WHEN THE FINAL NOTES OE "CANDLE IN THE Wind 1997" faded from Westminster Abbey on Sept. 6, Prince Harry was in tears, and the world was deeply moved. Although Elton John, 50, told the BBC's David Frost, "It was just a huge relief to have sung it and not got the words wrong," his anthem lamenting the death of Princess Diana became a 20th-century artifact. In just 37 days, it sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, surpassing Bing Crosby's 1942 "White Christmas" as the largest-selling single in recording history.

Not everybody's buying. Originally written by John and collaborator Bernie Taupin in 1973 about Marilyn Monroe, "Candle" struck a sour note with Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who sniped that John's only talent is "writing songs for dead blondes." But for most of us, it hit the perfect chord. "It touches an emotional core for a huge number of people," says John's close friend Sting. "It's the right song at the right time."

Much of "Candle's" aura comes from John himself. He pledged all his royalties—which so far amount to $48 million—to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. "He was amazed by the success," says Lorna Dickenson, who produced a British TV special on the singer, "but he felt it was Diana's doing as much as his. He really didn't want to be seen as profiting from her death." Those who know him are not surprised. John has long been a giver. When teenager Ryan White was dying of AIDS in 1990, the singer was at his bedside. In 1992 he formed the Elton John AIDS Foundation, funding it with all the royalties from his singles sales. So far the organization has distributed some $13 million to AIDS groups.

Indeed, it was through a common interest in helping sufferers that the singer forged a warm friendship with Diana. Since her death, and that of their close friend designer Gianni Versace, John has arrived at a new level of maturity—and stardom. Settled down with his companion of four years, film producer David Furnish, Captain Fantastic has released a new album, The Big Picture, turned out three new songs for the Broadway version of The Lion King and embarked on a worldwide tour. And, after a tumultuous year, he remains irreverently jolly about his prestige. " 'The Queen Mum of Pop' is definitely what I've been saddled with," he recently told London's Daily Mail. "If that's what it is, it's fine with me."