Philadelphia Freedom (as made famous by Elton John)

“Philadelphia Freedom” is a song released by The Elton John Band as a single in 1975. The song was the fourth of Elton John’s six number 1 US hits during the early and mid-1970s, which saw his recordings dominating the charts. In Canada it was his eighth single to hit the top of the RPM national singles chart.

The song was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin as a favour to John’s friend, tennis star Billie Jean King. King was part of the Philadelphia Freedoms professional tennis team. The song features an orchestral arrangement by Gene Page, including flutes, horns, and strings.

The song made its album debut on 1977’s Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II. The unedited version (without an early fade out) appears on the box set To Be Continued… and the 40th anniversary edition of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album.

Recorded in the summer of 1974, during breaks between sessions for Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the song was at the time the only song Elton John and Bernie Taupin had ever consciously written as a single, as John told journalist Paul Gambaccini. John was looking to honour Billie Jean King, and so asked Taupin to write a song called “Philadelphia Freedom” as a homage to her tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms.

In His Song: The Musical History of Elton John, Elizabeth Rosenthal recounts that Taupin said, “I can’t write a song about tennis,” and did not. Taupin maintains that the lyrics bear no relation to tennis, Philly Soul, or even flag-waving patriotism. Nonetheless, the lyrics have been interpreted as patriotic and uplifting, and even though it was released in 1975, the song’s sentiment, intentionally or not, meshed perfectly with an American music audience gearing up for the country’s bicentennial celebration in July 1976. In the US, the song was certified Gold in 1975 and Platinum in 1995 by the Recording Industry Association of America.[1] Billboard ranked it as the No. 3 song for 1975.

The song was dedicated in part to the Philadelphia sound: the music of the Delfonics, producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; and The Spinners, producer Thom Bell, with whom John would work two years later on The Thom Bell Sessions. This song plays in Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute IMAX Theater before every show as a tribute to the city’s love for freedom and its impact on the country. The lyrics are also printed on the walls of the Hard Rock Cafe in Philadelphia.

The B-side, “I Saw Her Standing There”, is a live recording of the Elton John Band with John Lennon at Madison Square Garden on 28 November 1974. It was the last of three songs John and Lennon performed together that night – the performance would mark Lennon’s last ever concert appearance. Three songs from that collaboration were featured on the 1975 album Elton John Band featuring John Lennon and the Muscle Shoals Horns (DJM Records).[2] These recordings can also be found on the Lennon box set and the remastered edition of John’s Here and There album.

Elton John met Billie Jean King in 1973 and, according to reporters for CNN, they have since built a “powerful partnership in philanthropy, raising hundreds of millions of dollars…for equal rights and for HIV/AIDS causes.” [3] Upon admiring and meeting King, John asked his long-term writing partner Bernie Taupin to write the lyrics to what became “Philadelphia Freedom” and dedicate it to his friend, King, who was a member of the Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team. The label on the vinyl for this record reads “with Love to B.J.K. and the sound of Philadelphia.” [4] At the time, King had just been ranked the “World Number 1 women’s player” for the fifth time in the previous seven years. Additionally, one reporter argued that she had “alter[ed] the gender perception of professional tennis with her victory against Bobby Riggs in a highly-publicized ‘Battle of the Sexes’ exhibition match.” [4]

The lyrics of “Philadelphia Freedom” are not explicitly about the match or King, but stem from a love of King and her cause. Prior to their match, Riggs claimed that even as a 55-year-old man, he could still beat a woman (King was 29 at the time) in a tennis match because it was a man’s game. The match was held on September 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome and was telecast worldwide. [5] Though usually cheering from the sidelines at every match, John lost his voice cheering King on from a Los Angeles hotel. [3] The year before the “Battle of the Sexes” match, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (though it was never put into law) and 1973 saw the decision of Roe v. Wade give women the right to choose to have an abortion.[6] King made other steps in feminism in 1973 when she founded The Women’s Tennis Association and “convinced the U.S. Open to award female champions the same prize money as men.” [3] This set the scene for King’s match and victory against Riggs.

The win ignited even more advocacy efforts for sexual equality, shattered the stereotype Riggs had presented and, as famous feminist Gloria Steinem put it, “provided…a morale change.” [5] King is now known as a” “champion for social change and equal rights.” [7]

Despite her success in the match and its historical importance, King told that they (she and Elton) did not want the song to be about tennis. “It’s a feeling,” she said. [4] King and John also co-founded the World Team Tennis Smash Hits, a charity function benefitting AIDS charities. [4]King speaks about her work with Elton, saying “We’re out there every single day with our energy and we’re going to make this world a better place, no matter if it’s through tennis, through music, whatever, to try to help the LGBT community, just help humanity.” [3]

Elton John – electric piano, vocals
Ray Cooper – tambourine, maracas, congas
Davey Johnstone – electric & acoustic guitars
Dee Murray – bass
Nigel Olsson – drums
Orchestral arrangement by Gene Page