It’s difficult to remember a time when Elton John was in the closet. And yet, much of the world was shocked when the flamboyant performer – who wore sparkly hot pants in concert and was followed to Manhattan gay clubs – got candid about his personal life in the Oct. 7, 1976, issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

This wasn’t orchestrated as a publicity stunt, by the magazine or John. In fact, John had been avoiding the press during his run of shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which would be among his last before a planned hiatus. But writer Cliff Jahr and photographer Ron Pownall (the pair of freelancers that Rolling Stone had assigned to the piece) were persistent, and they finally got the call to meet with John on the last day of his tour. They would do the interview and shoot the photos in John’s suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.

The magazine might not have had an agenda (other than to feature one of the biggest stars in the world on the cover), but Jahr did. The writer was openly gay and had an inkling about the flamboyant rock star.

“Cliff was out and proud,” Pownall said in a 2015 interview. “He was convinced that John was gay, or bi, but no one talked openly about homosexuality then. Certainly not in the press.”

Jahr’s goal wasn’t to land a “gotcha” moment, but to get his subject to open up in a way John hadn’t before. He was concerned that John would be scared off by a tape recorder and photographer snapping shots during an intimate conversation. Pownall said that he and Jahr planned a code word – “privacy” – that would be the lensman’s cue to leave the room.

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Although Pownall wandered into an adjoining room at the signal, it turned out that John was less shy than Jahr expected. The reporter asked, “Can we get personal? Should we turn off the tape?” John responded, “Keep going …” Jahr asked about John’s love life. The star shared first shared his loneliness.

“I crave to be loved,” he said. “That’s the part of my life I want to have come together in the next two or three years and it’s partly why I’m quitting the road. My life in the last six years has been a Disney film and now I have to have a person in my life.”

A reflective John kept talking.

“I’d rather fall in love with a woman eventually because I think a woman probably lasts much longer than a man,” he said. “But I really don’t know. I've never talked about this before. Ha, ha. But I’m not going to turn off the tape. I haven’t met anybody that I would like to settle down with – of either sex.”

And there it was. John was revealing a side of himself to Jahr that he had never shown to any other interviewer. To be clear, the reporter asked if John was bisexual.

“There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex,” John replied. “I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be. I think you’re bisexual. I think everybody is.”

The conversation continued, with John lightening the confessional mood with cracks about how the news was going to go down with his soccer team and that people “should draw the line at goats” when it comes to sex. Later, Jahr asked the star about how he thought the news would be received by fans, readers and the public.

“There shouldn’t be too much reaction but you probably know those things better than me,” John said. “Nobody’s had the balls to ask me about it before. I would have said something all along if someone had asked me, but I’m not going to come out and say something just to be – I do think my personal life should be personal.”

Although John’s sexuality was something of an open secret within the rock ’n’ roll community, it clearly wasn’t the case with the masses. After Rolling Stone published the interview as a cover story – with the headline “Elton’s Frank Talk” – media outlets reported on John’s personal life. Walter Cronkite even covered it on the evening news.

It seemed like many people were stunned by the news and some in the press suggested that John’s record sales dipped as a result. The numbers don’t necessarily bear this out, seeing that “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” was released about a month after the cover story hit newsstands and it still hit the Top 10 in the U.S.  and No. 11 in the U.K.).

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While John took time off the road, his album sales dropped (although considering he had a string of No. 1 albums from 1972-75, there wasn’t anywhere to go but down). His commercial fortunes recovered in the ’80s and not long after that he got married to a woman. After a quick romance, John wed sound engineer Renate Blauel in 1984. Many theorized that the relationship was a cover-up for John’s homosexuality. Regardless, the couple divorced in 1988, the same year he told Rolling Stone he was “comfortable being gay.”

Since 1993, John has been in a relationship with former advertising executive David Furnish. The pair entered into a civil partnership when it became legal for homosexual couples to do so in Britain in 2005. They married in 2014, the same year British law changed to include gay marriage. John has long been a champion for gay rights and gay-related charities, even founding the Elton John AIDS foundation in 1992 and engaged in a public discussion with Russian president Vladimir Putin over anti-gay legislation in Russia.

Cliff Jahr wasn’t as fortunate as John. Although the writer continued writing pieces for big-name publications and collaborated on a biography about Lana Turner and a memoir of Frank Sinatra’s wife Barbara, his health took a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with HIV and then AIDS. He died from the disease in 1991. He was 54.

His colleague Pownall said that Jahr remained proud of the John interview – an important moment in pop culture, rock ’n’ roll and gay acceptance. “It was courageous for a mainstream artist like Elton John to come out in such a public way, and it moved the needle on an important conversation,” the photographer said.

In 2012, John reflected on the interview, pointing out that he had “been waiting for people to ask me this. It’s not exactly a secret. I live[d] with my manager. I’m openly gay outside. I don’t have a girlfriend. And nobody’s ever actually out – I just thought it was common knowledge.”

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