Elton John's Enduring Legacy

elton john
Sir Elton John's campaign against AIDS moved to New York this week for his sixth annual "An Enduring Vision" benefit. The concert attracted an audience including actress Uma Thurman, designer Tommy Hilfiger, model Petra Nemcova and odd couple Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, and a performance from k.d. lang. Keep clicking for more from the scene.
AP Photo/Evan Agostini

Ever since changing his name 40 years ago, Elton Hercules John has been a music sensation. Now, he's using that legendary name to halt the spread of HIV and AIDS the world over. On the morning of his Oscar party to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer/performer welcomes our Russ Mitchell into his apartment in Atlanta. There, they talk about everything from Elton's stunning career to his transformation from hard-partying rocker to world-renowned humanitarian.

Say the name Elton John and two things immediately come to mind: his nearly four decades of chart-climbing songs and the flamboyant get-ups he wore while performing them.

CBS News correspondent Russ Mitchell asked Sir Elton what he thinks now when he looks back at some of those costumes he wore back in the '70s.

"They make me laugh so much," John told him. "I mean, sometimes I did take it too far, but I was having fun."

But these days, he's using all the excess from those years - the wealth, the fame, and even the outrageous clothing - for a different purpose.

"I wanted redemption for the way I lived my life beforehand," John told Mitchell. "And that was, you know, the drugs, the drink, the loose sex, whatever."

"I wanted redemption for the fact that during the '80s, as a gay man, I didn't do enough for HIV and AIDS."

So Elton John decided to set himself on a new course. But first, he needed inspiration.

"I'm a great believer that something comes along and changes your life."

That life-changing "something" was the unlikely friendship between the drug-addicted rock star and a young hemophiliac from Indiana who'd contracted AIDS.

"It all came about with Ryan White and seeing how my life was so distorted and upside down," John recalled. "Yeah, I had some good times, but the good times compared to the bad times - not worth it. Not worth it."

Ryan White was just 19 when he died in 1990. Soon after, Elton John entered rehab.

"I'm 18 years clean and sober this year and I've never been happier," John shared. "But you have to have the humility to say, 'Okay, I've got to listen to people who know what the deal is.'"

On the advice of friends and doctors, he gave-up the hard-partying scene in Los Angeles for the southern gentility of Atlanta. His apartment, high above the city and overflowing with photographs, has been his American home ever since.

"We don't have any room," he told Mitchell, showing off his home. "All my walls are filled with photography upstairs."

And it's here in Atlanta, 16 years ago, that he established the Elton John AIDS Foundation to provide services to people living with the illness all over the world.

"Now when I started the foundation, the disease was basically about gay men," John said. "And since then, of course, it's blossomed or boomed into this worldwide epidemic - 33 million people being infected - and it affects everybody."

Recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that, after a long period of decline, the number of AIDS cases, especially among young gay men, is on the rise.

"We are facing an uphill battle again in countries that you thought you'd crossed, you'd done that, you've covered that territory," John said.

"Why do you think that's going on?" Mitchell asked.

"Because people think, 'Well, you know, even if I do get HIV, I'm going to be OK.' They don't realize the toxicity of the drugs they have to take. And I just think it's so reprehensible, with the information available to them. But they do it and so we have to help them."

And when Elton John says "we have to help," people listen. Today his foundation, now based in New York and London, is considered among the most successful AIDS charities in the world.

"It is a small operation in America," John said. "In fact it's two people. And in England it's about 12 people including volunteers. That way, you know where the money's going."

And the money is substantial.

"We're over $150 million in given-away grants and heading towards $200 million very quickly," John said.

And he expects to get closer to that goal tonight. The Academy Awards ceremony is not only Hollywood's biggest night - it's the foundation's, too. Every year since 1993, Elton John has thrown a celebrity-studded Oscar bash to benefit his charity.

"The first one, we raised $100,000. Last year, we raised $4.5 million. It's a big pile of money for us."

And tonight, Elton's party has another huge draw.

"I'm gonna play it for the first time. I normally get someone else to play it, but this time I'm playing."

Another periodic fundraiser that never disappoints is called Elton's Closet, where those old outrageous costumes have a new life.

"I clear out our closets and sell the clothes for the AIDS Foundation. We've had about five of them so far and they pull in a lot of money - $750,000 last time. We've been very lucky. And there are a lot of people walking around in a lot of ridiculous clothes! But ... good!" John said, laughing.

"The eye glasses, too?" Mitchell asked.

"No, I never give the eyeglasses," John said with a smile, "they're all in storage. God, I've got enough storage you know … I want to have an exhibition one day. I want to have my own Elton John Museum."

In the meantime, Elton John lives life "off display," preferring a lower-profile.

"I have a balanced life," John said. "My life was not balanced at all before, but I have someone in my life who I love, who balances me out."

Elton John and David Furnish, a former advertising executive, married two years ago on the day gay civil partnerships became legal in England.

"We've never sort of run down the streets waving placards," Furnish said. "We've just always said, "this is who we are. We're together. We're very much in love. We support each other. We're committed to each other.' And just try to live by example, really."

They've been together since 1993 when a mutual friend brought David along to dinner at Elton's house.

"I would look for love all the time and I made a decision, 'I'm not going to look for love anymore,' and when I made that decision, love walked through my front door and found me," John said.

"What was it about him in particular?" Mitchell asked.

"He's incredibly intelligent. He's not afraid to be honest," John told him. "He had his own car, his own place. This was new for me. I mean, this is Elton who took hostages and took people's lives and completely just said, 'Right, you're putting your life on hold. You come around the world with me.' Which of course always ended in tears."

Elton and David do travel the world - not in the service of Elton, but for the foundation.

"When you go out in the field into places like South Africa (I've been many times over the years), you get a real chance to see the difference that the work is making, the impact it's having," Furnish told Mitchell. "Eight years ago, when I went to South Africa, there were no antiretroviral drugs. Eight years later, you're going back and you're seeing people now who are living full lives on antiretroviral drugs. You're seeing instances where pregnant women are able to take antiretroviral drugs at the point of delivery and not pass the virus on to their children."

"The women specifically are saving South Africa," John added.

Their outreach work is not just about making medication available. It's about making it accessible.

"It's the logistics of AIDS," John said. "We've about 75-80 motorbikes we brought for Lesotho, which is a mountainous area. Even a 4x4 can't get through those mountains."

But David Furnish says he's amazed by one thing that always seems to get through:

"Elton's music has gone around the world and when he comes, they do recognize him."

Elton John says music and audiences have never let him down, and playing concerts is still one of his favorite things. Among the happiest was last year, on his 60th birthday when he performed to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. He played nearly three-and-a-half hours and then celebrated with friends.

"People gave me incredible birthday gifts," John remembered. "Someone came up to me and said, 'I never know what to buy you so here, here's something for you.' And it was a million dollars for the AIDS Foundation."

"Oh, wow," Mitchell reacted.

"I mean, I was flying!" said John.

And he says that's the kind of flying that keeps him grounded about where his newfound life has taken him.

"I have a very special, a very rich life," said John. "But when I see these people and the gratitude they have for the little amount that we've given them, then that just makes me feel I've got to do more. Because everyone who's human deserves to be treated with some dignity - whether they've done good things or bad things, they have to be given hope."