“Philadelphia Freedom”: Elton’s Ode to Billie Jean

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As one-half of the most prolific songwriting teams in pop music, Bernie Taupin was ill-prepared when Elton John gave him a two-word song title in 1974 and exclaimed, “Here Bernie, good luck.”

And while “Philadelphia Freedom” sounds like a pop anthem dedicated to the celebration of the US (and the then-upcoming Bicentennial), its origins are much more personal and by turns, touching.

John had long been a sports enthusiast and had been a fervent supporter of the UK Watford Football Club, even to the point of being elected Vice President. By 1973, as a superstar bar none, John was entering a prolific and enviable phase of his performing career.

On the far side of the spectrum, tennis champ Billie Jean King was at the apex of her sport. In 1973, she had accumulated titles across the world, and in September, she accepted an invitation to the ‘Battle of the Sexes’: a publicity stunt in the guise of a tennis event, playing against self-confessed “male-chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs. Her win in that arena strengthened her belief that women deserved notice in the male-dominated sport.

While there is a story circulating that John and King met in 1971, King has clarified that they met at a party in September of 1973, two weeks prior to her match with Riggs. When she arrived, she asked promoter Jerry Parencio who exactly this get-together was for. “Oh, it’s for Elton John,” he answered. King was taken aback and immediately scanned the room. Nervous and flabbergasted that she might actually talk to him, she spotted him looking at her.

As they were introduced and began talking, King sensed they were hitting it off. However, with time constraints, John asked when she would be in England: June 1974, right before Wimbledon. With that, King thought, “Sure. It’ll never happen.”

Fast forward nine months and as King arrived at the Gloucester Hotel in London, a note was waiting for her. From John. On pins and needles, she called. John wanted to drive over and hang out. In his Rolls Royce. King jokingly recalled that it had “like 28 speakers” which continuously blared on. The two talked for hours and came to recognize their mutual admiration for tennis and music, thus cementing an unlikely pairing of personalities.

King with several others, had founded the mixed-gender World TeamTennis and with that formation, King began playing with (and had personally branded) the Philadelphia Freedoms. Before heading to Caribou Studios in Nederland, Colorado, John expressed interest in writing a song for King, a dedication as it were to their friendship.

King was highly embarrassed but secretly pleased that he would think of her as an inspiration. The subject matter then only sprang forth when John suggested “Philadelphia Freedom,” as it not only encompassed the name of King’s team but was a tribute to the city and the sound known as ‘Philly Soul.’

It was during the August sessions for the autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy that the band took a break and headed down to the Sound Factory in Hollywood and recorded the essential tracks for the song, even as Taupin confessed he struggled with the lyrics and to the point, explained it was all pretty much gibberish.

John had a rough mix of it when he headed to a WTT playoff between the Freedoms and the Denver Racquets that month at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Cautioning King it was not finished, she nonetheless pronounced, “I don’t like it. I love, love, love it!”

The song was targeted as a single, apart from the Captain Fantastic album. The crucial elements to heighten the sound came from orchestral arranger Gene Page. Page’s legendary reputation – contributing his talents to The Righteous Brothers, Barry White and later Whitney Houston – defined the landscape John imagined for the tune.

The Elton John Band commenced their US tour in the summer and toured until December. Meanwhile, “Philadelphia Freedom” was getting poised for a February 1975 release and the B-side was getting special consideration.

John played at Madison Square Garden on November 28 and 29. His special guest for the 28th was one of his music friends: John Lennon. As a bet, the ex-Beatle had promised to perform if his duet with John “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” went to Number 1 in the US. Which it had and Lennon and John performed three songs, including “I Saw Her Standing There,” the chosen B-side for the single.

“Philadelphia Freedom” was released on February 28, 1975, and proceeded to give back all that had been put into its conception. A Number 1 hit, certified Platinum, and the Number 1 song for 1975.

And as for Elton John and Billie Jean King? Their friendship is still strong 50 years later, supporting each other’s philanthropic causes and messages. John commented recently that King continues to inspire him and King’s reply was a heartfelt “Ditto.”

-Amy Hughes

Photo: Elton John, 1975 (Getty Images)

PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…

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3 comments on ““Philadelphia Freedom”: Elton’s Ode to Billie Jean

  1. David S.

    I don’t like this article, I love, love, love it! Two icons connecting and supporting each other. I had no knowledge of this backstory, but this is the kind of story I needed today. 🙂

  2. Really love your article. Elton John is an icon I really love the song Rocket Man it always brings me the 90s nostalgia. Great Read!

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