For some people, Elton John is that middle-age British pop star who sang at Princess Di’s funeral in 1997. For others, he’s the internationally successful pianist who resurrected the career of his keyboard hero, Leon Russell, with an album called “The Union” in 2010. And for those who are really late to the Elton John party, he’s the Grammy, Tony, and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter who has sold roughly $100-million in tickets—and counting—to his regular shows at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas since 2011.
All true, but John made his U.S. debut way back in August of 1970, following the release of his eponymous second album, which included his first hit single, “Your Song.” John’s tour of the former Colonies began with a day at Disneyland for John and his drummer, Nigel Olsson, and bassist, Dee Murray. Then, on August 25, John and his band began an acclaimed six-night run at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. On opening night, Neil Diamond introduced the trio, while the music royalty in the audience included Mike Love of the Beach Boys, folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, and composer and producer Quincy Jones. For his part, Leon Russell, who had wanted to sign John to his Shelter record label but had been beaten to the punch by Uni Records, staked out a seat in the front row.
John toured the U.S. for most of the remainder of 1970, often opening for fellow Brits such as the Kinks (Fillmore West, San Francisco, November 12-15), and even Leon Russell (Fillmore East, New York City, November 20-21). But John’s position as a warm-up act would not last long. By the end of 1970, “Tumbleweed Connection” had been released, which made John a headliner, pushing him into larger and more prestigious venues. By June of 1971, John, Olsson, and Murray were playing Carnegie Hall, and barely a year after their six nights at the Troubadour, which barely held 400 people, the band was booked for seven shows at L.A.’s 5,000-seat Greek Theatre.
“Madmen Across the Water,” released in November of 1971, delivering more hit singles, including “Tiny Dancer.” In 1972, guitarist Davey Johnstone joined the band, while John’s onstage antics, which had always included flashy, Jerry Lee Lewis-style moves at the piano, got more flamboyant, his sunglasses more extravagant, and his platform heels higher. By 1973, when John returned to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl, instead of being introduced by Neil Diamond, he was announced to the stage by porn star Linda Lovelace.
By then, John was routinely lumped in with other musicians and bands associated with the genre of glam rock, from the New York Dolls and David Bowie to Queen and Roxy Music. Party songs that seemed tailor-made for glam rockers included “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” from John’s 1973, double-LP masterpiece, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “The Bitch is Back,” from 1974’s “Caribou.” In 1974, John’s backup vocals on “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” helped give former Beatle John Lennon his only solo number-one hit in the United States. On November 28, Lennon joined John for that number, plus a couple of Beatles tunes, at Madison Square Garden in New York—Lennon’s performance, his final live concert, was released on CD in 1995 as a part of the reissue of John’s 1976 LP “Here and There.”
One of the defining characteristics of glam rock was the ambiguous or androgynous sexuality projected by its mostly male performers. Some of these musicians openly proclaimed their bi- or homosexuality, and were rewarded with enthusiastic, if relatively small, followings. John, however, was a mainstream pop star who routinely sold out hockey arenas and football stadiums, so when he revealed his bisexuality to “Rolling Stone” magazine in February of 1976—in retrospect, a prelude to coming out as gay to the same publication in 1988—it had a damper on his career. Though he would still sell out seven nights at Madison Square Garden that August, John only performed seven times in 1977, including his legendary show at the Empire Pool in Wembley, where he announced what would be retiring from touring. Naturally, 18 months later, he was back on the road.
Today, the 1970s are probably still John’s most popular years for collectors, although 1969 also makes the list. One of the most sought Elton John albums is the brown-vinyl promo release of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” from 1975, which includes autographs by John and his longtime lyricist and collaborator, Bernie Taupin. Rarer still is a 1969 copy of the DJM Records 45 of “Lady Samantha,” which was covered that year by Three Dog Night. The B-side features another early John-Taupin tune called “All Across the Havens.”