In a poll in British music weekly Record Mirror in 1970, Elton John was voted the fifth-most promising pop act in the UK. However, at first even this minimal promise looked set to go unfulfilled. His singles failed in the charts, and his first album, Empty Sky, had made very little impression. And while his self-titled second fared much better, reaching UK No.5, he was playing gigs mostly in universities and small clubs.
Even more discouraging, given that his singing voice was, to say the least, mid-Atlantic, all but one US label passed on signing him. Interest in Elton was so low that MCA subsidiary UNI Records, the home of Neil Diamond and not much else, was able to snap him up for an advance of precisely zero.
Elton’s business manager, the powerful music publisher Dick James, was on the brink of throwing in the towel, but as a last ditch effort he resolved to put a final 10,000 dollars into breaking Elton in the USA.
“At one point, the idea had been for me to play [LA club] the Troubadour with Jeff Beck,” Elton has said. “I’d met him in London and got along with him fantastically well. But Jeff’s manager stepped in and said that because he was already so big in the States, I’d get ten percent and Jeff would get ninety. He was telling my manager, Dick, that, ‘Jeff gets ten thousand dollars a night in some places, and it’d take Elton six years to build up to that.’
“So I’m 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.”
It was now, however, that an unlikely alliance of British and American music biz bigwigs came together, determined, against the odds, to make Elton John a star. In London, for example, Elton’s booking agent, Vic Lewis, was burning up the transatlantic phone cables trying to secure US dates. Elton’s personal manager, Ray Williams, remembers derisory offers coming in at this point, including $50 for a show in New York.
One glimmer of light in the gloom was Travis Michael Holder, talent co-ordinator for the tiny but influential Troubadour club in Hollywood. Holder remembers repeated arguments with Troubadour owner Doug Weston “about my interest in booking a young British unknown named Elton John, whom I’d met at a recording studio in England the year before as he was recording Your Song, for his first appearance in the United States.”
Despite Weston asserting that his talent co-ordinator had no idea what he was doing, Holder booked Elton as an opening act for Jerry Jeff Walker. Weston conceded the gig but, notorious for the hard-nosed deals he drove, got Elton John’s trio at a meagre $500 for a week of gigs, during which they would play eight shows.
For Holder it was a calculated risk. He knew that Walker was rushing to complete an album, so gambled that the booking would be postponed and Elton would be upgraded to headliner status. “I don’t know if Doug ever fully realised my treachery,” he has said, “but the resulting notoriety of that one historic appearance brought the Troub great clout – and gave my employer a new respect for me.”
With that six-night Troubadour slot lined up, Dick James convinced MCA to put up half the costs of a US jaunt, and Vic Lewis set about finalising a clutch of additional dates, including a further six nights at the Troubadour North in San Francisco, a one-nighter at New York’s Playboy Club and two nights at The Electric Factory in Philadelphia.
So it was that, in late August, an LA-bound flight took off from Heathrow Airport with Elton, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, Elton’s lyric writer Bernie Taupin, record producer Steve Brown, sleeve designer David Larkham, tour manager Ray Williams and roadie Bob Stacey, in Economy class seats. The flight touched down on Sunday, August 23, just two days before Elton’s opening night at the Troubadour.
“We’d flown to Los Angeles,” Elton complained later, “thirteen hours over the pole in this jumbo jet, and we arrived to find this bloody great bus… ‘Elton John has arrived!’ and all that sort of thing…”
Already anxious about how well his relatively untried band would cope in front of a sophisticated Los Angeles crowd, Elton was now further discomfited by the expectations that might be set up by his arrival aboard a double-decker London bus.
UNI Records’ effusive publicist Norm Winter has confirmed: “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. He really dug it.”
It certainly did ‘blow his mind’, but not in the way that Winter evidently imagined. “I found that extremely embarrassing,” Elton told Rolling Stone. “Everyone was sort of getting into a crouch and trying to hide below the windows. I don’t know, it seemed like a cheap trick. I really couldn’t believe it, I didn’t think it was happening. I mean, I’m a great lover of things that are done with taste… and double-decker buses don’t qualify.”
