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Remembering Elton John's Unexpected Bond with Rush Limbaugh: 'I'm Just Trying to Break Him Down'

Adam Carlson
·4 min read
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Rush Limbaugh, Wildly Controversial and Wildly Popular Talk Radio Host, Dies

Limbaugh was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2020

When Rush Limbaugh married Kathryn Rogers in June 2010, surrounded by some 400 attendees, an unlikely voice serenaded their union: Elton John.

The rock icon — a trailblazing gay musician and noted AIDS activist — may have seemed an odd choice for the nuptials, given Limbaugh's history of denigrating LGBTQ people on his wildly popular right-wing radio show.

But it wasn't quite as simple as that.

"To put it in Elton's exact words, when he got the invitation, he was 'a little surprised,' " his husband, David Furnish, told PEOPLE in 2010, days after the wedding. "And then, when it turned out to be a genuinely sincere invitation Elton said, 'Life is about building bridges, not walls.' "

Furnish remembered John, 73, saying, "Maybe if I can make a great impression, people might change their perspectives on life."

John wanted to "go where people wouldn't expect me to go," Furnish said then.

(His reported $1 million fee was also seen as supporting his foundation for AIDS research.)

RELATED: Looking Back at Some of Rush Limbaugh's Most Controversial Quotes, from His Thoughts on Obama to LGBTQ Politicians

Returning to his radio show from his wedding, Limbaugh — who died Wednesday at age 70 — told listeners the backstory: John performing had been a special request of his new wife and Limbaugh and John subsequently crossed paths at a Hawaii hotel where they were both staying.

After Limbaugh was briefly hospitalized in Hawaii, he said on his show, he learned John had asked about his condition — "Was he hoping I didn't survive?" Limbaugh wondered — and, seeing an opening, Kathryn wrote a letter asking if John would perform.

John of course said yes, though his agent initially assumed he wouldn't, Limbaugh said, quoting how John told his side of the story at the couple's Palm Beach, Florida, wedding.

Tommaso Boddi/Getty; Lucien Capehart/Getty From left: Elton John and Kathryn and Rush Limbaugh

Limbaugh said John remembered his agent saying, "Well, I know you won't want to do it. How do you want to handle it?" John replied, "Oh, no, no! I do. I most certainly do want to do this."

John ended up performing for about 80 minutes, closing with "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" from The Lion King. Guests also received a copy of his greatest-hits album.

John's husband later said the Limbaughs "were incredibly gracious and very welcoming and very sweet and very appreciative."

"Elton, during the performance made a lot of cracks: 'I suppose you all wonder why I'm here tonight?' " Furnish told PEOPLE in 2010. "But ultimately, it's a bit like an olive branch, I guess."

John's decision to perform had its detractors — "Elton's just a whore," the prominent gay columnist Michael Musto said at the time — and, despite some who knew Limbaugh saying that he was privately supportive of gay rights, the radio host continued to attack the LGBTQ community.

Last year Limbaugh mocked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay major presidential candidate, as "Booty Judge" and suggested Donald Trump would "have fun" with Buttigieg's sexuality.

Limbaugh was also quoted as having said, "When a gay person turns his back on you, it is anything but an insult; it's an invitation." (After the news of Limbaugh's death Wednesday, Buttigieg's husband, Chasten, tweeted a photo of them kissing without a caption.)

John, for his part, has talked about his unexpected relationship with Limbaugh in the years since.

In a 2012 interview with USA Today, he said Limbaugh "sends me the loveliest emails. What I get from Rush privately and what I get from Rush publicly are two different things. I'm just trying to break him down."

According to USA Today, John believed then that Limbaugh, with whom he had bonded over music, wasn't really against gay marriage.

As John told The New York Times in 2014: "I've been sober for 24 years now, and one of the best lessons it taught me is to listen. When it comes to people like Rush Limbaugh, or people who might enrage you sometimes, dialogue is the only way. You have to reach out."