December 8 – Ironically, Record Would Have Allowed Elton To Pave Driveway In Gold

For a time that should be so festive, a lot of music and music news from this time of year has been downbeat, or reflected the theme of “the end of the innocence.” From the Altamont concert 53 years back to the Eagles superb album Hotel California, which really first seemed to bring up the concept that Don Henley would use as a title years later (“The End of the Innocence”) to, of course the senseless killing of John Lennon 42 years ago today. Yet another tie to that theme, Elton John‘s great single which peaked at #2 in the U.S. this day in 1973“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

It was the theme song off his rather-epic double album released that fall, and the second single released from it. Elton doesn’t specifically make mention of the song in his biography, Me, but does say that recording the album was “torturous”, with a botched go of it in Jamaica resulting in lots of work being scrubbed and relocating to the Chateaux d’ Herouville in France, where he’d done Honky Chateau previously. He said the album “took off in a way none of us expected…it kept selling and selling and selling…songs about sadness and disillusion.” Sell it did, to the tune of some 30 million copies to date, in no small part due to the title track.

Elton wrote the great piano melody of the song while Bernie Taupin penned the lyrics with some input from the singer. Elton was already growing weary of the star lifestyle and was perhaps yearning for a simpler life or time. Taupin was a huge fan of the movie Wizard of Oz and of course therefore likened it to Dorothy on her trip down the Yellow Brick Road. At first strange and fun and exciting, full of wonderful new characters but then wearying and frightening, leaving her just wanting to go back to Kansas and her old routine life. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

With one of the best soft-rock melodies of the decade and words reflecting one of literature – and life’s – great themes, it’s little surprise the song resonated then and still. While it was blocked from the top of Billboard by songs by The Carpenters and Charlie Rich, it went to #1 in New Zealand and Canada, where it was his third chart-topper of that year alone. It’s remained one of his most requested songs on radio and in his concerts and is on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time. And of course, one thinks it’s special to Elton too. He named his lengthy farewell tour (he’s currently midway through) the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour.”

How good, and popular is the song? Ben and Jerry’s put out an ice cream for it at one time named “Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road”, with profits going to Elton’s AIDS Foundation. A song with an ice cream – now that’s a hit!

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November 18 – Captain Fantastic Saluted Sgt. Pepper

One good turn deserves another. So it was fitting that two of Britain’s biggest icons would help one another out. The biggest Brit act of the ’60s were The Beatles and the biggest of the ’70s, Elton John. As it worked out, Elton’s rein on the charts really took off right about when The Beatles broke up. We don’t know if Elton was friends with Paul, George or Ringo but we do know he and John Lennon struck up quite a friendship.

In 1974, Elton helped John out with the song “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” which became John’s first American #1 single. So Lennon decided to return the favor, double-fold. He visited Elton that summer at the Caribou Ranch in Colorado and worked on Elton’s version of the Beatles’ favorite, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Lennon played guitar and sang the backing vocals on it and then did the same on the song “One Day at a Time” an album cut off his Walls and Bridges album. While neither was used on the album Elton was cutting at the time, Caribou, they were released as a 7” single on this day 45 years back. The timing was perfect for Elton as his Greatest Hits was newly released and dominating sales charts but it lacked any new material that would have kept Elton front and center on the radio over the Christmas season.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” did just that. It quickly got to #1 in the U.S. and Canada and #3 in Australia. In the States, it was his third chart-topping single; in Canada where it spent four weeks on top, it became his sixth #1.

This of course bested The Beatles version in at least as much as the Fab Four original wasn’t released as a single, although it was an immensely popular album track off Sgt. Pepper… While credited to Lennon and McCartney as writers, history suggests that John had a lot more to do with writing it than Paul did. And while speculation runs rampant to this day about the song being a hidden ode to acid – note the initials, L.S.D. in the title – John always denied it. He says he got the idea from a picture young Julian Lennon drew for him with a flying girl, and when he asked his son what it was the reply was the song title. Lennon says he filled out the lyrics by drawing on Alice In Wonderland . Now, where Lewis Carroll got the inspiration for the shrinking girl, smoking caterpillar, top-hatted rabbit and so on is an entirely different story!

