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Hello, Yellow Brick Road

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Elton John was an unknown 23-year-old singer-pianist whose debut album hadn’t even been released in this country when he walked onstage in the Troubadour club in West Hollywood 28 years ago for his first U.S. performance.

But the Englishman’s blend of musical craft and theatrical flair hit the audience with an electricity and impact that a debut show quite likely hasn’t seen.

It was the beginning of a phenomenal success story that has led to more Top 40 U.S. hits than anyone since Elvis Presley--and it was the start of a love affair between the performer and Los Angeles that continues with sold-out Forum shows Friday and Saturday.

Since that Aug. 25, 1970, Troubadour show, John has given more performances in Los Angeles and Orange counties than his agent can even count, and it’s not surprising that Los Angeles holds a special place in his heart. John says, however, he fell in love with the place even before he stepped off the plane in that summer of 1970.

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“By watching TV programs like ‘The Perry Como Show’ or ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,’ every English kid was obsessed with America, particularly California with its weather and the glamour of Hollywood,” John said on the eve of this week’s shows.

“I don’t think I got any sleep the night we arrived for that Troubadour engagement. We rented this Mustang convertible so we could drive around and see everything we had always heard about. I remember the first place we went was 77 Sunset Strip, because of the TV show.”

John--just recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to music and charity--ended up buying a house in the Benedict Canyon area, using it as his American base for eight years. He now has homes in England and Atlanta, but his longtime songwriting partner and friend, lyricist Bernie Taupin, has remained here on a 30-acre cutting-horse ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.

“But I always love coming back to Los Angeles,” says John, whose tribute to Princess Diana, “Candle in the Wind 1997,” is the biggest-selling single ever in the U.S. “It is an exciting city and I have lots of friends here. I even have my routine down each time I come back. My first stop is always Tower Records, where I load up on the latest CDs, then to Book Soup and on and on. . . .

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“Because of my ties to Los Angeles and all the friends there, the shows are always special to me. You try to give your all at every show, but you want to reach down for even more in Los Angeles. When I walk onstage, there’s like this flashback. I start thinking about all the wonderful nights over the years. . . .”

John did just that for Calendar Weekend, looking back at 10 of his most celebrated concerts in the Los Angeles area.

Troubadour, West Hollywood. Aug. 25, 1970.

John smiles now when he recalls that he didn’t think it was a good idea at the time to play this now-legendary six-night engagement. He was starting to build a buzz in the summer of 1970 in England with his debut album--titled simply “Elton John” and featuring “Your Song,” the ballad that would become one of his signature numbers--and he was afraid that he might lose the momentum by taking a break for the shows here. Besides, he feared that no one in America would know who he was. His advisors, however, finally persuaded him to play the Troubadour, where he was introduced on opening night by Neil Diamond--and it was the best move of his career.

“My whole life came alive that night, musically, emotionally . . . everything,” he says. “It was like everything I had been waiting for suddenly happened. I was the fan who had become accepted as a musician. It was just amazing.

“I could tell it was a magical night from the moment I stepped onstage. The audience was wonderful. The only thing that went wrong was that I lost my voice the second night. It wasn’t anything medical, just nerves.”

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Nov. 15, 1970.

The remarkable thing about this show in the 3,500-seat Civic is that it came so soon after the Troubadour dates. Normally, acts would play the small Troubadour two or three engagements before stepping up, partially because Troubadour owner Doug Weston had contract options requiring the return appearances, but also because few acts were able to fill a bigger hall that early in their careers.

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Of moving from the Troubadour to the Civic, John recalls, “We were under contract to return to the Troubadour, but my agent, Howard Rose, said, ‘You are going to be big and you ought to invest in yourself and buy out the contract,’ which is what we did. We felt the momentum would justify the move to Santa Monica, which was a wonderful building.

“It was a good gig. I think I wore this Fillmore West T-shirt, purple tights and silver boots. I was starting to show some of my personality, and I did get some feedback from people who thought I was being a little too much of a showman onstage. But I was just having fun, breaking out of my shell.

“I’m one of those people who has to get dressed up to go onstage. I could never just go out in a pair of jeans. Besides, there was a tradition of theatrics among English rock bands. I think it came from a British sense of vaudeville and music hall.”

Anaheim Convention Center, May 14, 1971.

