1970 was the year Elton John exploded into the music scene on both sides of the Atlantic. In a frenzy of activity he released two of his best studio albums, toured the UK and the US and recorded a live album. In this article we will tell the story of these albums and the great contributions of the artists who wrote, produced, arranged and performed on them.
Elton John’s debut album Empty Sky was released in June 1969 to a mute response by the music press and record buyers alike. It did not chart in the UK and was not even released in the US. The singer-songwriter was in need of a much better-received album. Constantly writing songs with his wordsmith collaborator Bernie Taupin, they continued to churn song after song with increasing degree of quality.
Elton John’s next album, simply titled ‘Elton John, was released in April 1970 and had a much bigger impact at the time of release and many years later. There are a number of notable influences on that album, with both songwriters looking across the pond for music and themes. The first was a band that had a major impact on fellow musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Elton John: “We played their first two albums over and over again. Their songs felt like someone switching a torch on and showing us a new path to follow, a way we could do what we wanted to do. ‘Chest Fever’, ‘Tears Of Rage’, ‘The Weight’.” That was, of course, The Band, making wonderful music while woodshedding in Woodstock and influencing many British musicians including Eric Clapton, Richard Thompson and George Harrison. The other influence was directly on Elton John’s piano playing style, and it came from a relatively unknown musician, at least in the public’s eye. John: “I was completely obsessed with the way rock/soul duo Delaney and Bonnie’s keyboardist, Leon Russell, played. It was like he’d somehow climbed into my head and worked out exactly how I wanted to play piano before I did. He’d managed to synthesize all the music I loved – rock and roll, blues, gospel, country – into one, perfectly natural style.”
Guitarist Caleb Quaye, who played on many of Elton John’s early albums, remembers additional influences, interestingly all coming from the US: “We were influenced by a lot of ‘West Coast Sound’ bands back in those days: Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, Spirit – and would listen and develop ideas and then just pour it out into the songs. Laura Nyro was a big influence on Elton, and also Joni Mitchell. He breathed all of that in. There were other things as well: Memphis – we loved Stax Records, Booker T. And The MGs.”
Elton John and Steve Brown, who produced his debut album, knew they needed strong arrangements to do justice to the new songs intended for the next album. David Bowie’s Space Oddity was all the rage in November of 1969 and the two were impressed by the string arrangement on it. They tracked arranger Paul Buckmaster and met him that month at Ronnie Scott’s club during a live set of Miles Davis and his quintet. Listening to the demo, Buckmaster immediately heard the potential of what the songs can become.
Steve Brown understood quickly that the forthcoming album would also require a seasoned producer. Aiming high, he went to seek none else than George Martin. The famed producer accepted the invite provided that he also writes the arrangements. In an admirable act of loyalty, Elton John and Brown stuck with the much lesser-known Buckmaster and went shopping elsewhere for a producer. The answer was again Space Oddity, produced by Gus Dudgeon, who picks up the story: “The second I heard the tape I thought, ‘Shit! This is a whole different story – this is the game I want to get into!’ I couldn’t believe that out of the ten or fifteen songs that they played me, at least three quarters of them hit me straight off. By the third or fourth playing, I was completely hooked.”
Dudgeon naturally recommended to use Trident Studios for the recording of Elton John’s album, the same studio where Space Oddity was recorded. The studio was significant for being a home to a glorious 100-year-old Bechstein piano. That piano is legendary in popular music recording history. You can hear it on The Beatles’ Let It Be, David Bowie’s Life On Mars? and Aladdin Sane, Nilsson’s Without You, Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day and many other piano-led songs. Elton John would very soon add his staple piano songs to that list.
One of those songs was the opener to Elton John’s self-titled album. He remembers the exact circumstances when he wrote the tune: “Bernie got the lyrics to ‘Your Song’ over breakfast one morning, handed them to me and I wrote the music in fifteen minutes flat.” Bernie Taupin adds: “I wrote the song after having bacon and eggs at Elton’s mother’s flat in Pinner, while he was having a bath in the other room. And I wrote it on a piece of mathematic exercise paper. It was written for everybody in general and not anybody in particular.” Elton John’s manager Ray Williams remembers the first time he listened to a demo version of the song: “I couldn’t help thinking, ‘How could somebody so young [Bernie Taupin was 19 in 1969] write the lyrics for that?’ It was just so amazing”.
Producer Gus dudgeon remembers the recording session: “Your Song was recorded totally live, with the exception of the vocal. When he walked in and saw an orchestra waiting to play his song I think he lost five pounds on the spot.” Other than Elton John’s vocals and piano accompaniment, of note on that magnificent song are the contributions of Dave Richmond on bass, Frank Clark on acoustic guitar, and last but not least the string orchestration by Paul Buckmaster.