In the BBC documentary The Making Of Elton John, drummer Nigel Olsson recalled: “We got to the Sunset Strip and it was like being on parade. It was just unbelievable. The California sunshine and the pretty girls all over the place. It was amazing.”
On board the bus, it took two hours to get to their hotel, the Continental Hyatt House, where Elton signed in as William A Bong. But despite being exhausted after the long flight, there was no time for them to rest. “Once we’d booked in, we were hustled out again and off to the Troubadour, where The Dillards were appearing… They were incredible, just knocked me out completely,” Elton remembered.
Having befriended Danny Hutton, of the band Three Dog Night, in London during 1969, Elton arranged to meet him as soon as possible. Hutton was a long-time fixture on the LA scene, and had offered to steer him through its complexities.
“Elton phoned from London and said: ‘I’m coming to town,’” Hutton told Music Connection in 2019. “He arrived, and the first place I took him to eat was Billy James’s Black Rabbit Inn. Then I brought him up to the house. I phoned [musician, songwriter, arranger, producer ] Van Dyke Parks to come up. Elton played the piano at my house on Lookout Mountain.”
With his head still reeling from the relentless pace of the day, Elton soon had another shock to contend with – the astonishing discovery that one of his musical heroes would be supporting him.
“David Ackles was on the bill,” he said. “I mean, that was the first thing I couldn’t believe, that we were playing above David Ackles. In England he had much more prestige than he apparently had in America. He apparently hadn’t been working much that year. I said: ‘What about people like Tom Paxton and Tim Buckley?’ And they’d say: ‘Oh no, they very rarely work.’ And I’d feel that was very strange.”
If headlining over Ackles came as an uncomfortable surprise, then the next revelation bordered on incomprehensible.
“I’d got a call from my old friend David Rosner, who was working with Elton’s publisher, Dick James,” Neil Diamond remembered several years later. “I’d just come off three years of hits, and David wanted to know if I’d introduce the totally unknown Elton John on opening night. I agreed to do it, based on David’s and [UNI MD] Russ Regan’s word that Elton had the makings of a big star.”
Regan’s part in launching Elton John in America should not be under-estimated. “He was larger-than-life,” Bernie Taupin declared some years later. “A big-hearted maverick, whose belief in us was a key component to our success in America.”
“We were freaking out,” is how Elton’s drummer Nigel Olsson remembered their reaction to the news of who was to introduce them. “I mean, Neil Diamond, for god’s sake.”
Regan even arranged for Elton to visit Diamond at his home in Coldwater Canyon. Diamond was concerned about Elton’s demeanour. “He sat in my living room holding his cap in his lap,” Diamond recalled later. “He was super-quiet and shy. I thought to myself: ‘This kid’s never gonna make it.’”
Monday August 24, 1970. With just one free day before the first Troubadour gig, Elton’s personal manager Ray Williams rightly judged that some kind of rest and recreation would be beneficial for the entire entourage. Fortuitously, a potentially relaxing day trip emerged.
“I’d been to LA before,” Williams pointed out. “So when Nigel needed a hair dryer, I said: ‘I’ve got a girlfriend here.’ Her name was Joanna Malouf. I rang Joanna, but she was in Greece on holiday. Her sister Janice answered the phone instead and kindly offered to bring a hair dryer to the hotel.”
Janice also brought a blonde, flower-child friend, Maxine Feibelman. The girls suggested an outing to Palm Springs in Janice’s car. It was an option that Bernie Taupin in particular found extremely attractive because he was immediately drawn to Maxine (whom he would marry in 1971). The only member of the travelling party who didn’t go was Elton.
Williams explains: “Elton was really nervous about the Troubadour. But of course me, considering us as friends rather than as a business thing, I didn’t even stop to think that he was shitting himself back at the hotel.”
While the others were enjoying the delights of Palm Springs, Elton sat in his room at The Hyatt, initially listening through a pile of records he’d bought earlier in the day at Tower Records.
“I didn’t want to play at the Troubadour, I thought it was going to be a joke,” he admitted later. “I thought it was going to be a complete hype and I thought it was going to be a disaster. I just really wanted to go to an American record store and buy some albums.”
