Elton John - what a performance...

A musical prodigy at 11, he has written songs that helped define four decades, squandered millions yet given generously to charity - and still he belts them out.

How seriously should the crowd at Meydan Racecourse take the short, tubby, 60-something with bleached blond hair plugs who takes to the stage tonight after the Dubai World Cup? More to the point, though, how seriously does Elton John take himself?

If you consider his work as an Aids activist, the answer is very seriously. His Elton John Aids Foundation has raised millions to combat the disease, while the singer has worked tirelessly to raise the public profile of sufferers. But then there is the spendthrift gadfly who blew £250,000 (Dh1.36 million) on floral arrangements in less than two years and attended his 50th birthday party in 1997 dressed as Marie Antoinette. "I'm a very wealthy man," he once admitted in an interview with Larry King. "I have a lot of money stashed away, but I do live my life from day to day."

The serious Sir Elton is a knight of the realm, ennobled by the Queen for "services to music and charitable services," who sang Candle in the Wind at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, recasting the lyrics with the words "Goodbye England's Rose". Yet it is not just his lifestyle that makes him an improbable bastion of the establishment. Sir Elton frequently only has to open his mouth to put his foot in it. He called the Diana Memorial Fountain "purely ugly", adding "it looks like a sewer". His feuds are legendary: accusing Madonna of miming and Keith Richards of looking "like a monkey with arthritis". (To be fair, Richards had just accused him of being "best known for writing songs about dead blondes".)

The question, though, of the real Elton John is one audiences have been asking since a sweet-voiced dervish in a purple opera cloak first ignited the dying embers of the Swinging Sixties, supporting The Who in their debut performance of the rock opera Tommy at the Roundhouse, then London's unofficial counter-culture headquarters. Four decades later and it is easier to keep up with his costume changes than the twists and turns of a life that at times reads more like a one-man pub trivia quiz; from the seven consecutive American No 1 albums, the two marriages (one to each sex) and a mantelpiece of awards that includes an Oscar, five Grammies and a Golden Globe.

And who now remembers that he penned a failed entry for the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest or sang backing vocals on Back Home, the official England team song for the World Cup back in 1970? By then Elton Hercules John was four years old. He was born sometime in 1967, as the union of the saxophone player Elton Dean and the singer Long John Baldry, two members of Bluesology, a British R&B band whose teenage pianist could no longer carry the burden of the name Reggie Dwight (More trivia: his middle name is a tribute not to the hero of Greek mythology, but the horse in the BBC comedy series Steptoe and Son).

There were other hurdles in young Reggie's life, not least his birthplace of Pinner, an outer London mock-Tudor suburb whose name is synonymous with lower-middle-class respectability. An argument can be made that there is still a lot of Reggie in Sir Elton. Interviewed in 2002 about the substance abuse that plagued his private life during the height of his fame, he responded: "I was more ashamed that I couldn't work the washing machine than the fact that I was taking drugs."

His father, Stanley, was an RAF officer, frequently absent on tours of duty and who believed his son would be better served by a life in banking. The relationship with his wife, Sheila, was stormy and the couple eventually divorced in the early 1960s. The frequent family rows and the deteriorating relationship with his father took its toll on the young boy. Forty years later, after composing the music for the stage version of Billy Elliott, the story of a coal miner's son who yearns to be a ballet dancer, he confessed: "I could barely watch it I was crying so much. It moved me because I could see myself in Billy. It was like my own childhood and how I broke out into my dream."

At 15, young Reggie was a pub pianist, pumping out chart standards for £35 every weekend at the Northwood Hills Hotel. It seemed scant reward for a musical prodigy who had already won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy at the age of 11, but despite failing an audition for the prog rock band King Crimson, his big break was at hand. In 1967, a talent spotter called Ray Williams placed a speculative ad in the New Musical Express and received replies from Reggie and a young lyricist from rural Lincolnshire called Bernie Taupin.

It was Williams's genius to bring the two together, creating a musical partnership that ranks alongside Lennon and McCartney and Bacharach and David. By the end of the year, Reggie had become Elton and was living with his mother and her new husband, Fred Farebrother, who was to become a much more supportive figure than his real father. At first Taupin would post the lyrics to his new collaborator. When he moved to London, six months later, the pair would work from John's stepfather's flat, not far from the old family home in Pinner. They worked at astonishing speed, sometimes completing songs in less than a couple of hours.

For the first year they wrote for other artists, but in 1968, encouraged by their musical publisher, Taupin began writing songs for John to perform. Empty Sky, John's first album, was released in June 1969, but made little impact on the charts despite good reviews. The next, Elton John, released the following October, was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, thanks to Your Song, a ballad described by John Lennon, then still with the Beatles, as "the first new thing that's happened since we happened".

A string of chart hits followed. Honky Château, with Rocket Man, became his first American No 1 album and was followed by six more, including Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which included Funeral for a Friend, Candle in the Wind and Benny and the Jets. Looking back on his career, he remarked a few years ago, "The great thing about rock 'n' roll is that someone like me can be a star." By the late 1970s, though, the rock 'n' roll lifestyle was taking its toll. The elaborate stage costumes could not disguise the fact that he was losing both his hair and his grip, with the singer announcing his retirement from performing, his public appearances limited to watching his beloved Watford FC, the deeply unfashionable football team he had followed since childhood.

His return to public life in the early 1980s could not conceal the private demons. Before checking into rehab in 1990, for much of the decade he grappled with drink and drugs, as well as his own sexuality, an issue that would lead to the demise of his marriage to Renata Blauel, a German sound engineer he still calls "the nicest person I have ever met". Much of the chaos and torment of those years came to light in a court case in 2000, when the singer accused his advisers of negligence in managing his affairs. The evidence revealed that John had spent £30 million (Dh160m) between January 1996 and September 1997. "I have a flair for writing songs, the singer admitted in court. "I have a flair for composing, I have a flair for performance, I have a flair for recording. I do not have a flair for business."

These days, Sir Elton is estimated to have a personal fortune of around £175 million, with successful collaborations with Disney that included an Oscar for The Lion King and 241 concerts at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. He is, as they say, also available for private parties, remarking after one for a wealthy German: "I sing Rocket Man, Candle in the Wind and Happy Birthday Dear Gunther and get paid tens of thousands."

The singer celebrated his own birthday this week, his 63rd. So is it happy birthday Elton, Sir Elton, Reggie or even Binky Poodleclip (the name he uses to check into hotels)? The confusion doesn't matter of course. As Sir Elton Hercules John once said: "Well, I'm not ordinary, so it's not a struggle trying to be." @Email:jlangton@thenational.ae