It was clear from the very beginning to everyone involved in the album that it would be full of lush orchestral arrangements, perfectly created to work side by side with a rhythm section. Gus Dudgeon and Paul Buckmaster were meticulous in the way they planned the arrangements and recording of each of the songs. Dudgeon: “That album was planned down to absolutely the last, tiniest little detail. Every string note, every drum break; we practically wrote everything down on paper in longhand.”
Both producer and arranger remember those planning sessions and the recording vividly. Buckmaster: “Gus and I would meet in his office and sit at his table, listen to the demos, follow the songs on the lyric sheet and make notes next to the relevant lines. Say it was a song where the piano started, for example, Your Song. We would say, ‘Okay, we will start with strings in the first verse. We won’t bring the drums in until the second verse.’ After having done the ‘routining’ (that’s what this process is called), I would take the notes home with me and start scoring and let my imagination have full rein.”
Gus Dudgeon adds: “When you finally got into the studio and all of a sudden you are hearing this orchestra running through the parts, and you actually hear it being played by 20 or 30 people, you think, ‘Wow, this is just magic,’ because that would be the first time anybody actually heard it. Then you finally marry the string parts up with the orchestra, and it was such a buzz. It was such a white-knuckle ride. There’s nothing like hearing an orchestra play a great arrangement. The bottom line was that Paul was an absolutely terrific arranger.”
Perhaps the most impressive use of orchestra on the album is on the song Sixty Years On, which starts with a string swell inspired by modern classic composer György Ligeti. Paul Buckmaster adds fascinating details about the recording of the song: “There was some downtime in the studio during a string session. So, just out of a sense of fun I dictated a set of notes to the string section, which they wrote down. Very simple – maybe one or two notes to each group of three or four players. We had 21 strings on that date. I proceeded to conduct them after having told engineer Robin Cable to start recording. This was off the top of my head; there was nothing planned about this. The first entry was, say, a viola note. Two of the violas started with the first note. And as I wasn’t conducting to a beat, I would then point to the next two violas that came in with the next note. Then two of the second violins would come in with the next note. And so on until the whole section had joined in. I had also indicated where I wanted certain kinds of vibrato (wide or narrow), which helped to create that effect. So we recorded that…and there it lay. And Gus Dudgeon went on to add that to the front of Sixty Years On. I hadn’t conceived the arrangement that way.”
The beautiful melody that follows is played by harpist Skaila Kanga, who was a fellow student of Elton John at the Junior Royal Academy of Music. She was also familiar with Paul Buckmaster, who enrolled in the same program as a cellist. She recalls meeting him at the recording studio: “He produced this huge bunch of music that was black-looking, basically. Absolutely looked like Rachmaninoff to me. It was a big ask to do this stuff, just sight-reading it, because it was all hand-copied.”
The album is full of other great songs. Border Song, covered by Aretha Franklin in 1972, the energetic Take Me to the Pilot, featuring Caleb Quaye’s only guitar solo on the album, and The Greatest Discovery, a song Elton John picked as his favorite arrangement by Paul Buckmaster, who also plays a cello solo on this song.
Gus Dudgeon summarized the significance of the album well when he described his experience of making it: “The idea of taking a rhythm section and an orchestra and doing them live at the same time, with the kind of classical overtones within Elton’s piano playing and the way Paul Buckmaster wrote his arrangements on that album, added up to something completely unique. It was one of the most unique albums ever made in the history of pop. I think that week when we made the album was the most exciting week I’ve ever been involved in. Extraordinary. I’ll be very, very lucky if a week like that ever happens again.”
The album was much more successful in the UK than Elton John’s debut, and was the first of his albums to be released in the US. In both countries it nestled inside the top 10 in the albums chart.
By the time Elton John’s self-titled album was released in April 1970, he has already started recording his next album, to be released in October. Tumbleweed Connection captured Bernie Taupin’s fascination with Americana and stories of the American West. Record buyers were immediately drawn in by inspecting the album cover. Photographer Ian Digby Ovens captured Elton John seated and Bernie Taupin standing in front of a late-nineteenth-century railway station. The catch: the photographs were taken at Sheffield Park railway station in Sussex, about 30 miles south of London. Even more interesting is the fact that at the time of writing the songs for the album, both artists have not set foot in the US. Taupin cited his inspiration: “I was totally influenced by The Band’s album Music From Big Pink, and Robbie Robertson’s songs.”
Paul Buckmaster talked about the album’s theme: “The sound of the album is sepia-tinted, like the cover art. When I think of those songs, that is what I see, visually. You think of old western steam trains and you think of clanking wheels on the rails. Hard-bitten creased faces of cowboys with squinty eyes looking off in the distance. You can almost smell the old leather. That’s the feel of the album; it’s very authentic. It’s a tribute to the American Old West.”