Gradually he found himself slumping into a black pit of despair. When Williams returned to their hotel the next day, he found Elton “sulking – and petrified”. Increasingly convinced that he was too inexperienced to play for a sophisticated LA audience, Elton had sunk into a state of panic.
“He said he wasn’t going to play the Troubadour date,” Williams remembers, “and was getting on the first plane home. I basically had to fight with him.” Fortunately Williams and, by transatlantic phone, Dick James, were eventually able to persuade Elton that he must honour his commitment to play.
Despite his ongoing fears, Elton and the band made it to a four-song sound-check that afternoon at the Troubadour. “I was so busy at the label, I couldn’t make it,” Russ Regan lamented later. “Rick Frio was working for me at MCA and I sent him.”
Thus it was marketing manager Frio who dropped by to catch the band in rehearsal.
“The three guys were on stage, and the first thing I thought was that they were playing the record behind them,” he said. “There was so much music coming out of those three fellas that it was incredible.”
Indeed Frio was so impressed that he called Regan to tell him the show was going to go well. “Up till that point, we were doubtful… we had never seen them, had never even met them, and all we had was the record [that year’s Elton John].”
Prospects seemed to be looking a shade better. But, in the inevitable way of roller-coasters, every exhilarating up is followed by an equally stomach-churning down. Williams and James had prevailed earlier in the day, but Elton’s anxieties resurfaced immediately when he returned to the Troubadour that opening-night evening to find that “it was packed to the brim with people from the record industry, who expected me to come on with this fifteen-piece orchestra and reproduce the sound of the album, which had recently been released there.”
In the estimation of Regan, 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.”
Prior to Elton’s arrival in LA, thanks to a massive phone campaign a celebrity-heavy audience had been drummed up by Regan, Winter and the team at UNI, transforming Elton’s US debut into a truly star-studded occasion. But precisely who was there on which night remains to some extent a matter of conjecture.
The trio had known to expect Neil Diamond and Danny Hutton, but, according to various reports, over the six nights there was also Neil Young, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Carole King, Diana Ross, Randy Newman, Don Henley, Quincy Jones, Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, T-Bone Burnett, Henry Mancini, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, Van Dyke Parks, David Gates of Bread, Gordon Lightfoot, folk-blues star Odetta, arch scenester Rodney Bingenheimer, plus a mass turnout of music biz movers and shakers, top photographers, and a phalanx of music critics, the most notable among them being Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times.
Backstage there was also Episcopal priest Jim Friedrich, a long-time friend of David Ackles, who recalls: “While we were talking, Elton John entered the dressing room, wearing denim overalls with a cartoon duck patch on the front, to tell David how much he admired his work and how honoured he was to share the stage with him.”
All too aware that he was performing in front of not only tinseltown’s critical elite but also a crowd of its most talented singer-songwriters and performers, it was a thoroughly terrified Elton who finally took to the Troubadour’s little stage that Tuesday night.
At 10pm, Neil Diamond walked on and delivered a carefully understated intro. “I’m like the rest of you,” he said. “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.”
And despite what’s shown in the Rocketman movie, Elton did not open with a barnstorming rendition of Crocodile Rock – largely because that song had not yet been written. His thoughtful, introspective opening number was Your Song. It was met with little more than polite applause.
In the words of Robert Hillburn of the Los Angeles Times: “He started going through his songs in a somewhat distant, businesslike manner. He looked scared, keeping his eyes on the piano.”
Elton’s own accounts of that evening have sometimes seemed designed to eradicate that dismal start to the set. “With a three-piece band there’s no way you can just sit there and interpret the songs à la record, because it was an orchestral album,” he declared in Tom Doyle’s excellent 2017 biography Captain Fantastic. “So we went out and did the songs in a completely different way, and extended them and extemporised, and just blew everyone away.”
This was not, strictly speaking, an accurate description of the entire set. In truth, the ultracool Troubadour audience had virtually ignored the unknown Brit until, following their cool reception for Your Song, Elton changed tactics. As he started into his second number, the much more aggressive Bad Side Of The Moon, he berated the audience. “Right!” he yelled. “If you won’t listen, perhaps you’ll bloody-well listen to this!”
