‘The Troubadour Was Just the Beginning': Inside Elton John’s First U.S. Performance
With the upcoming release of Rocketman, the biopic depicting the early days of Elton John’s legendary career, music fans are eagerly anticipating a glimpse into the world of one of music’s biggest stars. Of course, the singer wasn’t always a household name. It was on Aug. 25, 1970 that John was first introduced to a U.S. audience at the Troubadour, a small but popular music venue in West Hollywood, Calif.
Roughly 300 people were in attendance that evening, among them Quincy Jones, Gordon Lightfoot, David Crosby and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love. Neil Diamond was the first person on stage. “Folks, I’ve never done this before, so please be kind to me,” the singer said to the crowd assembled. “I’m like the rest of you; I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album. So I’m going to take my seat with you now and enjoy the show.”
John’s journey to the stage that night had not been an easy one. The young musician had tried, and in many ways failed, to make his mark as a singer-songwriter. The June 1969 release of his debut album Empty Sky earned little fanfare. His 1970 single "Border Song" earned notable airplay in the U.K., but it still wasn’t the foundation for future rock stardom. His sophomore, self-titled LP was not selling. John’s label sent him to the States, hoping that his live performances may generate some buzz. To say they got what they were looking for would be an understatement.
“It was just insane,” recalled drummer Nigel Olsson, one of only two musicians to back John on that fateful night (bassist Dee Murray was the other). “We were these lads from England that came over and it was kind of a one-off. (Label boss) Dick James told us, ‘Okay, boys, I’m going to send you to America and this is going to be make-it-or-break-it. If you pull it off, great. But if you don’t, I can get you a job at the shoe shop here on Oxford Street.’”
John wasted little time during his Aug. 25 Troubadour performance. The set began with “Your Song,” a track still five months away from making its chart debut. From there, he rolled into the groove of “Bad Side of the Moon.” “Border Song,” “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Sixty Years On” helped fill out the set, along with covers of the Rolling Stones' “Honky Tonk Woman” and the Beatles' “Get Back.” Along the way, John was a force of nature on stage. At various points he kicked his piano bench over, fell to his knees and brought a ferocity to his songs that the American audience was not prepared for.
"It was magical, but it also frightened us to death,” Olsson added. “We looked into the audience and there’s Neil Diamond sitting in the first row. I think Stephen Stills was there, as was Leon Russell. I even think Diana Ross was sitting there for some reason. I don’t know, but it was packed to the rafters and we were so nervous about it. But once we cranked it up it was amazing, just amazing.”
The Troubadour performance served notice: the world’s next great icon had arrived. Reviews hailed John as rock’s “newest star,” with the Los Angeles Times proclaiming, "Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. He's going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”
“It was just all systems go,” John later reminisced about that first U.S. performance. “Nothing was impossible. You’re working on adrenaline and the sheer fact that you’re a success.”