Today I’ll be writing about one of my biggest influences with regard to music, Elton John. The live performance that he gave back in November 17 of 1970 has been an album that has stuck with me for the majority of my life.
As is the case with most artists whose careers started before I was born, I catch them when they are current and then work my way backwards. I first found Elton John in or around 1973, when I was 8 going on 9 years old.
The following year, shortly after the release of Elton John Greatest Hits, I got the music book for the album. It had melody and lyrics, but also piano parts and guitar chord boxes. This encouraged me to sit at an air organ that I had and try to work up parts to play along with the record.
The year after that, in 1975, I moved to a small town called Lapel and started fifth grade there. During this year, we had a time where people would bring things to class to share, almost like a show-and-tell, except it wasn’t called that.
During one of these times, a kid named Mike Anderson brought a 45 single to school and played it for everyone. It was “Island Girl” by Elton John.
And in 1977, an older girl named Sherry who would watch us kids when our parents were out of town, bought me an Elton John shirt. I wore it just about every day until it got so many holes that I had to get rid of it.
It was around this time that I started digging into Elton John’s past catalog, and I got completely lost in it all.
A BIT ABOUT 11-17-70
This album features Elton John performing live with Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. It is his fifth album, and his first live album. He and his band performed at the A&R Recording Studios, New York, NY, for a live radio broadcast on WABC-FM.
This wasn’t originally intended to be released as an album. However, as most of us know if we were alive back then, people would sit by the radio and tape things. Some people did it over air, while others did it in a more professional manner.
The bootleg tapes that were making their way around were so prevalent that his label felt they had no choice but to release it as an album. Their hand was forced, and the world was better for it.
I love the entire album, but this might be my favorite track.
THE RELEASE OF 11-17-70+
April 22, 2017 was Record Store Day in America. This is where artist will produce and release special promotions.
This year, Elton John released 11-17-70+, which was the live album with SIX previously unreleased tracks. Given that I’d never heard the bootleg myself, I had no idea that the album was incomplete.
The six songs really add to the show, although I had gotten used to the original release, so it felt a bit strange hearing these new songs.
If you love 11-17-70, then I recommend upgrading to 11-17-70+.
A SECRET DREAM OF MINE
In 1974, Greatest Hits wasn’t my only exposure to Elton John, as I’d also been fortunate to have acquired Caribou.
As I listened to this album, I ended up thinking of none other than Bernie Taupin. I imagined him living on an island with everything he needed, and a pencil and paper. I could see him sitting on a beach writing out lyrics, putting them in the mail, and then receiving big checks.
So I decided that I was going to do the same thing, to a degree. I went into the basement of the house and I wrote out some lyrics to send to Elton John.
I wrote out the lyrics and then mailed them to an address for the Elton John fan club that I’d found in the back of a magazine.
After a few months, I confided in my grandmother that I’d written some lyrics and sent them to Elton John via his fan club. I asked her what she thought the chances were that I’d get a response.
She said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the fanclub will probably not forward this to him, and it may very well end up in the trash.”
Oh boy. I felt as if I’d wasted my time.
Grandma continued, “However, the good news is that you made a decision, sat down, and wrote your first song. Whether it’s good or bad doesn’t matter. What matters is that you did it.”
Suddenly, the bad stuff faded away, and I was left with a sense of ambition to keep doing more.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC AND THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY
It was either late grade school or early junior high when my friend Tom, an incredible pianist and musician in his own rite, loaned me this album. I loved it INSTANTLY.
Of course, I had to return it. I thought that it would be a good idea to get it on 8-track, so I could play it while riding in my dad’s Jeep. Although that only happened once, I’d often listen to it at home.
It turned out that the 8-track was a really bad idea because the song Someone Saved My Life Tonight gets cut in half, and it would take me right out of the album listening experience.
The entire album moves me, but my favorite track is above. It’s actually two tracks. What makes this album awesome is that it was recorded “on the floor.” What this means is that the entire band performed and the whole thing was recorded as they played it.
Many bands today record one track at a time, or they record the basic core and then track other things later. But in this instance, it was everything.
