How 'Candle in the Wind' became an anthem to Princess Diana

When words fail, music steps into the breach. After Lady Diana's death, "Candle in the Wind," Elton John's ballad about a life extinguished early, became the most successful single since the introduction of the charts.

Originally, "Candle in the Wind" was meant to celebrate another star. It its 1973 release, introduced by the words "Goodbye, Norma Jean," Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin paid tribute to Marilyn Monroe - describing not so much the film star as the turbulent life of a sensitive person destroyed by her stardom.

Taupin later revealed that he hadn't thought up the metaphor of a candle in the wind himself but had been inspired by an obituary to another female star who died tragically young: Janis Joplin, who overdosed on heroin in 1970 at the age of 27.

Then, on August 31, 1997 came the horrifying news: Lady Di had died in a car collision.

Elton John was in shock.

After meeting Diana in 1981 when he sang at a birthday celebration for Prince Andrew, they'd become close friends. Only six weeks before her death, she'd consoled him at the funeral of another friend, the fashion designer Gianni Versace.

Elton John and Lady Di, pictured here with George Michael (right), were close friends

From Marilyn to Diana

The royal family contacted Elton John to ask whether he would sing at Diana's funeral. The song "Candle in the Wind" immediately came to mind, but the text about a Hollywood star would have been inappropriate at a memorial service in Westminster Abbey.

John contacted Bernie Taupin in California, who wrote a new text, drawing parallels between the life of Diana and that of Marilyn Monroe, who had also died at age 36.

"I wanted to make it sound like a country singing it," said Taupin. The text was finished within hours. "From the first couple of lines I wrote, the rest sort of fell into place." 

At Diana's funeral on September 6, 1997 - seven days after the tragedy - Elton John sat at the piano and sang "Goodbye, England's Rose." Later, he described the experience as "surreal."  "What was going through my mind was 'Don't sing a wrong note. Be stoic. Don't break down and just do it the best you can possibly do it without showing any emotion whatsoever.' My heart was beating quite a lot, I have to say."

The effect was overwhelming, "like someone firing an arrow" through his emotional defenses, Prince Harry later revealed.

Read more: UK's Prince Harry drops stiff upper lip over Diana death

Only 12 years old, he and his brother William had to endure the eyes of the world on them at the memorial service for their mother - and both were determined not to cry. But hardly another eye of the 2,000 in attendance at Westminster Abbey was dry at the words "Now you belong to heaven / And the stars spell out your name." 

Read more: Why I didn't watch Princess Diana's funeral

A phenomenal charts success

A production in West London's Townhouse Studios was finished posthaste with piano and vocals by Elton John, balanced by a string quartet and an oboist to accommodate the special arrangement by Sir George Martin. On September 13, 1997, exactly a week after Diana's funeral, "Goodbye, England's Rose" was released on the B-side of a record with another Elton John song, "Something About the Way You Look Tonight."

The sales outperformed everything to date, totaling 658,000 on the first day alone. One week later, they stood at 1.5 million units, and after 15 days, three million. Sales in the US eventually totaled 11 million, and in Germany 4.75 million copies.

It's estimated that at the flush of sales, "Goodbye, England's Rose" changed hands six times per second. 

With 33 million units sold worldwide, it is sometimes called the best-selling single ever, although that rank is disputed. At an estimated - but unverifiable - 50 million units, Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" still holds the top spot in the Guinness Book of Records. Many of those records had been sold before the introduction of the pop charts in the 1950s.

One-time song

Elton John performed "Goodbye, England's Rose" only once - at Diana's funeral - and never again.

In concerts he always performs the earlier, 1973 version of "Candle in the Wind." The artist specified that sales proceeds from the 1997 version go to charitable causes that had been close to Diana's heart.

A fund was set up, and after it was closed 15 years later in 2012, a total of 138 million British pounds ($177 million) had been tallied up, of which an astonishing 38 million pounds ($49 million) came from the sale of "Candle in the Wind" alone.

Here's the song text:

Goodbye England's rose
May you ever grow in our hearts
You were the grace that placed itself
Where lives were torn apart
You called out to our country
And you whispered to those in pain
Now you belong to heaven
And the stars spell out your name

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in
And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England's greenest hills
Your candle's burned out long before
Your legend ever will

Loveliness we've lost
These empty days without your smile
This torch we'll always carry
For our nation's golden child
And even though we try
The truth brings us to tears
All our words cannot express
The joy you brought us through the years

Goodbye England's rose
From a country lost without your soul
Who'll miss the wings of your compassion
More than you'll ever know.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Versace and the Queen of Hearts

Princess Diana wore a legendary Versace dress for a photo shoot in 1991, pictured here at the "Diana: Her Fashion Story" exhibition in Kensington Palace. At an auction in 2015 the elaborate gown, said to have been Gianni Versace's first creation for Lady Di, fetched a record $200,000 (about 190,000 euros at the time). Versace and the princess were close friends until his death in July 1997.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Stages of life

Diana's more romantic look in the 1980s made way for sleek designer dresses in the 1990s, which the princess learned to use as "tools of diplomacy." When her marriage began to fail, her wardrobe increasingly communicated independence and power.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Humble beginnings

Young Lady Diana Spencer wasn't at all familiar with the world of designer fashion. All she owned was a dress, a blouse and a pair of good shoes, so she borrowed clothes from her friends. Diana wore this pale pink blouse for her official engagement portrait to Prince Charles in 1981, and the brown tweed outfit for her honeymoon at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Honeymoon with Charles

At first, Diana was only the woman at Charles' side. It took a while before the 20-year-old adjusted to her new role after her wedding in 1981. But she later became more self-confident and independent, and that began to reflect in the clothes she wore.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Iconic wardrobe

Over the years, Diana increasingly used clothing to make a diplomatic statement. A silk dress for a visit in Saudi Arabia (at left) was embroidered with gold falcons, the national symbol of the oil state.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Dancing with Travolta

This Victor Edelstein gown is one of the highlights of the exhibition at Kensington Palace. Diana wore the midnight blue velvet evening gown at a White House gala dinner in 1985, where she famously danced with actor John Travolta. She wore the Travolta dress again two years later on a state visit with Charles to Bonn, still the German capital at the time.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Power dressing

Over the years, Diana increasingly took control of how she was represented, "intelligently communicating through her clothes," according to the exhibition. Her favorite designer was Catherine Walker, who outfitted the princess with elegant gowns. Later, Diana wore Walker's exquisitely tailored suits at daytime charity events like lunch at the Savoy Hotel or hospital visits with HIV/AIDS patients.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Most photographed woman in the world

Diana's interactions with the press characterized the classic love-hate relationship. Sometimes she would complain about pushy photographers, but then she would deliberately leak her indiscretions to the media. An entire industry formed around the princess, scrounging for exclusive snapshots or alleged "insider information."

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

The people's princess

Diana's separation from Charles was announced in 1992, and the 1990s showed a marked change in the princess' clothing style to more pragmatic "work clothes." The Princess of Wales was turning into the "People's Princess," the term used by then Prime Minister Tony Blair after her death in August 1997.

Princess Diana: Dresses that tell a story

Fashion legacy

At the very end of the exhibition, visitors can marvel at five of Princess Diana's most stunning evening gowns. She wore them for a photo shoot with star photographer Mario Testino. Photos on the walls show a radiant, self-confident Diana who seems to be comfortable with her place in life. The exhibition is ongoing through February 2018.