The move to this 9,100-seat arena, where he shared the bill with Leon Russell, underscored the spectacular speed of his career rise. By now, the debut album had broken into the Top 10 and his second U.S. album, “Tumbleweed Connection,” had followed it there. To celebrate the return to Southern California, John wore a sequined suit that the famous western tailor Nudie made for him.

“That was a fantastic day because it was also the first time I had been to Disneyland,” John recalls. “We went there during the day and then did the show at night. It was one of several dates with Leon Russell, who along with the Band was probably my favorite act at the time. He was so supportive when we played the Troubadour. When I lost my voice, I went up to his house and he told me about this remedy where you gargle some vinegar and some honey with the hottest water you can take, and it worked. From that day on, we’ve had it in the dressing room.”

Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, Sept. 6, 1971.

For the opening hour, it was just John alone at the piano, and he introduced five new songs that night, including “Tiny Dancer.” Then he was joined for the rest of the show by his original band, which included Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass. Among the night’s surprises: a raucous version of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.” Chart-wise, his live “11-17-70" album (which was taken from an in-studio New York radio station performance) reached No. 11.

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“Of all the outdoor venues in the country, L.A. has two of the best in the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek,” John says. “The sound at each is very true, and they both have such lovely settings.” About the practice of doing cover songs, he says, “People used to ask me why I didn’t just do the songs that Bernie and I wrote, but I enjoyed playing songs by artists that I liked. Just as with the outfits, it was my way of having fun . . . acting out the fan in me.”

Forum, Inglewood, Oct. 23, 1972.

Even more than the Greek Theatre or the Hollywood Bowl at the time, the 18,000-seat Forum was a sign that you had reached the top in pop music. And John was still setting the charts ablaze at the time. “Honky Chateau” had just become his first No. 1 album.

“The Forum is one of my favorite places to play in America. Along with Madison Square Garden in New York, it has always represented something special to me, something prestigious,” he said. “It’s a big venue, but people are very close to you. I always look forward to going back.”

Hollywood Bowl, Sept. 9, 1973.

This was one of the most lavish pop parties ever thrown in Los Angeles. Among the features: free Elton T-shirts for everyone, five pianos onstage at the start of the show with the letters E-L-T-O-N written on them and porn star Linda Lovelace serving as the evening’s hostess. By this time, John had a second No. 1 album in “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player,” and he had a third on the way: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

“It was a wonderful evening, but the thing I remember most is how they had all these doves inside the piano lids,” John says. “The idea was that they’d open the fake lids at the start of the show and let all the doves fly into the air. The only problem is that the doves fell asleep between the time they were put in the pianos and the time they were set loose. So, there was this scene of doves being thrown into the air and their not waking up until they were already in the air.”

Troubadour, West Hollywood, Aug. 25, 1975.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Troubadour debut and to raise funds for the Jules Stein Eye Foundation, John returned to the club for three nights of shows. There was so much demand for tickets that a postcard lottery was held. Tens of thousands of cards were received, and John and Taupin personally drew the winners. The show also marked the local debut of John’s new six-piece band.

“It’s something I look back on with mixed emotions. On one level, it was great. We hired this plane and brought over lots of my family and friends, including my grandmother. But I wasn’t in the best shape, physically or mentally. I was totally infatuated with someone in Los Angeles and it wasn’t reciprocal.”

Dodger Stadium, Oct. 25, 1975.

John was the first pop-rock act to play the baseball park since the Beatles a decade earlier, and in tribute to them he played “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” For the show, he wore a sequined Dodger uniform. More than 110,000 fans saw the two shows.

“There’s no question about it,” John recalls. “That concert was one of the highlights of my career. It was amazing standing onstage and feeling the affection of all those fans. It’s something you never forget.”

Universal Amphitheatre, Universal City. Sept. 26, 1979.

This was one of John’s most dramatic and satisfying engagements: a three-hour show backed only by percussionist Ray Cooper. It was his first U.S. tour in three years.

“I made a conscious effort to do something different,” John says of that tour. “The idea was to challenge yourself. It is so easy after a while to become too comfortable and secure onstage, so I needed to feel a little scared again.”

Hollywood Bowl, Sept. 22, 1995.

This was like a 25th anniversary show--complete with such an emotional outpouring from the audience that the evening felt like a class reunion of some sort.

“After all these years, I’m still having a ball,” he says. “I feel more relaxed than ever. I’m not sure if it is a matter of maturity or what, but I find myself arriving at venues earlier than ever . . . so that I can go onstage and play something with the band. It has been a wonderful journey and it just keeps going.”


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