Music

From the Archives: Robert Hilburn’s 1970 review of Elton John at the Troubadour — ‘new rock talent’

Troubador
Elton John captured attention in his U.S. debut at the Troubador in 1970.
(Andrew Kent)

The year was 1970 and Elton John, then just 23, was making his U.S. debut onstage at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. L.A. Times music critic Robert Hilburn was there and wrote a review, published Aug. 27, 1970, which bore the headline “New rock talent,” and boldly predicted that John would become “one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.” Original text below:

Rejoice. Rock music, which has been going through a rather uneventful period lately, has a new star. He’s Elton John, a 23-year-old Englishman whose United States debut Tuesday night at the Troubadour was, in almost every way, magnificent.

Because his new Uni album has been aired extensively on local FM radio and several of his songs have been recorded by other artists (from Rod Stewart to Three Dog Night), there was a large, enthusiastic audience on hand for the opening.

John, whose music is published by the same man (Dick James) who publishes the Beatles’ songs, proved to be a multidirectional talent of the highest order.

His music is so staggeringly original that it is obvious he is not merely operating within a given musical field (such as country or blues or rock) but, like Randy Newman and Laura Nyro among others, creating his own field.

He has, to be sure, borrowed from country, rock, blues, folk and other influences, but he has mixed them in his own way. The resulting songs are so varied in texture that his work defies classification.

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In his opening set Tuesday, John did songs from his first album, from his still-to-be-released second album and from his planned third album.

While his voice most often resembles Jose Feliciano, there are also at times touches of Leon Russell and Mick Jagger.

Since he was backed Tuesday only by his own piano, Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass, his sound was much earthier in general than the sweet, heavily orchestrated music of the first album.

John’s songs are co-written by lyricist Bernie Taupin, whose lyrics often capture the same timeless, objective spirit of the Band’s Robbie Robertson.

In fact, John’s intense vocals, coupled with Taupin’s biting lyrics, on “Burn Down the Mission,” would be right at home alongside Levon Helm on stage with the Band.

Beyond his vocals, melodies and arrangements, there is a certain sense of the absurd about John as a performer that is reminiscent of the American rock stars of the mid-1950s.

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Only someone with that wild, uninhibited view of his music would dare ask the audience to sing along — something that is almost never done anymore — or drop to his knees, like Jerry Lee Lewis used to do, in a rousing piano finale on “Burn Down the Mission.” It worked wonderfully well.

The audience, which included one of the largest local gatherings of rock writers in months, roared its approval, bringing John back for an encore.

By the end of the evening, there was no question about John’s talent and potential. Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginnning. He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars. He’ll be at the Troubadour with Elektra’s David Ackles through Sunday.