looking ahead to what’s next. While Dua admits some wistfulness at seeing “Future Nostalgia” move into the past, she’s hard at work on her third album, as well as her service-oriented lifestyle newsletter, Service95, and a weekly podcast called “At Your Service.” On the latter, she has hosted everyone from Iraqi Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad and American civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson to Monica Lewinsky, Dita von Teese and, of course, Elton.
It was during her podcast interview with him back in March that she’d said her new album was halfway finished. However, “it’s taken a complete turn as I’ve carried on working, and I really feel now that it’s starting to sound cohesive,” she says. “So I’m going to keep writing in the early months of the new year and see where that takes me. The album is different — it’s still pop but it’s different sonically, and there’s more of a lyrical theme. If I told you the title, everything would make sense — but I think we’ll just have to wait.”
Also like Elton, she does a lot of advocacy work, particularly with Kosovo-Albanian matters, and was even named an honorary ambassador for the country last summer by president Vjosa Osmani. Yet she has been outspoken in feminist and LGBTQ causes, and grabbed headlines in November when, instead of merely refuting a rumor that she would be performing at the FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, she used the announcement to slam the host country, Qatar, over its human-rights policies.
“The World Cup is a really unique opportunity to hold Qatar to account,” she says. “They made pledges on human rights when they signed the deal for the World Cup that have not been satisfactorily met on migrant workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and freedom of expression — what kind of message does it send if these pledges mean nothing?
“I really have nothing against Qatar, and I hope one day I will get the chance to go there,” she concludes. “But I didn’t like being amongst speculation that I was going to perform for something that really goes against my beliefs.”
As for Elton, one might wonder what’s left to achieve after more than 300 million albums sold and over 3,500 concerts, membership in the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame, five Grammys, two Oscars, numerous BRITs, a new musical — “Tammy Faye” — that just opened in London and 50-plus tour dates scheduled for 2023. But he has stressed all along that for all the fanfare, “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” only represents the end of the literal road.
“The tour is everything I possibly wanted it to be and more — I can honestly say that at 75, I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” he concludes. “I’m not going to tour anymore, but I’m certainly going to make records — and I’m certainly, hopefully, going to collaborate with more people.”
Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin.
Set Design: Francisco Vargas
Dua Lipa: Styling by Lorenzo Posocco; Hair: Chris Apppleton/The Wall Group; Makeup: Samantha Lau/The Wall Group; Dress, shoes and rings: Saint Laurent; Earrings: Shay
Best of Variety