Neil Sedaka walked into the studio as We All Fall In Love Sometimes was coming to a close, and they were starting up Curtains. He asked the producer if they were practicing or maybe laying down a scratch track. When the producer said that he was witnessing the album recording, his jaw dropped.
Elton John has said that 11-17-70 is his greatest live performance, and I know that includes performing in front of an audience. But to me, this album represents a special form of live recording that not many bands can achieve or endure today.
In my 33 years in Los Angeles, I’ve only recorded on the floor with a band twice.
It’s a really cool thing.
MY PERSONAL ELTON JOHN CONNECTION
If you’ve ever played the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” then you know how this works. You pick a random actor or person, and then show them connected to another person, and that person is connected to another person, who is then connected to Kevin Bacon.
My connections are less than this. As for Kevin Bacon, I once got to do a show with The Bacon Brothers, so the connection is pretty much direct.
My personal connection to Elton John came in 1997 when I recorded The Mystic Dancer with Ruby Cassidy. When we recorded the album at Jimmy Hunter’s Cazador in Hollywood, we hired studio musicians. We had guitarist Steve Caton from Tori Amos on lead guitar.
But, to the point of this entry, we also had the late, great Bobby Birch on bass. Bobby played bass with Elton John for quite some time.
Bobby had gotten hit by a truck in 1995 while crossing the street, causing him some very painful back issues after the accident left him with two broken legs and a damaged spine. As a result, he’d have to sit in a chair while playing and be careful about how he moved.
My album was one of the first that he’d played on after the accident. He was truly a cool guy. Both Bobby and Steve were true professionals who didn’t need too much in the way of guidance.
You can hear Bobby playing bass on the entire album. This is my favorite song, as any long-term reader knows.
Sadly, Bobby decided to take his own life in 2012, after falling from a stool he would sit on during a performance, and causing all of his back pain to get significantly worse. Nothing else could be done. I understand and respect his decision, while at the same time acknowledging the tragedy of it all.
MY ELTON JOHN SURPRISE IN COLLEGE
I won’t have an “In The End” for this one, and instead will be ending my entry with an anecdote involving an incident during college orientation.
No doubt, Elton John had a big impact on my life with regard to music. He inspired me to go to some drastic measures to learn how to play piano.
My buddy Tom showed me some things on piano, as well as a kid named Larry B. I felt that, in order to benefit from what they had shown me, I’d have to practice.
The problem was that I did not have a piano.
So what I would do is discreetly unlock a small window of the band building. Then I’d go back and break in after dark. Then I’d sit at the piano and play as a flashlight lit the keys.
It was a clean plan, and I never got caught.
Now, back to college orientation. We’re getting the sales pitch from the people who are running the orientation, and we hit a time in the orientation where we’re all going to have a snack break.
They brought out snacks and the guy running it says, “I wish we had some music to go with this time. Any music majors want to play something?”
I jumped up and volunteered. My mother put her head in her hands, thinking that I was going to bang on the keys randomly and scream like an ape. Of course, that is something that I would do, but that’s not what I did.
Instead, I played one of my favorite Elton John songs. I can’t say it’s my favorite of all time, but it is most definitely my favorite to perform.
As I was playing and singing, I heard my mother say, “I didn’t know that he knew how to play the piano.”
My mother played piano when she was VERY little. That came to an end when her family moved and had to leave the piano behind because the windows and doors were redone and the piano didn’t fit out.
That was the end of piano for her, sadly.
I got her a keyboard for Christmas about six years ago or so. She couldn’t even find middle C.
My performance did anger some fellow Music majors. I guess that was the best way to know that I was doing something right.
To be clear, I do not consider myself to be a pianist! Elton John most definitely IS, as is my buddy Tom who showed me some tricks. I’m just a guy who can figure out how to play songs, and I can write some songs. But I’m nowhere nearly as talented as anyone I know on piano.
Below is the song that I played. Although it’s not from 11-17-70, I do recommend going to listen to that album, or ANY old Elton John tracks. It’s a good time of year for that kind of music.
Now you know why November 17th is one of my favorite days of the year.