EVANSTON - “Freedom” is one of tennis icon and equal rights advocate Billie Jean King’s favorite words, and she loved “Philadelphia Freedom” from the moment she heard the first three notes of the song written in her honor by singer Elton John.
When King joins Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro for the processional into Ryan Field for the University’s 159th Commencement on Friday (June 16), they will march to a rendition of that famous hit song by the British pop star.
John dedicated his smash hit single, released in 1975, “with Love to B.J.K. and the sound of Philadelphia.” It is a tribute to King, their friendship and the city’s people — and it came out fittingly a year before the American bicentennial celebration to come.
King’s selection as this year’s Commencement speaker also shines a light on the less well-known story behind how that song originally came to be. It goes back to the years just after King and John met for the first time at a party in Los Angeles in 1973.
At the time, King had been ranked the World No. 1 women’s tennis player five times over seven years, and John was in the midst of a sold-out tour of the United States, according to an account on the singer’s website. He was a wild sports fan, and she was a huge fan of his music.
Forty years after “Philadelphia Freedom” held the top position on the Billboard chart, King described in a 2015 interview posted on the singer’s website how she first met John at that party. The celebrated athlete said they had a mutual admiration for one another already, but both were too shy to introduce themselves until a friend put them together and told them to talk.
They did, and so began an extraordinary friendship between two pioneering role models in their own fields, two major celebrities of their era and two trailblazing icons who would become advocates for equal rights and the LGBTQIA community.
The next time they met, King had just arrived in London to play Wimbledon, and John asked to come visit, King recalled in the interview.
“So he comes over in his Rolls Royce with the 28 speakers, and he says, ‘What should we do?’ ” King remembered. “I said, ‘I don’t care. Whatever you want.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t wanna be in the hotel, let’s just sit in the car and talk.’ And of course he had the music playing the whole time, which was great. We probably talked until 3 or 4 in the morning. We just hit it off: he loves tennis … I love music …”
Fast forward to the summer of 1974 when they were driving together to one of John’s concerts, King said in the interview. “He looked over at me in the back of the car,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘I want to write a song for you.’ Of course I didn’t think I heard him right. I turned scarlet red, I’m sure, and went, ‘Oh please. What??’ And he goes, ‘No, I want to write a song, what are we gonna call it?’ And I said [exasperatedly], ‘I don’t know!’ Then he went, ‘How about ‘Philadelphia Freedom’?’ Because I played for the [World Team Tennis] Philadelphia Freedoms, and he used to come watch our matches.”
The rest is history. King observed, “I was thrilled. I said, ‘That’s great. It will be a great gift to the people of Philadelphia.’ And the timing was perfect because of the bicentennial being just the following year [from the song’s release]. And I love the word ‘freedom.’ I would say it is one of my all-time favorite words since I was a child. I remember talking about freedom in elementary school. And I am the one who named the team the Philadelphia Freedoms. And then in 2009 I got the Medal of Freedom from President Obama … it just goes on and on. Elton says the reason why the song works so well is because ‘Philadelphia’ is iambic.”
Later in the interview, King recalled that John wrote it in Colorado and first played the rough mix to King and her team, the Philadelphia Freedoms, who were in the playoffs against the Denver Racquets on Aug. 25, 1974. King asked if the team could listen, too.
“We’re in the locker room,” she said, “not real spiffy … and he put it in the cassette player on the trainer’s table, and I loved it within the first three notes. I love ‘the sound of Philadelphia’ — we’d talked about that already, so he really went out of his way to get people from Philadelphia to arrange it.”
King remembered saying, “I don’t like it, Elton, I love it, love it, love it.” She added, “He said, ‘We don’t have to understand what the words mean …’ and I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s the emotion of it.’
“We didn’t want it to be anything about tennis,” she noted in the interview. “No, it’s a feeling. It’s a great song for a team. It’s a great song if you’re not a team. The people in Philadelphia go, ‘That’s our anthem.’ And half the time they don’t know the backstory.”
Every year in recent times, Northwestern has planned an entrance song in honor of the commencement speaker. This year’s song will be played by the Commencement Symphonic Wind Ensemble, directed by Mallory Thompson, professor of music and director of bands. She has been conducting at commencement for 19 years, and these students from the Bienen School of Music are among the most talented performers graduating from any institution in the country.
President Schapiro helped institute the tradition of the customized entrance music because it creates an even more welcoming and special event for the annual speaker.
For example, Thompson noted, an easy choice was Riccardo Muti, musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who was the speaker at Northwestern’s commencement in 2014. “We played an excerpt from Verdi’s Requiem that year. Muti had won a Grammy for conducting the same work!” she said in an email. “He also had fun joking about the requiem for the dead, asserting that he ‘wasn’t dead yet.’”
King is widely known for championing equality in sports and in public life. She successfully campaigned to equalize tennis prize money and has been a strong advocate for LGBTQIA rights for decades.
When President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he said, “We honor what she calls 'all the off-the-court stuff' — what she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves and to give everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation — including my two daughters — a chance to compete both on the court and in life.”
When Elton John sings her song, the lyrics shine a light on the less fortunate:
Oh Philadelphia freedom shine on me, I love you
Shine a light through the eyes of the ones left behind
Shine a light shine a light
Bernie Taupin, who shared the songwriting credit for “Philadelphia Freedom,” has said the song was not about tennis. But his and John’s song is clearly a tribute to the soul of the city, to freedom and to Elton John’s friend Billie Jean King:
Shine a light wont you shine a light
Philadelphia freedom I love you, yes I do