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Elton John has joined the elite club of EGOTs – but that’s no sign of greatness

Gold standard: Elton John at Glastonbury
Gold standard: Elton John at Glastonbury

Elton John has headlined Glastonbury, duetted with Britney Spears and bankrolled Watford FC to the FA Cup Final. Now, at 76, pop’s Rocketman has blasted his way into the record books all over again by becoming just the 19th individual in history to secure the dizzying accolade of “EGOT” winner.

He did so at Monday night’s Emmy Awards, where he received a gong in absentia for his Disney + live performance from Dodger Stadium. That Emmy joins Elton’s trove of Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. Put it all together, and it spells “EGOT” – the ultimate signifier of pre-eminence in the entertainment industry.

Club EGOT is a strange place. Winners of the four most prestigious awards in entertainment include icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Mel Brooks – alongside middle-of-the-road crowd-pleasers such as John Legend, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Whoopi Goldberg. There are a few acknowledged geniuses in its ranks, but no place for ground-breakers such as Steven Sondheim or Leonard Bernstein. Its defining quality is perhaps sheer randomness: John Gielgud, for instance, gained EGOT membership in 1991 with an Emmy for instantly-forgotten minis-series Summer’s Lease (adapted from a John Mortimer novel).

Gielgud was one of the greats. You’d never guess it looking at his EGOT hit-parade. He claimed his Oscar for playing valiant valet Hobson in the lamentable 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle Arthur, while his Grammy came for the spoken-word album Ages of Man – Readings from Shakespeare. Only his Tony for a 1948 production of The Importance Of Being Earnest can be regarded as an acknowledgement of true excellence.

Gielgud also made history as the first gay person to centre the EGOT Hall of Fame. However, in 1991, the landmark went unnoticed – largely because the cult of the EGOT was still finding its feet.

The concept was first coined in the early Eighties by Miami Vice actor Philip Michael Thomas – Tubbs to Don Johnson’s Crockett. Previously, a clean sweep of American entertainment’s biggest awards, if referred to at all, was known as the “Grand Slam”.

Thomas had a ritzier term in mind. In an interview with the Associated Press, he revealed that he wanted to bag an Emmy for Miami Vice, a Grammy for his albums, an Oscar for a play he hoped to adapt as a film, and a Tony for his musical work.

“That stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony,” he told the reporter, Jerry Buck. “Hopefully, in the next five years, I will win all those awards.” He went so far as to have a medallion engraved with “EGOT” – which he elaborated also stood for his philosophy of “Energy, Growth, Opportunity and Talent”.

Elton John won his second Oscar for Rocketman
Elton John won his second Oscar for Rocketman - Jeff Kravitz

Thomas was fated never to win a single one of those coveted awards. The best he could manage was a 1986 Golden Globe nomination for best TV actor (he lost to his on-screen partner, Don Johnson). Nor did EGOT initially catch on – Gielgud never referenced it in his 1991 Emmys speech. It wasn’t until 2009 and the satirical US comedy 30 Rock that the EGOT arrived, courtesy of a storyline in which Tracy Morgan’s alter-ego Tracy Jordan acquires Thomas’s medallion and vows to gain entry to club EGOT.

The EGOT storyline was created by 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, who had noticed the term popping up whenever celebrities gathered to compare their awards season haul. “You’d hear this red carpet commentary that they were one award away from EGOT-ing.”

EGOT began to catch on. “I watched ‘30 Rock’ and loved the concept,” said songwriter Robert Lopez, who gained EGOT status in 2014 when his song Let It Go from Frozen won an Oscar. “One doesn’t really ever think of themselves as a candidate for achieving something so ridiculous, but I realised that maybe I could do it one day.”

Fellow EGOT club member Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for Ghost
Fellow EGOT club member Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for Ghost

Not all EGOTs are created equally. The honour was first achieved by composer Richard Rodgers, the musical theatre composer who, together with Oscar Hammerstein, wrote South Pacific, Oklahoma and The King and I. He gained the EGOT in 1962 with an Emmy for his soundtrack to the documentary Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years.

Rodgers had, for good measure, also won a Pulitzer prize – making him history’s first and only PEGOT. Of course, there are so many awards nowadays that you could easily expand on those acronyms. Thank goodness, of instance, that nobody has yet to claim a Tony, Wainwright Prize, Emmy, Royal Televisions Society Award and Pulitzer: it would make them a bit of a TWERP.

Rodgers was a master of his craft. Not all EGOTs are quite so exalted. John Legend has an Emmy for a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, a first Grammy for his debut album, Get Lifted, an Oscar for his song Glory from 2014’s Selma, and a Tony for his work as co-producer of August Wilson’s Jitney.

Yet nobody would argue that he deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Richard Rodgers: to most people, Legend is what happens if you forced Michael Bublé to take up piano or put James Blunt in a nice suit and exiled him to Hollywood.

There is also the caveat that Legend’s Tony was for his work as producer rather than performer, which brings us to the dirty little secret of the EGOTs – that it is possible to game the system. Or so believes Andrew Lloyd Webber, who recalled another musician asking him how to add a Tony to his Grammy and Emmy collection. “I said, “Well, one way you could do that is become a producer, put some money into a few shows,”” he said. “Every show seems to have 20 producers these days.”

Elton John didn’t need to do that, of course. The singer was absent from the Emmys as he was recovering from a knee operation. However, his producer, Ben Winston, admitted that nobody involved in the Disney + broadcast had any idea it would put Elton in the frame for an EGOT.

“We didn’t know it would be historic because it was going to win a man, who has created the soundtrack to our lives, he’s done so much great for society, who is all of our hero,” said Winston. “We didn’t know it would win him an Egot.”

Yet that’s what has happened. For Elton, it is a nice feather in the bow – one more accolade in a career strewn with them. However, the true winner in all this is perhaps the cult of the EGOT itself. When Tracy Morgan turned up on 30 Rock wearing his EGOT gold chain, the concept was regarded as a joke. But John’s victory has added to its aura. Written off as a punchline for much of history, this morning it is clear the EGOT has landed.

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