October 17, 2021

From the Vaults: Elton John

     In the 2017 movie, Kingsman:  The Golden Circle, Elton John plays himself, at least he does a spot on parody of the ‘Chicken Suit Elton John’.  I do not recall exactly if John had really worn the chicken outfit on stage in the past, but it resembled a cross between the mass of feathers he sported on the Muppet Show in 1977 and the Donald Duck outfit he wore performing in New York City’s Central Park in 1980.  The star of The Golden Circle, Taron Egerton, would go on to be cast as EJ himself in the 2019 biopic Rocketman.  Though I have only seen the trailer for Rocketman, the iconic stage outfit that stuck with me was the bejewelled LA Dodgers uniform Taron / Elton donned to recreate a concert held at Dodgers Stadium (where else?).  One can do a short search on the WWW and find dozens upon dozens of costumes worn by Sir Elton from the early 1970s on.  Strangely enough, the three examples cited above are rather tame when compared to some of the other getups he wore.

     Elton John is no stranger to making news.  Of late, his stage clothes tend toward sequined tuxes and tails for his residency performances in Las Vegas.  A little farther back in time, his reworking of A Candle in the Wind after the death of Princess Diana dominated the airwaves, print media, and news sites.  For the last thirty years, extensive media coverage has painted a picture of John as a confident, top of the A-list performer.  Famous (and even everyday folk) have their ups and downs, but over time, memories of the low spots in a career (or life) tend to fade and the glitzy parts seem to grow a life of their own.  I would like to take you back a little farther in time and look at the very beginning of Elton John’s career, back before the polished performer emerged.

     According to Classic Rock Magazine (Johnny Black’s August 2021 article Captain Fantastic), Elton’s first album (Empty Sky) made but a ripple across the pond.  Regardless, he was still voted the fifth-most promising pop act in the United Kingdom that year.  His self-titled second record did climb to No. 5 in the UK but he wasn’t a star by any means.  His singles failed to chart and John was playing gigs at universities and small clubs.  Interest in signing Elton John in America was limited to MCA affiliate UNI Records (home to Neil Diamond, more on him in a bit) who offered to, and then signed him for an advance of . . . exactly nothing.  Before he tossed in the towel completely, John’s business manager, Dick James, decided to invest $10,000 to try and break his client in the United States.  Booking agent Vic Lewis worked the phones relentlessly but John’s status as an unknown resulted in lackluster offers like a $50 per night gig in New York.

     James had one promising lead that would have had Elton open for Jeff Beck at LA’s famed Troubadour.  Beck’s management noted that Jeff was getting $10,000 a night so the split would have to be 90 percent for him and 10 percent for the unknown John.  John recalled following the conversation:  “So I am sitting there, wanting, thinking, ‘Ten thousand dollars a night, wow!’  And I hear Dick saying, ‘Listen, I guarantee you this boy will be earning that much in six months!’  And I say to myself, ‘Dick, what a dippy old fart you are!’  So the Jeff Beck thing fell through and I was sulking.” 

     The Beck deal was off the table, but apparently a gig at The Troubadour was not.  The club’s talent coordinator, Travis Holder, had met John in London earlier when Elton was in the process of recording Your Song.  Holder went to battle with Troubadour owner Doug Weston who was not at all in favor of booking a no-name artist from England.  Holder persisted and eventually signed Elton to open for Jerry Jeff Walker, but with a little side hustle in mind.  Walker was slated to appear to support the new album he had not quite finished.  Holder booked John thinking that if Walker’s album was not finished, he would rebook and Elton would end up the headliner.  As for the calculated risk he took, Holder told CRM, “I don’t know if Doug ever fully realized my treachery, but the resulting notoriety of that one historic appearance brought the Troub great clout – and gave my employer a new respect for me.”   With a six-night stand booked for $500 for the trio (including drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray), Vic Lewis also lined up six more nights at the Troubadour North in San Francisco, a one-nighter at the NYC Playboy Club, and two nights at The Electric Factory in Philadelphia.  It sounds simple enough now, but how did it play with Elton? 

