Was Elton John’s Grandmother Really That Awesome?
Elton John's maternal grandmother is depicted in Rocketman as one of the only positive figures in his young life. Where his father was cold and distant and his mother self-absorbed and vindictive, Ivy Sewell is shown to be consistently nurturing and loving.
Sewell – who is portrayed in Rocketman by Gemma Jones – accompanies John to his audition at the Royal Academy of Music after his parents refuse. Later, when John composes "Your Song" in the living room of his mother's house, Sewell sits in the same room while his mother remains in the kitchen.
Sewell, whom John called "Nan," was in fact deeply involved in raising her grandson – mainly because the singer-songwriter's father was frequently away on duty in the Royal Air Force, Philip Norman says in his book Sir Elton. She originally sat the three-year-old Reginald Dwight down at his parents' upright piano; he would bash away as his mother performed household chores. They learned that young Reggie had a gift when he picked out the melody of Winifred Atwell's "The Skater's Waltz" without the use of sheet music.
Toward the end of her life, Sewell moved into Woodside, the estate in Old Windsor where John has lived since 1975. Norman says John sent her flowers every week without fail. Visiting shortly before her 1995 death, John playfully called her a "silly old sausage" when Sewell thanked him for sending her a card from Japan.
Sewell passed away when John was on the road with Billy Joel. "I knew she was going to die," John said, as recounted in Elizabeth J. Rosenthal's His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John. "It wasn't a shock, because she had a stroke. And she died peacefully at home, near her garden, which she loved."
Watch Elton John Accept an Academy Award
A week later, John won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." He concluded his acceptance speech by opening up about her: "I'd like to dedicate this award to my grandmother Ivy Sewell," he said. "She died last week, and she was the one that sat me down at the piano when I was three and made me play. So, I'm accepting this in her honor. Thank you very much."
After the tour concluded, John returned with his mother, aunt and uncle to spread Sewell's ashes on her garden. He then built a chapel on the property; John still he goes there to pay respects to those in his life who have passed away, including Princess Diana and Gianni Versace.
“She looked after me when I was starting out,” John later told Architectural Digest. “It was my turn to look after her. I used to say to her, ‘Nan, let me make these rooms nice for you.’ And she would always say, ‘No, dear, you save your money.’ After she died, I wanted to create something in her memory.”
Watch Elton John in John Lewis' 2018 Commercial
Sewell's seminal role in John's life was recalled again in a 2018 holiday commercial for John Lewis & Partners, the British department store. The ad featured present-day Elton John playing "Your Song" on an upright piano, then went back in time through various moments of his life. The final shot found John as a young boy receiving a piano on Christmas morning from his mother and grandmother.
“The John Lewis Christmas campaign has so many warm memories for me and my family,” John said in a statement. “It’s been a lovely opportunity for me to reflect on my life in music and the incredible journey I have been on, and how first playing my grandmother’s piano marks the moment when music came into my life.”