Elton John’s First U.S. Show ‘Frightened Band to Death’
Longtime Elton John drummer Nigel Olsson recalled the band’s first-ever U.S. performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, describing it as an experience that “frightened us to death.”
The first of six concerts took place on Aug. 25, 1970, after label boss Dick James decided on an all-or-nothing strategy because John’s self-titled debut album wasn’t selling well.
“It was just insane,” Olsson told Rolling Stone in a new interview. “We were these lads from England that came over and it was kind of a one-off. 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.’ And, well, we obviously never got the job at the shoe shop, so I guess we did good.”
Olsson recalled the experience "magical, because Dee [Murray, bassist] and I had been over here with the Spencer Davis Group. … When we came over, Dee and I would teach Elton how different it was in the States, even down to silly things like ordering a chef’s salad. We’d say to him, ‘You’re going to get a whole plate of salad.’ That’s because in England the portions are very small. It was great taking Elton around the Sunset Strip and all the places you heard about in the early days of the movement, so to speak.”
Recalling the now-iconic first show at the Troubadour, Olsson said "it was magical, but it also frightened us to death. 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 drummer also discussed John’s fabled songwriting speed after being inspired by the latest sets of Bernia Taupin lyrics. “Elton would sit down and go through the lyric sheets, and he’d go through words to see if the song should be mid-tempo or uptempo," Olsson recalled. "Then he would just start playing round with different chords and it would suddenly come together. … I think “Daniel” was written in about 15 minutes. It was that magical. We would sit down for breakfast and he’d go around on the piano, have the song and then we’d go into the studio. … We just had to go sit down and play. We’d hear him inventing the song. Then we’d all get on the same wavelength. Most of the big records happened in probably no more than four takes. Some of them happened on the first take.”
Olsson takes part in John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road final tour, which starts on Sept. 8 and is set to run for the next three years.
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Elton John's Terrifying First U.S. Concert