Elton marks half a century by joining classical greats

The Royal Academy of Music, more usually associated with the sounds of classical maestros, has extended honorary membership to Elton John, to mark his 50th birthday. Once known as much for his wild lifestyle as his music, the flamboyant singer-songwriter joins a growing list of modern musicians to be honoured by the academy.

Classical composers Richard Strauss, Mendelssohn and Liszt were joined in 1995 by the former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney. Leading tenor Jose Carreras and Annie Lennox, another classical student turned pop star, are also members.

Always a talented pianist, Elton studied at the Royal Academy in the 1960s, and a classical career seemed his destiny. A spokesman for the academy yesterday said honorary membership was the highest award it had to offer and that it was pleased to bestow it on an ex-pupil. The principal, Dr Curtis Price, said: "Elton was a prodigiously gifted child. Had he chosen to, he would certainly have progressed to our Senior Academy."

Instead, with lyricist Bernie Taupin, he wrote a string of pop classics, including Your Song, Candle In The Wind and Don't Go Breaking My Heart, notching up millions both in sales and his bank account.

Now a respected member of Britain's pop establishment, he has left his well-documented excesses of the 1970s far behind. Awarded a CBE last year, he entertains members of the Royal Family at his lavish home in Windsor.

Last night he celebrated his birthday in style with a host of celebrities at his customary Oscar night party in Los Angeles. Another party, planned in secret, is to be held on 6 April.

Elton has gained respect for his work for Aids charities and has offered support to celebrity friends - like ex-Take That singer Robbie Williams, who has suffered weight and alcohol problems. A relationship with film maker David Furnish, last year featured in a warts-and-all documentary, Tantrums And Tiaras - is said to have brought him happiness and stability.