     John’s reaction when they arrived in LA is a good place to start:  “We’d flown to Los Angeles thirteen hours over the pole in this jumbo jet, and we arrived to find this bloody great bus (a rented double-decker London bus) with ‘Elton John has arrived!’ plastered on the side.”  The UNI Records publicist later said, “We picked him up in an authentic English bus.  I kid you not.  I rented a bright red English bus, with the two decks, and I put a big sign on it, ‘Elton John has arrived.’  It just blew his mind.”  John told Rolling Stone, “I found that extremely embarrassing.  Everyone was sort of getting into a crouch and trying to hide below the windows.  I mean, I’m a great lover of things that are done with taste…and double-decker buses don’t qualify.”  They dropped their gear at the Continental Hyatt House (yes, the fabled Riot House) and were whisked off to see The Dillards perform at the Troub.  “They were incredible, just knocked me out completely,” John recalled.

      Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night had met Elton in London in 1969.  Hutton invited him out for dinner and then to his house where he had arranged to have him meet songwriter Van Dyke Parks.  During this visit, John was given a couple of more surprises.  First, he was informed that David Ackles would be opening the show.  Ackles was well respected in London and Elton was shocked to learn that he was not more high profile in America.  He was equally surprised to learn neither Tom Paxton or Tim Buckley were household names here.  Secondly, he found his label mate at UNI, Neil Diamond, would be introducing him on opening night.  As Diamond recalled, “I’d got a call from my old friend David Rosner, who was working with Elton’s publisher, Dick James.  I’d just come off three years of hits, and David wanted to know if I’d introduce the totally unknown Elton John.  I agreed to do it, based on David’s and Russ Regan’s word that Elton had the makings of a big star. [During a hastily arranged visit to Diamond’s Coldwater Canyon home, Diamond remembered] He sat in my living room holding his cap in his lap.  He was super-quiet and shy.  I thought to myself:  ‘This kid’s never gonna make it.’”

     The band was excited and according to Olsson, “We were freaking out.  I mean, Neil Diamond, for god’s sake.”  In need of scoring a hair dryer for Olsson, Elton’s personal manager Ray Williams called an old girlfriend to see if she could help them out.  She was out of the country but her sister came over instead in the company of her friend, Maxine Feibelman.  To ease the pressure on the day before the first show, the girls offered to drive them to Palm Springs for the day.  It worked out well for Elton’s song writing partner Bernie Taupin as he and Maxine hit it off, eventually marrying in 1971.  John wasn’t so keen on the trip so he stayed behind and worked himself into a  nervous snit about the gig.  He convinced himself he was too inexperienced to play for the ‘LA in crowd’ and by the time the entourage returned, he was ready to bolt back to London.  A transatlantic phone call from Dick James brought him back to Earth and the next thing the band knew, they were at the Troubadour doing a four song sound check.

     Unable to be there for the sound check, Regan sent one of his minions, Rick Frio, in his place.  Frio said, “The three guys were on stage, and the first thing I thought was that they were playing the record behind them.  There was so much music coming out of those three fellas that it was incredible.”  Frio called Regan immediately to assure him that if he had any doubts about John’s American debut, they could be laid to rest.  When the band returned for the opening night,  they found it as Elton describes,  “Packed to the brim with people from the record industry (thanks to a massive phone campaign designed to bring in a celebrity-heavy crowd), who expected me to come on with this fifteen-piece orchestra and reproduce the sound of the album, which had recently been released there.”  Regan estimates, “There were maybe three hundred people in that room Tuesday night, but everybody I talk to says:  ‘Yeah, I was there!’ so there must have been thirty thousand at the Troubadour that night.”  There weren’t that many there, but John’s nerves certainly were.

