Randi’s Rock Report: Elton John Reflects on His Show at The Troubadour…

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Fifty years ago to the day, tomorrow, Tuesday, August 25th, 1970, Elton John gave his first U.S. performance the Troubadour club in West Hollywood, California, a show that he says “changed his life.”

Elton John on his reluctance to play the Troubadour in August 1970.

“I always wanted to come to America. I just thought we were earning such a reputation in England as a band, I thought it might be too soon to come. But I thought maybe leave it two or three months, but [record label head] Dick James said you must come. The Troubadour is a great club — and I knew the Troubadour. So, he was right, I came, and everything happened that night, which kind of launched my career very quickly. I was extremely lucky to get an amazing review in The L.A. Times from Robert Hilburn. What do I know. Artists know nothing.”

“In 1970, I kept a diary. Fifty years on, reading it makes for an intriguing study in contrasts. At the start of the year, I was 22 years old. I was still a virgin. I was one half of a songwriting partnership with my best friend, Bernie Taupin. Our skyscraping achievements to date included one flop album and three flop singles by me…

“That we weren’t starving to death had a lot to do with the fact we were living in the spare room of my mum’s flat and the fact I was making a little money as a pianist for hire…

“I’d released my second album, Elton John, in April. My record label had loved the songs Bernie and I had written for it…. and I knew listening to them that they were better than anything we had written before…

“I didn’t necessarily think ‘Your Song’ was the hit that had thus far proved so elusive, and I certainly didn’t think I’d still be singing it and talking about it 50 years later, but I did know we’d never written anything like that before…

“[The album] got great reviews… A little buzz started building around our live shows. It even made the bottom end of the charts. It might have stayed that way – a well-received, moderately successful album – had the second thing not happened. On August 25th. 1970, much against my better judgement, I played a gig at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles…”

“I had a hot band. Nigel Olsson…was an incredible drummer… [My producer] Gus Dudgeon said Dee Murray was the best bass player he ever worked with… Just the three of us could make an incredible noise. We rocked. It’s not a comparison anyone else ever made, but I thought we were like The Who, with a piano instead of a guitar. I wanted us to be as visually exciting as The Who, too. If I couldn’t smash up a piano the way Pete Townshend smashed up his guitar I could still put on a show: kick my piano stool away, do handstands on the keyboard, wear outrageous clothes…”

Elton John on his performance at the Troubadour on August 25th, 1970.

“The Elton John album, which was the album in 1970, is a very dark album cover of me, and I think people thought I was gonna come out and be very Randy Newman-ish and very shy and timid. And of course I wore flying boots with wings on them, hot pants, t-shirt with stars on it and played rock and roll with my three-piece band. And I think the shock of what people saw and they didn’t expect, helped us a great deal to launch our career.”

And, not only did Neil Diamond introduce Elton that night, but the audience had a lot of famous and soon to be famous faces such as Quincy Jones, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Randy Newman. But there was one face in particular that rattled Elton.

Elton John on Leon Russell coming to see him at the Troubadour in August 1970.

Leon Russell, who was my big idol at the time, the piano player, I saw his silvery mane of long hair and I more or less became incontinent practically on the spot. And we became great friends. He took me on tour. He treated me so well.”

Elton played the rest of the week at the Troubadour — a complete sell-out. As far as that review, Robert Hilburn nailed it when he wrote, “He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”

Elton John’s set list – August 25th, 1970 – Troubadour:

  1. Your Song
  2. Bad Side of the Moon
  3. Sixty Years On
  4. I Need You to Turn To
  5. Border Song
  6. Country Comfort
  7. Take Me to the Pilot
  8. Honky Tonk Women (The Rolling Stones)
  9. Burn Down the Mission / Get Back (The Beatles)
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