Elton John Credits Music, Ryan White Friendship For Sobriety

By McCarton Ackerman 02/02/16

Music literally saved Elton John’s life.

Elton John
Photo via Shutterstock

The legendary hitmaker admitted in a new interview that his long-term drug and alcohol abuse nearly killed him, but that his friendship with ‘80s teenage AIDS patient Ryan White ultimately turned his life around.

John, 68, told Express that “working and listening and making records” kept him alive during his period of cocaine and alcohol abuse. But even though he knew he needed help, he was unwilling to ask for it.

"I didn't suddenly take three years off and sit in my room taking coke otherwise I wouldn't be here now. I worked through it. I was so ashamed and disgusted with myself,” he said. "I thought, 'You're so ill, you're so sick.' I knew I had a problem and even though I was crying, music helped me get through that. The only problem with me is I'm so stubborn and I couldn't ask for help and when I did ask for help everything changed immediately.”

But an unlikely friendship with White changed John’s life. The Indiana teenager made headlines in the mid-‘80s after contracting HIV via blood transfusion, which eventually developed into AIDS. Because little was known about the disease at the time, he became a pariah in his community and a lawsuit was required just for him to attend school with his peers.

After reading about his story, John reached out to the family and invited them to one of his concerts, then later arranged a private party for White at Disneyland. He kept in touch with the family for years and was at his bedside when the teenager passed around away on April 8, 1990. John performed “Skyline Pigeon” at his funeral.

"It was really when Ryan White died that I realized I'd reached rock bottom,” he admitted. I looked dreadful, I was so overweight and six months later I was in rehab. Six months later I was clean. I always say a big thank you to him and his family because they showed there was more to life than what I was doing." 

More than 25 years later, John is still sober. He also continues to honor White through his work at the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised over $321 million in support of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.

“Being around the White family made me want to be a better person,” wrote John in his book Love Is The Cure. “It took Ryan’s death to do so. When his eyes closed, mine opened – and they’ve been open ever since.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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