HE'S A GAME LAD, SO WHEN ELTON John was asked to write songs for The Lion King, he said why not. In a career that began 30 years ago with the band Bluesology and thus spans most of the rock era, John had worked and lived in the grand and sordid rock-star tradition: written hundreds of songs, sold albums in the hundred millions, cavorted onstage in tuxes and plumes, dared to announce his bisexuality, endured rehab for alcoholism, cocaine addiction, bulimia. Nothing human was alien to him. But as he began the task of composing melodies to Tim Rice's words for the Disney animated adventure, John wondered whether he'd sunk too low. "I sat there with a line of lyrics that began, 'When I was a young warthog ... ' and I thought, 'Has it come to this?'"
It came out fine. The Lion King album sold 7 million copies, and the hit single Can You Feel the Love Tonight? earned John a Grammy last week for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (one of three Lion King Grammys). He's the prohibitive favorite to win an Oscar later this month: of the five nominees for Best Original Song, three are numbers from The Lion King. And he has a new generation of groupies: the six-year-olds who accost him in airports and tell him they love the movie's songs. "That's exactly what I wrote it for," he says. "I wanted to write melodies that kids would like."
These days, the Liberace of rock is on a roll. Made in England, his new album of songs with longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, is a strong set from an enlightened survivor: pungent, coherent, brimming with good tunes. This month John resumes his smash series of concerts with Billy Joel. Twelve of his old albums are about to be issued in remastered editions, with previously unreleased songs. He and Rice will soon begin writing the score for a new version of Aida, which Disney is planning to bring to Broadway. And he's working on an animated film version of Belfast, a haunting and hopeful song about the Irish troubles that is the high point of his new album.
Best of all, the pop soap opera that has been John's public life looks to have a happy third act. At 47, the star has emerged from his rehabs fit and creatively recharged. "For a decade or more," says Taupin, "people have tended to view Elton John only as a commercial figure. You wouldn't even know he made records. He was just this character from the tabloids. But now he's totally alive. His rehab was more than fixing what was broken. It was an exorcism. He's become stronger, and he wants to prove himself again. He wants that new respect."
Respect, at least from the hip end of the rock establishment, has often eluded John. He lacks the anguish and ragged emotional edge of the existential rock star; he's closer to Neil Sedaka than to Bruce Springsteen. And there's something uncool-refreshingly so-about his naked need to be loved across the footlights. "Even if I had only one finger left," he once said, "I'd play for you." That's the credo of the compulsive showman, who loves to get people to sing along with all the tunes (Your Song, Daniel, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, I'm Still Standing) that have snaked into the pop repertoire.