Also in the house that night was lyricist Don Black (Diamonds Are Forever, Born Free, Love Changes Everything), who remembers that precise moment when the set shifted up into a higher gear: “He stood up, kicked away his piano stool and then he started pounding the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Analysing the audience reaction up to that point, Elton subsequently rationalised that “the photo on the cover of the Elton John album led people to believe I’d be quite folksy and Randy Newman-esque. When I walked out on stage wearing flying boots with dungarees, everyone was genuinely taken aback.”
David Rosner, DJM’s Music Manager, concurred. “The audience was expecting James Taylor… and they got a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Leonard Cohen. Someone with great depth and also great entertainment flair. They were certainly not expecting what they ultimately experienced, myself included.”
Elton’s initial hesitancy was instantly banished. “I was leaping on the piano,” he remembers. “People were going: ‘Oh my god!’ Right place, right time, and you seize those opportunities.”
To the delight of everyone around her, Odetta, who had long reigned as America’s queen of civil rights folk and spirituals, got up in the back row and danced, strutting and twirling her famously ample frame around like a matronly dervish.
“It was magical, but it also frightened us to death,” recalled drummer Nigel Olsson. “We looked into the audience and there’s Neil Diamond sitting in the first row. I think Stephen Stills was there. I even think Diana Ross was sitting there. It was packed to the rafters, and we were so nervous about it. But once we cranked it up it was just amazing.”
In the space of a couple of minutes, according to Robert Hilburn “he went from a non-performer to an over-the-top performer”. As the set revved up, Elton progressed to doing handstands atop his piano.
“Something inside me just took over,” Elton has stated. “I knew this was my big moment and I really went for it. The energy I put into my performance, kicking out my piano stool and smashing my legs down on the piano, caught everyone off guard. It was pure rock’n’roll serendipity. Even before the reviews came in, we knew that something special had happened.”
Elton’s writing collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin, was as blown away as anyone. “You could see the surprise on their faces,” he said. “It was almost movie-esque: people were tentative to begin with, then came smiles, and then tumultuous applause.”
Troubadour owner Doug Weston was, needless to say, absolutely delighted. “Nobody had ever seen anybody playing a piano with their feet up in the air like that. In the whole eighteen years of Troubadour history, no artist had ever captured the town as completely and thoroughly. It was unique for a total unknown to have gotten such a widely positive response. The Elton John situation was nothing short of phenomenal.”
Russ Regan concurred: “Elton and Nigel and Dee just brought the house down. We knew within forty-five minutes that we had a superstar. It was electrifying. I mean, it was just an electric night.”
But in the dressing room after the trio left the stage, Elton still seemed uncertain of what he had achieved. “I don’t think I ever believed the hype,” he has admitted. And after the show when he was introduced to Quincy Jones backstage as “a genius”, he was horrified.
The next morning, Elton seemed keen to downplay the night before. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine’s David Felton, he declared: “I don’t want the big star bit. I can’t bear that bit. What I want is just to do a few gigs a week and really get away from everything and just write and have people say: ‘Oh, Elton John? He writes good music.”
That same day, Elton got a telegram from Bill Graham, America’s most important promoter, offering him $5,000 to play at the Fillmore East in New York – the largest sum ever offered to a first-time act.
“Second night I played [the Troubadour],” Elton remembers, “Leon Russell was in the front row, but I didn’t see him until the last number. Thank god I didn’t, because at that time I slept and drank Leon Russell.” “
I knew about him before he came to America,” Russell later explained. “I had heard him with Long John Baldry [in the band Bluesology]. I sat down in the first row at the Troubadour, and he was brilliant.”
For Elton, Russell’s presence that night was the ultimate seal of approval. “I saw him and I just stopped. He said: ‘Keep on,’ and he shouted something, and I said: ‘Oh, fuck!’ He said: ‘Come up to the house tomorrow.’”
With his heart in his mouth, Elton took up his invitation. “Elton and Bernie came over to my house,” Russell revealed years later. “They were both very shy and very English, and Elton told me I looked like a proper rock star. They liked a sign I had above the piano saying ‘Don’t Shoot The Piano Player’. I think maybe that was where they got the idea for that album title.”
