Elton John‘s “Philadelphia Freedom” wasn’t crafted as a patriotic song, though it became one anyway during the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. Released in February 1975, It was actually meant to celebrate the singer-songwriter’s friendship with tennis legend Billie Jean King.
John, in fact, has always held athletes in very high regard – “I’m more in awe of sports people,” he told the Deseret News in 1993, “than I am of royalty” – but none more so than King.
A groundbreaking pioneer in her sport, King had memorably swept Wimbledon a few years before, claiming the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in 1973. She’d go on to win a total of 39 grand-slam championships.
Still in the midst of Colorado-based sessions for Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, John decided to honor her in song. He took inspiration from King’s Philadelphia Freedoms, a charter franchise in the newly formed mixed-gender World TeamTennis pro league.
“I was the first person drafted in World TeamTennis and I was drafted by the Philadelphia team, but I also got to choose the name,” King told CBS in 2019. “I loved the word freedom — I always have, even as a child.”
“I said, ‘I shall write a song for you.’ ‘Here Bernie, good luck,'” John quipped in the liner notes for his To Be Continued box set. “It was at the same time of all those great O’Jays, Billy Paul, the MSFB records were coming out of Philadelphia. ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ was a tribute to that music, and from a one-off single point of view, I don’t think we’ve ever bettered it.”
King admitted to being embarrassed by the gesture at first, but she quickly came to understand the song’s wider implications. “I said, ‘That’s great. It will be a great gift to the people of Philadelphia,'” King said in a Q&A for John’s official website. “And the timing was perfect because of the Bicentennial being just the following year.”
Taupin found himself struggling with the concept, ultimately admitting to his songwriting partner that he couldn’t write a song about tennis. (“Not exactly the easiest title to deal with, I might add,” he argued in the To Be Continued notes.) Taupin ended up with a set of lyrics that he later confessed were basically gibberish.
Listen to Elton John’s ‘Philadelphia Freedom’
People heard what they wanted to hear: a soaring anthem that name-checked the cradle of American independence. “Philadelphia Freedom” became the fourth of six chart-topping hits John would score in the early- to mid-’70s.
King shared John’s giddy fandom, by the way. “We were both chubby and couldn’t see well,” she told Us magazine in 2017. “I wanted to play the piano and he wanted to be an athlete.”
They initially crossed paths in 1973, when she arrived for a party not knowing whom the guest of honor was. She asked the host, promoter Jerry Parencio, “and he goes, ‘Oh, it’s for Elton John,'” King told CNN in 2013. “And I about fainted, because Elton was my favorite, but I’d never met him.”
Rolling Stone asked John about their budding friendship after he dedicated a song to King during a 1974 concert at the Forum in Los Angeles. “Well, I’m a sports groupie, you have to understand,” John admitted. “And the only sport I play adequately is tennis. I’d met her a year ago, and then we heard she’ll be at Wimbledon this year, and I went out with her a lot – eating out with her and having a laugh.”
During one of those lengthy conversations, John mentioned writing a song for King. He played “Philadelphia Freedom” to her for the first time later that year in the locker room before a playoff game in Colorado where the Freedoms were set to face the Denver Racquets. “I said, ‘I don’t like it, Elton – I love it, love it, love it,'” King told John’s website. “He said, ‘We don’t have to understand what the words mean … ,’ and I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s the emotion of it.”
They became fast friends, then partners in a lifetime of philanthropy. The pair worked together on countless pro-ams, benefits and initiatives including the World TeamTennis Smash Hits, a charity event they co-chaired to support AIDS charities. King later served on the board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
“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,” King told CNN.
She still has a vintage copy of a “Philadelphia Freedom,” which boasted a then-mysterious inscription: “With love to B.J.K.” Now, everybody knows whom that referred to, even if the rest of the song’s intent remains stubbornly unclear.
“The people in Philadelphia go, ‘That’s our anthem’ – and half the time they don’t know the backstory,” King said in the Q&A. “When I go to Philadelphia, which is often, sometimes you’ll hear it in the background – on the radio. And they’ll say, ‘Oh, we love this. It’s the anthem to Philadelphia.’ And then someone will go, ‘Well, did you know … ?'”