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Fly Away, Skyline Pigeon, Fly!

The Special Relationship of Elton John and AIDS Victim Ryan White

Ryan White (center) with Elton John (right)

Elton John has become almost as famous with his work on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention as he has for his music. Elton frequently plays benefits for the cause of AIDS awareness. His AIDS Foundation has raised millions for AIDS research. While the AIDS crisis is today nowhere near the global emergency it was in the 1980s among the gay and blood transfusion communities, Elton has steadfastly remained active in advocacy for AIDS research.

How Elton got deeply involved in this cause is highly tied to one of his first songs and his special relationship with AIDS victim Ryan White. Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote the song "Skyline Pigeon" for their first album Empty Sky and the original recording featured Elton on harpsichord and organ. It was re-recorded by Elton and his band in 1972 during the recording of “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m’ Only the Piano Player.” On the surface the song is about release and freedom from the shackles of pain and suffering tying one down, it was nearly 18 years later when the song became connected to AIDS victim, Ryan White. Ryan White was born in Kokomo Indiana on December 6, 1971. He was diagnosed with hemophilia at three-days-old. Relatively healthy for most of his childhood, White became sick with pneumonia and after a partial lung-removal procedure White was diagnosed with HIV-AIDS. He was given six-months to live by doctors. 

Initially, he was kept out of school but in 1985 began to feel better. His mother asked if he could return to school but the superintendent of the local Indiana School district under public pressure from concerned parents fearful for their own children’s health denied her request for Ryan to return to school. This led to an eight-month long legal battle. It was eventually decided that White could return to school according to and posed no danger to his classmates. However, the stigma associated with AIDS continued to hurt Ryan’s life, he returned to school for one day in February 1986 a third of the school stayed home, He also worked as a paper boy, but when his customers learned of his illness many cancelled their subscriptions. To make matters worse, when White was finally re-admitted to school full-time, many families withdrew their children and set them up in an alternative school. White was also subjected to abuse by many people questioning his sexuality, threatening violence and/or lawsuits. White managed to attend high school for the entire 1986-87 school year but had few friends, was forced to use separate utensils and bathrooms from the other students. The family moved to Cicero Indiana after a bullet had been fired into the living room of their Kokomo house while no one was home. On the first day at his new high school, was personally greeted by the school’s principal and superintendent as well as some students who were educated about HIV/AIDS and shook hands with him.

The publicity associated with the trial brought White to Elton’s attention, Elton befriended White and even paid White’s mother $16,500 dollars on a down payment for their new house and rather than accepting repayment, he placed the re-paid money into White’s sisters college fund.

White continued to be an advocate for victims of HIV/AIDS for the next few years before being admitted to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis on March 29th 1990 with a respiratory infection. Elton was one of the last visitors to see Ryan before his death on April 8, 1990. At Ryan’s funeral, Elton performed "Skyline Pigeon" and a quote from the song appears on his gravestone.

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Fly Away, Skyline Pigeon, Fly!
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