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#50GreatestConcerts: Elton John, 1970

The rapturous reception John received encouraged him to experiment with even more adventurous stagecraft

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HD15CR Elton John, 1970s

John onstage, circa early 1970s Photo: Everett Collection INC/Alamy Stock Photo

When Elton John took the stage at Los Angeles’ Troubadour for the first night of his six-date residency, he was a little-known 23-year-old pop singer with thick glasses and greasy hair who had only recently changed his name from Reginald Kenneth Dwight. When the show was over, Elton was a sensation. The stakes couldn’t have been higher: His debut LP, which had come out that spring, wasn’t selling. After what he called a “crisis meeting” with his label, it sent him to the States. The label made sure to pack the 300-capacity club with big names like David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. “The second night, Leon Russell was in the front row, but I didn’t see him until the last number,” Elton recalled. “Thank God I didn’t, because at that time I slept and drank Leon Russell.”

Neil Diamond introduced Elton. “I’m like the rest of you,” he said. “I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album.”

But those who had heard his album had no idea what they were in for: a poetic singer-songwriter with the flamboyance of a rock star. Album tracks like “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Sixty Years On” were played with a punklike energy, Elton falling to his knees like Jerry Lee Lewis and knocking the piano bench over. The set also mixed in standards like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Honky Tonk Women.” And the rapturous reception he received encouraged him to experiment with even more adventurous stagecraft. “He seemed like a very quiet, subdued person,” says drummer Nigel Olsson. “All of a sudden, in front of an American audience, he started wearing Mickey Mouse ears and jumping up and down. That’s where all the strange gear started.” Unlike Elton’s debut album, which was packed with lush strings, harp and a synthesizer, he performed that night accompanied only by Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. “We just made a lot of noise,” Murray told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It was new. Elton was experimenting. Plus, we had to make up for the orchestra. We just socked it to them.”

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Elton played five more nights as word started to spread around town: “His music is so staggeringly original,” Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote. In the coming weeks, “Your Song” began climbing the charts, eventually hitting Number Eight in January 1971.

Forty-seven years later, Elton still looks back fondly on that first trip to America. “It was just all systems go,” he says. “Nothing was impossible. You’re working on adrenaline and the sheer fact that you’re a success. I still love what I do, and I’m 70 years old. I love it even more.”

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