Elton John’s warning during coronavirus benefit: ‘There was another infectious disease that was ignored’

On Sunday evening, Sir Elton John hosted iHeart Living Room Concert for America, an hour-long, commercial-free special honouring the health professionals and first responders battling the coronavirus outbreak, and encouraging viewers to donate to Feeding America and the First Responders Children’s Foundation.

A-list stars like Mariah Carey, Billie Eilish, and Alicia Keys participated by playing intimate performances, with John serving as master of ceremonies.

And while the event was a largely joyous affair, at one point John, a longtime AIDS activist and founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, warned that the mistakes made during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s cannot be repeated during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Not long ago, there was another infectious disease that was ignored,” John stated sternly. “It took musicians, actors, dancers, but it also took writers and bankers and lawyers and sons and daughters and best friends. Day in and day out, the disease got worse, because we did nothing.

Elton John performed on the online benefit concert.
Elton John performed on the online benefit concert. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

“Too many forgot about compassion and decency, and so millions and millions of people perished from AIDS. But this time, we aren't going to let that happen. So, stay home for the ones you love.”

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While John’s comments divided Twitter, almost everyone watching iHeart Living Room Concert for America seemed to enjoy the actual feelgood performances — which the participating all-stars all shot at home, using their personal cell phones and video equipment, in the name of social distancing.

In fact, when the Backstreet Boys crooned their 1999 classic “I Want It That Way,” they took social distancing to a whole other level, staying way farther apart than just six feet. Instead, Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, AJ McLean, and Howie Dorough performed as a clever virtual quartet, singing separately in self-quarantine and mingling their five-part harmonies digitally.

BSB weren’t the only ones enjoying a virtual jam session. Tim McGraw did a remote poolside performance of “Something Like That,” complete with his dog in the background and occasional interfering wind noise, while his isolated bandmates were seen in split-screen effect.

Meanwhile, in a very rare (and impressively whistle-tone-embellished) performance of “Always Be My Baby” from Mariah Carey’s home studio — dedicated to “dem babies for being so patient and staying here with me at home and not complaining too much” — the diva was joined by her sequestered backup singers and keyboardist Daniel Moore.

A couple other performers got a little more up-close and personal. Billie Eilish celebrated the one-year anniversary of her Grammy-winning debut album by kicking it on the couch with her brother, producer, and co-writer Finneas O’Connell for a laid-back acoustic cover of “Bad Guy,” while the currently happily boo’d-up Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello dueted on “My Oh My.”

Another famous Billie — Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day — performed, also with dogs nearby, keeping it real and raw as at one point he seemed to forget the lyrics to his own “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” (To be fair, it appeared that one of his dogs distracted him.) Armstrong’s fellow ‘90s icon, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, dedicated “My Hero” to first responders, then advised, “If you sing that last chorus every time you wash your hands, I think you’ll be in good shape!” Alicia Keys also dedicated “Underdog” to “the first responders and medical professionals that are risking their lives to keep us safe,” while an actual medical professional, Dr. Elvis Francois of the Mayo Clinic, beautifully sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” in his scrubs, with his uniformed colleague accompanying him on piano.

Other performers included H.E.R., Demi Lovato, and Sam Smith. The latter sang “How Do You Sleep” a cappella in his London bedroom, sheepishly saying, “I don't play an instrument, so it's just my voice. I hope that's OK.”

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Elton had actually claimed he would not perform due to a lack of instrument and an apparent reluctance to sing a cappella — “I happen to be quarantined in the only house I've ever been in without a piano,” he quipped — but at the end of the broadcast he surprised viewers by bringing out his son’s portable electric keyboard and playing a bit of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” in his sunlit kitchen.

“Here we are, all together at home. You've got your family and loved ones. I'm keeping mine close too. We're taking care of one another, looking out for each other, doing what we can during this crisis,” said John.

“There's a lot of grief out there, uncertainty and fear. But let me tell you what's going to keep us together: all the goodness that's still happening in this world. Those doctors, nurses, and scientists on the frontlines. They're living proof that most superheroes don't wear capes.

“Families finding ways to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to loved ones. Teachers writing letters to their students. It's inspiring. It shows us that once we get through these tough times, better days lie ahead.”

Watch the full iHeart Living Room Concert for America below: