Flanked by the president and first lady, John, wearing his signature red-tinted spectacles, looked visibly shocked as he first spotted the medal, covering his face with his hands in disbelief.
“I’m never flabbergasted, but I’m flabbergasted and humbled and honored by this incredible award from the United States of America,” he said, overcome, moments after clutching Jill Biden’s hand and hugging her husband. “I will treasure this so much.”
The Grammy-winning singer praised “America’s kindness to me as a musician,” calling it “second to none,” and vowed that the medal would push him to redouble his efforts to help eradicate the illness that impacts more than 38 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization.
Biden, a big fan, described John as a “tidal wave,” quoting Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and praised his “incredible career.”
With the White House as his backdrop, John opened with “Your Song,” followed by classics including “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man” and “Crocodile Rock.” He closed with the jaunty “I’m Still Standing.”
The concert on the South Lawn, titled “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme,” was part of his farewell tourafter a glittering 50-year career. It was also an event to honor “everyday history-makers in the audience,” according to the White House, among them teachers, military families and LGBT+ advocates.
John dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to Ryan White and his mother, Jeanne White-Ginder, who attended the concert. Her son lost his life to AIDS-related complications after a blood transfusion and died in 1990, just a month before his high school graduation.
The legendary singer launched the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992, which has raised over $450 million and funded programs across four continents. In between songs, John spoke to the audience about his hope to help eradicate the virus by 2030.
Among the estimated 2,000 guests were former first lady Laura Bush, tennis champion Billie Jean King, British Ambassador to the United States Karen Elizabeth Pierce, and John’s husband, David Furnish. Members of Biden’s administration including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also attended.
John previously performed at the White House in 1998 alongside Stevie Wonder at a state dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
He has sold more than 300 million records worldwide, according to his official website, and held more than 4,000 performances in over 80 countries.
He became Sir Elton John after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998 and has been a close ally of Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, defending them in the press after the criticism they received for stepping back from senior royal duties. John reworked “Candle In The Wind” after the death of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, in 1997, which went on to break records, selling over 33 million copies.
John told fans while onstage in Canada this past week that he had been “very sad” to learn of the death of the queen, praising her decency and noting that she had for decades “worked bloody hard.”
His medal from Biden will sit alongside his Legion d’Honneur, given to him by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019.