Shine a Light

How Billie Jean King’s friendship with Elton John gave us a bangin’ tennis anthem

Published January 28, 2022

Billie Jean King

Note to self: Find a way to caption this without a Thriller reference. (credit below)

Billie Jean King was absolutely bossing it in the early seventies. In 1972, she completed her career Grand Slam by winning the French Open, and followed that up with her fourth win at Wimbledon and her third U.S. Open title. A year later, she beat the polyester shorts off of Bobby Riggs in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes,” and she somehow had time to become the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association and to launch a women’s sports magazine too.

So it makes sense that when King went to a celeb-heavy party in Los Angeles in September 1973, Elton John was star-struck about meeting her. After eyeballing each other from across the room, the two of them were introduced and they hit it off immediately. When King went to England the next summer to play Wimbledon — she won the mixed-doubles title, nbd – she and John reconnected, hung out in his Rolls-Royce listening to records, and basically became besties.

“Well, I’m a sports groupie, you have to understand. And the only sport I play adequately is tennis,” John told Rolling Stone in November 1974. “I’d met her a year ago, and then we heard she’s at Wimbledon this year, and I went out with her a lot – eating out with her and having a laugh.”

He also decided that he wanted to write a song about, uh, tennis. “We were driving to one of his concerts and he looked over at me […] and he said ‘I want to write a song for you,’” King said in 2018. “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?’” 

In 1974, when she wasn’t kicking grass and taking names at the All England Club, King was a player-coach for the Philadelphia Freedoms in the shiny new World Team Tennis league. And, because she can do literally everything, she also named the freaking team. “I was the first person drafted in World Team Tennis […] by the Philadelphia team, but I also got to choose the name,” she told CBS Philadelphia. “So I said ‘That’s easy, it’s going to be [the Freedoms].” 

Philadelphia Freedom – Elton John

When John had that burst of energy in the back of his limo, he blurted out “How about ‘Philadelphia Freedom?’” John tasked his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin with writing the song, and he recorded it at the Sound Factory in Los Angeles later that summer. He also played an early version of the track for King and her Freedoms teammates. 

“[W]e’re in the locker room, not real spiffy, and he put the cassette player on the trainer’s table and I loved it within the first three notes,” King said. “He said, during the part where he goes ‘Philadelphia’ […] ‘That’s you getting upset with an umpire.’ Walking up to the umpire, stomping: “PHIL. UH. DEL-phia.”

The song was released in February 1975 and went straight to Number One. Unfortunately, by the time the single — which had “With Love to B.J.K.” printed on the label — was being shipped to record stores, the Philadelphia Freedoms had been sold, and would start the next World TeamTennis season as the Boston Lobsters

That didn’t seem to matter. When some listeners heard John singing the words “Philadelphia,” “freedom” and “flag,” they interpreted it as a symbol of patriotism in advance of the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Predictably, it’s also become an unofficial anthem for the Pennsylvania city. “When I go to Philadelphia, which is often, sometimes you’ll hear it in the background,” King continued. “And they’ll say, ‘Oh we love this. It’s the anthem to Philadelphia.’ And then someone will go, ‘Well, did you know…’ And then I’m asked to tell the story.”

The OG version of World TeamTennis dissolved in 1979, but King — who else? — resuscitated it two years later. The Philadelphia Freedoms rejoined the league in 2001 and King — again, who else? — is their current owner. 

So the next time you hear “Philadelphia Freedom,” instead of thinking of Ben Franklin or cheesesteaks or Rocky or whatever, maybe give a nod toward Billie Jean King, another straight-up American legend.

A version of this story appeared on the news page of Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink.

Feature image by Gage Skidmore, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.