Taupin was as star-struck as Elton. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a rock star’s house. It was a huge place, completely empty but for some beds, instruments and stereo.”
Meeting Leon Russell was a personal high point for Elton, but it has been overshadowed in historical significance because on that same day Robert Hilburn’s Los Angeles Times review of the show hit the newsstands.
“Rejoice,” declared Hilburn’s review. “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, magnificent… By the end of the evening, there was no question about John’s talent and potential. Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”
Looking back, Elton has stated: “It was like everything I had been waiting for suddenly happened. I was the fan who had become accepted as a musician. It was just amazing. There were so many people who suddenly wanted to know me. Instantly, I went from being a nobody to Mister Elton John.”
Before the week was out, Elton and Bernie were taken by Danny Hutton to meet another of their heroes. “I heard he was nervous to meet me when they rang the intercom system,” recalls Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. “I was nervous to see him! So I answered the buzzer and sang ‘It’s a little bit funny’ from Your Song to them before they came up.”
Sadly, this was a time when Wilson was undergoing severe mental and physical distress, brought on by a combination of parental abuse, pressures of work and drug problems.
“He was not well at the time,” Elton has said, with typically British understatement. “We had dinner, and the dining room was filled with sand… Bernie and I were freaking out. I’m from Pinner, he’s from Lincolnshire. 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.”
After his final Troubadour show (Sunday, August 30), Elton found himself sitting at the end of the club’s bar with David Ackles. The pair shared a bottle of Scotch that Ackles had bought his British fan as a congratulatory gift.
Elton later told Rolling Stone: “David Ackles was brilliant. I made a point of watching him every night. He told me how much he enjoyed working with me… which is utterly incredible, because I had been a number-one fan of his. To see the audience just chatting away while he was singing those lovely songs just tore me apart. People were there because the buzz had got around that I was the guy to see, and they didn’t give a toss about a great person like him.”
The Troubadour gigs didn’t make Elton John a star, but they did push the door wide open for him. However, if he had imagined that everything after LA would be plain sailing, he was quickly disillusioned. LA was followed by a further six nights at the Troubadour’s sister club in San Francisco, but, according to Russ Regan: “Elton didn’t do that well in San Francisco. He did all right, but it wasn’t the same magic.”
Next came an even more disappointing gig at New York’s Playboy Club, a venue completely unsuited to the artist. “By the time Elton went on, half the people had left,” Regan explained. “Elton was so disheartened that his performance was not that great. He didn’t do very well at the Playboy Club, and I don’t blame him.”
Elton’s US jaunt ended with two nights at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia (September 11 and 12), Elton’s last chance to recreate the magic of his Troubadour opening night. But Regan’s bosses at MCA were far from convinced that Elton John was a hot prospect. Despite Hilburn’s review, the company had shifted just 3,000 of his albums, and Elton was already being referred to by the disparaging soubriquet ‘Regan’s folly’.
When Regan passed this news on to Elton, instead of throwing a tantrum he responded: “Russ, tonight I’m gonna burn the city of Philadelphia down.” The closing number in the first Electric Factory show was Burn Down The Mission, and, as promised, Elton delivered.
“In Philadelphia the people were all clapping,” he recalled. “I was up on the grand, mashing about with my feet, I just gave them a signal with my hand and the whole crowd was standing… Fantastic.” Regan confirmed: “He did it for twenty minutes. He was under and on top of the piano. He was out in the audience. He was everywhere. People were going out of their minds. I said: ‘This is it.’”
Regan’s conviction was rewarded the next day when Philadelphia stores received 10,000 orders for Elton John albums. Regan claims he called the MCA head office and told them: “You can go fuck yourself and tell everybody they can go fuck themselves, cos Regan’s Folly is coming home! And I hung up.”
The following October, UNI released Your Song. It roared to No.8 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first of an incredible 16 Top 10 singles Elton released in the 1970s. He also released seven consecutive No.1 albums in less than four years.
“I think the start of all the success was the Troubadour thing,” is how Elton has summed it up. “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.”