The night Elton John became a rock star: Singer recalls mind-blowing Troubadour gig 50 years on
26 August 2020, 17:38
Half a century later and musicians and music critics alike talk about Elton John's debut gig at L.A.'s Troubadour club with a reverence normally reserved for the Pope.
Recently announced by Rolling Stone one of the 50 greatest concerts of the rock era, Elton John's Troubadour gigs have gone down in history as a turning point in the singer's career and brilliantly recreated in the 2019 biopic Rocketman.
In 1970 a then unknown Reg Dwight was signed by Dick James, a British music mogul who had published song by The Beatles and things weren't going so well.
"Our skyscraping achievements to date included one flop album and three flop singles by me," Elton John tells GQ Magazine: "If you wanted a song that would come last in the competition to find Britain’s Eurovision entry, Bernie and I were very much your guys."
While Elton's songs in the UK were promising - after the release of his album Elton John a Record Mirror poll had voted him the fifth most promising act in the UK - his singles weren't selling and Dick James decided to take one more chance in breaking the singer into the U.S, investing $10,000 into the venture.
The only willing american label to sign Elton and his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, were UNI Records - home of only one well know act, Neil Diamond.
Elton John and a "gang" of friends including Bernie Taupin, manager Ray Williams, producer Steve Brown, roadie Bob Stacey flew to Los Angeles for Elton to make his debut at the famous Troubadour club in L.A. on August 25, 1970.
UNI head Russ Regan and publicist Norm Winter - through pure will power and charm - had filled the 300 person capacity club with influential figures had including Quincey Jones, Brian Wilson and Mike Love of The Beach Boys and Los Angeles Times pop critic, Robert Hilburn.
Introduced on stage by Neil Diamond who, having just met the singer for the first time, remembers: "Elton was very polite and very quiet."
"He seemed shy onstage," remembers Hillman, the music critic. "He played almost with his head down, like he was hiding. They were pretty songs, but he wasn’t selling them in any way. For the first 10 minutes, I thought, 'This is gonna be a disaster.'"
Songwriter and friend of Elton, Roger Greenaway, tells the LA Times: "But then...he became a different person,"
Elton John played eight shows in six nights at the Troubadour, and remembers giving it his all: "The atmosphere during those nights at the Troubadour was electric. Something inside me just took over. 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."
Writing for GQ Magazine to mark 50 years of the gigs, Elton recalls wanting to give the audience the night of their lives: "They got rock'n'roll, handstands, a singer wearing boots with wings on them. We tore into songs such as 'Sixty Years On', improvising, the three of us following each other instinctively until they sounded nothing like the album," he says.
"I was running on adrenaline again, like a greyhound being let out of the traps."
Recreated in Rocketman, with actor Taron Egerton as Elton John and the audience levitating during the show, Bernie Taupin confirms that while no real flying took place, the audience were definitely moved on the night.
"You could see the surprise on their faces," said Bernie Taupin. "It was almost movie-esque: people were tentative to begin with, then came smiles, and then tumultuous applause. Robert Hilburn got it."
He did indeed. The LA Times' music critic wrote the famous review: “Rejoice!” he announced. “Rock music has a new star," and a new era for the unknown singer was born.
"At the end of the week, I was driving to LAX and I heard a DJ say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new messiah in town. His name is Elton John,'" Robert Greenaway remembers. "I don’t think anybody ever became that big, literally overnight, in America."
Elton John performs at the Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970. pic.twitter.com/aUBB31YQ7s— Eric Alper 🎧 (@ThatEricAlper) May 24, 2019
The Troubadour gigs created such a stir that when Elton released 'Your Song' two months later in October 1970, John Lennon called it “the first new thing that’s happened since we [the Beatles] happened.”
'Your Song' became the first of an amazing 16 top 10 singles Elton released throughout the 1970s, along with seven No. 1 albums in under four years.
Half a century later, Elton is still inspired by the energy of those Troubadour gigs.
"I still play gigs where I know I have to step up, where I absolutely have to deliver, the same way I felt before the Troubadour," he tells GQ.
"I still get that surge of adrenaline before shows and in the studio...It was the first big step on a journey that’s still going on today."