In 1970, Elton was living at his mother’s house in Pinner, a suburb west of London. with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. He was frustrated at their lack of success and had considered giving it all up and becoming a session player. His recent album Elton John, had failed to capture the British public’s imagination, but it had gained a measure of recognition in America, where Elton was considered a new talent to match the singer songwriters of LA’s Laurel Canyon.
Russ Regan, an LA-based A&R man, picked up on the airplay the Elton John album was getting and wanted to bring Elton, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray out to LA, where Troubadour club owner Doug Weston agreed to give them a six night residency. Having never been to America, but having worshipped its music from afar, Elton and Bernie went from the obscurity of a suburban living room in Pinner to the very centre of the music business in one move.
|Elton and Bernie Taupin in 1970|
The audience had come to hear the new British balladeer. Before the show Neil Diamond took the stage and introduced Elton: “Folks, I’ve never done this before, so please be kind to me. 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.”
Elton himself recalled: “It was very hot and smoky and a great vibe. We came on; I was in flying boots and hotpants and did (a heavy version of) Sixty Years On. They weren’t expecting it. They thought it was going to be a low-key thing, because the music on the Elton John album was very orchestral. But with a three-piece band, we went out and did the songs completely differently and just blew everyone away. We knew halfway through the show that we were on fire.”
I have discovered some rare footage from 1971 of the trio playing Sixty Years On, which shows perfectly how they took this song and beefed it up. Elton pounding the piano, Nigel using mallets with gusto on the drum kit while Dee uses his bass like a lead guitar.
On the second night at the Troubadour, Elton had looked up to see another hero, Leon Russell staring straight at him: “I nearly shat myself”. Then, one night at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Elton and Bernie were led to a booth for an audience with Dylan himself. Elton told Mojo magazine: “Bernie and I were just like, Fuck!” Dylan said he loved the song My Father’s Gun, from Tumbleweed Connection. “We were like (frozen and pertified) Uh-Huh. Dylan has an aura about him. It’s not frightening. It’s just - foo, blimey”.
|Melody Maker Sept 5th 1970 notes Elton's success in LA|
|Front page of Melody Maker 1973|
|The elaborate lyric books that came with Elton's early 70s LPs|
For more insight into how good those early shows were, the album 17-11-70 captures a live radio broadcast in New York that year. Also worth checking out, for the sheer power of their performance, is the Cleveland Music Hall show on 26th November 1970, available at the Concert Vault website - http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/elton-john/concerts/music-hall-cleveland-november-26-1970.html It's easy to see why he created such a buzz in America. He demanded your attention and rightly so - these are powerful performances.
|Elton with his mother and stepfather at home in Pinner, 1971|
An early performance of 'Amoreena' from the US tour in 1970
Elton talks about songwriting with Bernie and the breakthrough gigs at The Troubadour:
Elton rehearsing with Nigel and Dee, 1970
Full performance of Sixty Years On in 1971
Elton in the throes of writing 'Tiny Dancer', 1971
Performance of 'Levon' for BBC TV, 1971
Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, 1972