40 Years Ago Today…Elton and John Lennon In Concert – Part 1
By the Editor@EltonJohn.com
November 28, 2014
The appearance of John Lennon at Elton’s concert on November 28, 1974 (Thanksgiving night) at Madison Square Garden in New York City remains the single most memorable concert for Elton, his band and crew…and virtually everyone else who was there.
The genesis of this iconic moment in rock concert history can be found by going four months back and 11 blocks north to The Record Plant recording studio in mid-town Manhattan where Lennon was recording his fifth solo album in July of 1974.
On July 25, Elton disembarked from the SS France after a five-day voyage from England to New York City. This trip, on which Elton served as chaperone to John’s 11-year-old son, Julian, was the same one during which he wrote most of the songs for his next album, Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, which he was on his way to Colorado to record.
John Lennon’s Walls And Bridges LP.
That same evening, Elton stopped by John’s suite at The Pierre Hotel to hear the songs that he was working on for what would become the Walls And Bridges album. Lennon asked Elton if there was a song he’d like to sing on, and Elton chose one called Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.
On July 31, the night before he was to travel westward to work on his own album, Elton visited Lennon at The Record Plant on West 44th Street. By the time he left he found himself not only singing on Whatever Gets You Thru The Night but also laying down some piano on the track, as well as organ and harmony vocals on another song Lennon was working on, Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox).
Although Elton and the ex-Beatle had known each other for nearly a year, this was the first time that Lennon had ever seen the world’s most popular solo artist actually play an instrument, later noting that Elton was “…a fine musician, great piano player. I was really pleasantly surprised at the way he could get in on such a loose track and add to it and keep up with the rhythm changes. … We had a great time.” Elton concurred on the vibe, telling radio interviewer Paul Gambaccini that he was “knocked out” to be asked to sing and play with his idol. Elton, for all his popularity and success, was simply a fan.
It was while listening to a playback of Whatever Gets You Thru The Night that Elton made a prediction: if the song was released as a single it would go to #1 on the American charts. After conferring with their mutual friend, Tony King (who had also been on the SS France and had introduced Elton to Lennon in Los Angeles the previous September), a suggestion was made to John: should the single indeed reach the top of the Billboard charts, John would join Elton on stage during one of his upcoming concerts at Madison Square Garden.
Lennon, who had only performed in a large concert setting twice in the previous five years, agreed, thinking that there was no chance he would have to follow through on his promise. After all, he reckoned, the single would never top the charts. No song of his had since his solo career began in 1970.
Hold that thought.
The next month or so for Elton and his band was spent at Caribou Ranch outside of Nederland, Colorado. They had recorded their previous album, Caribou, there in January of the same year. In fact it had just been released in June and was, along with its lead single, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, already rocketing up the charts. Reveling in his developing friendship with Lennon, Elton reversed their roles from the New York City visit by inviting John to the studio for four days during the recording of Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. Elton had decided to cover The Beatles’ Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – a song predominantly written by Lennon – and wanted his friend to play on it. John, under the pseudonym Dr. Winston O’Boogie, contributed guitar, backing vocals and also suggested the reggae-flavored ‘breakdown’ that appears part-way through the recording. During Lennon’s visit to Caribou, Elton also recorded John’s song One Day A Time, with Lennon again supplying background vocals.
Two days before Elton and the band’s fall tour of North America began at the Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, Whatever Gets You Thru The Night was released as Walls And Bridges’ debut single in the US on September 23, 1974. On November 16, much to Lennon’s amazement, it reached #1 on the Billboard charts, knocking off Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.
Nigel Olsson, Elton and John Lennon en route to Boston.
Very soon after, John was reminded of the ‘friendly wager’ he had made with Elton. “So one day,” Lennon said later, “Elton called and said, ‘Remember when you promised…?’ It wasn’t like I promised some agent or something, so I was suddenly stuck. I had to go on stage.”
But first, John and Elton felt he should actually see the stage before walking onto it. And so John flew with Elton and the band from New York to Massachusetts for the show at Boston Garden on the 25th of November. “I was nervous just watching him,” John said. “I was thinking ‘Thank God it isn’t me’, as he was getting dressed to go on.”
Lennon was also getting his first taste of how far along rock and roll tours had come since his days with The Beatles. Drummer Nigel Olsson recalls John asking him about his drum kit. “He said, ‘How many microphones have you got on the drums?’ and I said, ‘I think about 13’ or whatever it was. And he said, ‘We were lucky to get three for the vocals when we were on…and only two of them worked!’”
Now, the only thing left to do was decide which songs to play, rehearse…and give 17,000-plus New Yorkers the thrill of a lifetime. And we will share the details of these events in Part Two .
Select quotes from: “When John Met John” – Paul Gambaccini BBC radio special; All We Are Saying – David Sheff; SoundOnSound.com – Richard Buskin; and The Beatles Diary Volume 2: After The Break-Up 1970-2001 – Keith Badman.