Producer Gus Dudgeon: “Tumbleweed was done in a peculiar kind of way. Elton and Bernie had already written a number of songs and together we decided that we wouldn’t be so tight with the format. We opted for slightly looser tracks – sometimes doing four or five songs a day.”
My favorite song on the album is the closing track, the mini-epic Burn Down the Mission. There is a distinct influence of Laura Nyro’s gospel-influenced compositions on this song. When Elton John performed it at Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV how, he stopped at the 2:50 mark and said: “That is so Laura Nyro. I didn’t rip it off from her but I was so influenced because that’s the kind of thing. She just went off in tangents. She put codas were verses should be, She put verses were choruses should be and she put God knows what into the most magical songs you’ll ever hear.” The inspiration paid off, as this is one of Elton John’s most complex and still most enduring songs. John performed it frequently throughout his career.
Credits on this song:
Elton John – lead vocals, acoustic piano
Brian Dee – Hammond organ
Les Thatcher – acoustic guitar
Mike Egan – acoustic guitar
Herbie Flowers – bass guitar
Chris Laurence – acoustic bass
Barry Morgan – drums
Robin Jones – congas, tambourine
Paul Buckmaster – arrangement, conductor, orchestration
After the release of Elton John (the album) in April 1970, Elton John (the artist) visited the United States for the first time. Expecting a modest reception at the Los Angeles Airport, the small entourage was surprised to see a London double-decker bus awaiting them with a large banner reading “Elton John Has Arrived.” The US music business machinery was upon them in earnest.
Elton John and his band, consisting of Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums, were booked to play at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. Doug Weston, owner of the Troubadour clubs in LA and San Francisco, took a leap of faith: “I listened to about half the record (Elton John’s self-titled album) and immediately got very, very excited. I then gave the go-ahead to book him into the Troubadour. There was no record play on him at the time, but we booked him in as a headliner nonetheless.”
Elton John and friends were treated to a day at Disneyland the day of the first show. Mickey has inspired the singer to adopt a new look before his first show on US soil. Nigel Olsson remembers: “The funniest thing I can remember is, Elton had gone to Disneyland, and then came into the dressing room before the first show at the Troubadour wearing these huge Mickey Mouse ears with his large glasses and telling us that this was what he was going to wear onstage that night. We didn’t think he was serious about that, but oh yes, he was! And it went down a storm. Dee and I could hardly play at one point, we were laughing so hard.”
The opening show at the Troubadour was a dream come through for Elton John. His idol Laura Nyro played the same piano only two weeks prior to his show. And who is sitting in the front row? None less than another idol, Leon Russell, who invited them to his house: “Sometime after the first Troubadour show, Elton and Bernie came over to my house. 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.” T-Bone Burnett, who was also at the show, recalled: “Leon Russell told me that when he saw Elton, after two songs, he thought, ‘OK, my career’s over.’” Backstage at the Troubadour, Russell gave Elton John a fine pre-show tip – gargling with cider vinegar and honey. John kept this advice for the rest of his touring career.
The show was a major breakthrough for Elton John. After a slow start of introspective songs, he kicked the piano bench and did Jerry Lee Lewis-type antics that fired up the celebrity-filled audience. He remembers: “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.”
While Elton John’s self-titled album was not a big commercial success in the United States, his first visit there and the engagement at the Troubadour established him as a favorite with music critics. Only three months later he was back, this time performing to crowds of 3,000 people compared to the 300 capacity of the Troubadour. The 20+ shows in the US included staple venues such as the Boston Tea Party and both Fillmore East and West. On November 17 he performed in the studio at A&R Recording Studios in New York City, a show that was broadcasted live on the radio. Together with Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson he performed to an audience of 100 people outside the recording booth.
The broadcast was taped by some of Elton John’s growing fan base in the US and quickly bootlegged to supply the increasing demand for his music. His record company got wind of the opportunity they were missing on and asked Gus Dudgeon to improve the sound quality for a quick release of a live album. 17-11-70, an album title marking the date of the radio broadcast, was released in April 1971.
Here is Border Song, originally from Elton John’s self-titled album, as it was performed on that broadcast. The song is interesting for featuring lyrics by John in the third verse, as he explained: “It was only two verses long, originally. And I just plunked the other one in.” Bernie Taupin, a master of words, was complimentary of Elton John’s effort: “The great thing about Elton’s last verse was he tried to put it all into perspective. That song is probably two totally separate songs.” The song was famously covered by Aretha Franklin in 1972.
Categories: A Year in Music