     The crowd over the six-night stand was a veritable who’s-who of LA’s finest, all ready to see the newest offering from across the pond.  From the whole of C,S,N,&Y to Carole King, Gordon Lightfoot, Randy Newman, Don Henley, Brian Jones, Micky Dolenz, and scenester Rodney Bingenheimer, they were all there.  At 10 pm Niel Diamond proclaimed, “I’m like the rest of you.  I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album.  So I’m going to take my seat with you now and enjoy the show.”  In Rocketman, Hollywood license has Egreton / John break into a rollicking version of Crocodile Rock, which the fact checkers may or may not have realized had not yet been written.  The opening song was Your Song and it was met with ‘polite applause.”  Robert Hilburn of the LA Times wrote:  “He started going through his songs in a somewhat distant, businesslike  manner.  He looked scared, keeping his eyes on the piano.”  Sensing the room was expecting more Randy Newman or James Taylor than Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton yelled, “Right!  If you won’t listen, perhaps you’ll bloody-well listen to this!” as he kicked back his piano stool and kicked things into a higher gear.  Hilburn’s review concluded, “Rejoice!  Rock music, which has been going through a rather uneventful period recently, has a new star,   He’s Elton John, a 23-year old Englishman, whose debut Tuesday night at the Troubadour was, in almost every way, magnificient.  He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”  

     Bill Graham called and offered John $5000 to play New York City’s Fillmore East, the highest amount ever offered a first timer at Graham’s music palace.  The second night at the Troub,  Elton’s hero, Leon Russell was in the front row but went unnoticed until the last song:  “I saw him and just stopped.  [Russell] shouted, ‘Keep on.  Come up to the house tomorrow.’”  Bernie and Elton did indeed visit Russell and were impressed with the rock star’s living conditions.  They noted the sign on the piano that said, “Don’t shoot the piano player.”  The meeting with Leon was a personal high point for the duo, as later releases (Tumbleweed Connection, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, and Madman Across the Water) would bear out.  Danny Hutton also invited them to go over and meet another hero, but he was not in his best mental shape.  Although Brian Wilson said he was as nervous to meet Elton and Bernie as they were to visit him, he managed to sing ‘It’s a little bit funny’ from Your Song into the intercom when they rang at the gate. The Brits were a little concerned for Brian:  “He was not well at the time.  We had dinner, and the dining room was filled with sand…Bernie and I were freaking out.  We hadn’t taken a drug in our lives…we were absolutely in awe of this man, but freaking out because we’d never been in such a weird situation.”

     The Troubadour stand was a complete success.  In owner Doug Weston’s opinion, “In the whole eighteen years of Troubadour history, no artist had ever captured the town as completely and thoroughly.”  The six nights in San Francisco was “alright” according to Russ Regan, but there wasn’t the same magic.  The Playboy Club was a total mistake as a booking;  half the audience left before he even took the stage.  Disheartened, he vowed to, “Burn the city of Philadelphia down” when he learned Regan was taking heat for the lackluster album sales.  The record company suits were not sure how hot a commodity John was.  Only 3,000 records moved in the early part of his tour and the MCA brass started calling him ‘Regan’s Folly’.  After a two night, blistering stand in Philly, the local record shops put in orders for 10,000 Elton John albums.  Regan called the main MCA office to say, “Regan’s folly is coming home,” while suggesting they perform a vulgar, anatomically difficult procedure…and then he hung up on them.

     When UNI released Your Song in October, it went to No.8 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Elton would score an amazing 16 Top 10 singles and seven consecutive No.1 albums in the 1970s.  As he summed it all up years later, “I think the start of all the success was the Troubadour thing.  It was just amazing.  It’s an incredibly funky little place, the best club of its kind anywhere, and all it is is some wooden tables and chairs and good acoustics.”  Looking back, it is a good thing that Dick James was able to talk him out of skipping the gig altogether when his nerves got the better of him.  That is what good representation can do for an artist and why they are well worth their percentage.   

     Strangely enough, it was Elton John’s appearance in Kingsman – The Golden Circle that got the ball rolling for Egerton to appear as Elton in Rocket Man.  John had been approached to be in the first Kingsman movie and declined;  a move he regretted once he saw the finished product.  When a second chance was offered to be in The Golden Circle appearing at his campy 1970 best at the whims of the villainous Poppy, he jumped at it.  That he and Taron got along great can be inferred by his selection to play Elton in the biopic with John’s blessings.

Top Piece Video:  Regardless of what the movie showed, Elton John opened his set at the Troubadour with YOUR SONG, not CROCODILE ROCK . . . hard to open with a song that hasn’t been written yet!  Ah, Hollywood!