Biden shocks tearful Sir Elton John with Humanities Award

After concert at the White House for US president and ‘history makers’, the 'flabbergasted' Brit popstar received special honour

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Sir Elton John gave a special performance for US President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and about 2,000 “everyday history makers” on Friday night.

Those attending on the South Lawn of the White House included teachers, first responders and veterans, as well as Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, former first lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna Bush Hager, singer Anna Kendrick, activist Malala Yousafzai and tennis legend Billie Jean King.

"Elton once said, 'Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for just a few hours'," Ms Biden said in opening remarks.

"We’re here tonight to once again lose ourselves and be brought together, perhaps even healed, by the power of music."

The event signals the return of A-list celebrities to Washington after a four-year, Trump-inspired backlash.

Sir Elton, 75, avoided the Trump White House, starting with the Republican’s 2017 inauguration.

The British musician said he did not think it was appropriate for someone with his heritage to play at the swearing-in of an American president.

"Elton found his voice … to help others and help them find their voice," Mr Biden said.

"Elton often talked about how American music changed his life and how the different genres and sounds influenced his own music and imagination.

"It’s clear Elton John’s music has changed our lives. And to Elton, on behalf of the American people, thank you — and I sincerely mean this — thank you for moving the soul of our nation."

After belting out some of his biggest hits, including Tiny Dancer, Rocketman, Your Song and I’m Still Standing, Sir Elton received seven standing ovations.

But when the Bidens surprised the singer with the National Humanities Medal, the Grammy Award-winning star was moved to tears and was nearly speechless.

"I just said to the first lady, 'I’m never flabbergasted', but I’m flabbergasted and humbled and honoured by this incredible award from the United States of America," said Sir Elton.

"Your kindness — America’s kindness to me as a musician is second to none. But in the war against Aids and HIV, it’s even bigger.

"And I can’t thank you enough. I’m really — I’m really emotional about this.

Sir Elton also took a moment to talk about the continued work through the Elton John Aids Foundation.

“Since I founded the Foundation at my kitchen table in Atlanta 30 years ago, I made a commitment not to leave anyone behind and will continue on this mission,” he said.

“We are striving for a future where people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations and gender identities have the opportunity to live free from Aids, stigma, injustice and maltreatment – and I’m so grateful recognition like this brings us a step closer to making that a reality.”

It was this first White House gig since he performed with Stevie Wonder at a state dinner in 1998 to honour US president Bill Clinton and UK prime minister Sir Tony Blair.

Sir Elton is on a farewell tour that began in July after more than 50 years of performing.

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Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: September 29, 2022, 8:01 PM