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The unflickering candle

Long after most of his '70 peers have faded into the setting sun of their fame, Elton John seems to have singlehandedly discovered pop music's fountain of youth.

Consider that of all the Gen-X popsters who have captured healthy shares of the market in the 1990s _ heavyweights such as Hootie and the Blowfish, Jewel, Alanis Morissette and even the reigning champ, Celine Dion _ none have topped the 51-year-old singer's record sales.

That commanding success in the topsy-turvy world of rock 'n' roll surprises no one more than John himself, who years ago predicted that his career would be heading for the dumper long before he reached middle age.

Of course, much of that phenomenal commerce is credited to last year's Princess Diana tribute single, Candle in the Wind, the remake of his 1973 hit, which topped the 42-million mark, making it the biggest-selling single of all time. Yet other impressive strikes in recent years, such as Circle of Life, The One and the huge hit, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, have kept John squarely in top ranks of the adult contemporary charts while endearing him to generations of younger listeners.

So, what's the secret to John's enduring popularity?

First and foremost, he is a master craftsman of memorable pop melodies with a unique emotive flair. With longtime lyric collaborator Bernie Taupin, John has cranked out an impressive repertoire over his three-decade career, from sentimental ballads to durable rockers. Perhaps no other contemporary solo artist other than, say, Billy Joel has come as close to turning out consistent mass appeal successes.

Then there is Elton John the entertainer. More subdued these days than the buffoonish character he portrayed in garish stage garb during his '70s heyday, he still cuts loose for his fans in energetic fashion. (His current concert tour in support of his album The Big Picture keeps him onstage for a full 2{ hours each night as he performs nearly two dozen songs.)

To many fans there is one more public personification, one John would just as soon not symbolize. Recent events have made him the pop world's grieving heart, a doleful figure who has often brought a soul-searching perspective to human tragedy.

Few can forget John's somber yet steady rendering of Candle in the Wind at the funeral for Princess Diana last year as the world watched with stunned emptiness. Just a month earlier it was she who had comforted him as he sat sobbing at the funeral of a longtime friend, fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was murdered outside his Miami Beach home.

But perhaps the closest and most vivid personal loss, the one that still haunts John today, was the death of Ryan White in 1990. White was an Indiana teenager with hemophilia who contracted AIDS four years earlier from a blood transfusion. John was taken by the young man's strength as he battled the disease and the social stigma and isolation that went it.

"It was so horrible to watch what he had to go through," John told an interviewer once. "You couldn't help but to feel some of that pain that he and his family lived with."

John devoted himself to White and his family through their long, agonizing fight, becoming an outspoken defender of his dignity. And when the end was near, John kept vigil at his bedside, and later offered a special song at his funeral.

Through the years John has become a staunch AIDS activist, and he now heads the Atlanta-based Elton John AIDS Foundation, a charity supported largely by the profits generated from sales of John's singles, as well as benefit concerts and other fund-raising events.

All of which has helped John to reassess his life, or as he puts it, "to make sure I have something in my own life other than being Elton John."

Even with his continuing success, John considers the next few years to be pivotal in his musical journey. He would like to take his music away from formulated pop. He feels that he has matured enough to at least attempt to branch out beyond those confines, something that he says wouldn't have happened a few years ago.

"I've learned to listen more; that is the difference between Elton now and then," he told Billboard magazine last year. "I listen to what people have to say. I process it and I don't automatically throw it away."