It wasn’t the only tie between the two superstars that year. Elton had apparently liked “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” so much he said to Lennon that it was a sure-fire #1 song. Lennon doubted it and bet Elton about it. The song was, so Lennon lost the bet… but the fans won. As “payment” Lennon appeared during an Elton John concert in New York City that fall and the pair played three songs together: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”, this one, and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Sadly, it was the last concert appearance for Lennon. While not a hit in its own right, the three songs on the concert were made available as part of both Elton and Lennon compilations later on in their careers.

August 31 – The Candle Went Out In Paris

A sad news event led to a smash record a quarter-century ago . On this day in 1997, the world lost a legend in the early morning hours. Lady Di was killed in a car crash in France, at age 36. Whether it was a simple case of drunk driving, harassment from paparazzi or a murder planned by the Royal Family remains a great topic of debate, but what isn’t debatable is her legacy.

As for us, it resonated because unlike other Royals at the time, Diana was a confirmed fan of pop/rock music…a decided rarity among Royal family members. As such it’s no surprise that years later a concert in her memory would have Duran Duran (reportedly her favorites), Elton John, Bryan Ferry, Fergie and others perform nor that Elton John would attend her funeral. There he played a reworked version of his classic “Candle in the Wind”, originally written about Marilyn Monroe and appearing on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It had been released as a single in Britain in 1974, getting to #11 there. But shortly after Di’s death, the BBC began playing it again in tribute, and Richard Branson called Elton to ask if he could change the lyrics and play it at the funeral. John called Diana “ a very dear friend for years” and wanted to, but given the time frame knew it was a “tough gig” to come up with meaningful new lyrics. He asked Bernie Taupin, who’d written the original words and Taupin faxed over the new set the following day. Elton played it at the televised funeral, “on autopilot” and panicking “what if I sang the wrong lyrics?” He got it right, was rushed to a studio, played and sang it twice, then left leaving Beatles-producer George Martin to dub in strings and other enhancements later.

The new lyrics for Diana touched a nation, and when it was released as a single (with money – in the range of 37 million pounds or $45M – going to her favorite charities) it was a smash. “Candle in the Wind ’97” was a #1 hit almost everywhere. It topped U.S. charts for 14 weeks, was among the top 20 selling singles for over two years in Canada and won Elton a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal. When all was said and done, it had sold 33 million copies, the most for any Rock Era single but John’s never performed it with the Di-lyrics since.

July 26 – The Turntable Talk, Round 5 : Cover Me

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! By now, if you’re a regular reader here – and if you are, thank you, I appreciate your time here – you know how this runs. We’ve invited several interesting and talented music writers to sound off on the same topic. In the past we’ve looked at topics like why the Beatles are still relevant, whether MTV and the video sensation helped or harmed music and great debut records which took them by surprise. This time around, it’s “Cover Me”. Much of what we hear and love is songs which aren’t original to the artists we hear. So we’re asking what makes a great cover song? Are there any that stand out as being very good, or even better than the original? (I add that we’re restricting this to cover songs in which the original was fairly popular or well-known. Thus ones which are cover songs but where the original was obscure, like perhaps The Clique’s “Superman,” made a hit by R.E.M., wouldn’t be counted.)

Leading off today, we have Christian from Christian’s Music Musings. There he regularly writes about new music which might have escaped your attention, concerts attended, and other cool music topics. Here’s what he’s got to say on cover songs:

When Dave recently reached out to introduce the new topic for this round of “Turntable Talk,” I didn’t hesitate one minute to participate again. Thanks, Dave, for having me back and your continued efforts to host this fun series!

When it comes to music, I think it’s fair to say we generally like to focus most of our attention on original tracks. That’s certainly the case for me. I always like to explore new songs, especially if they are written by an artist or a band I dig. But a good cover can also get my attention.

What’s a good cover? I think there’s no standard definition here. However, what it doesn’t mean, at least in my opinion, is that a cover has to be a faithful rendition of the original. In fact, one could argue what’s the point of covering a song when it exactly sounds like the original. As such, I tend to find it more intriguing when an artist or a band take some liberties and put their own spin on a song. In this case I prefer to use the term remake rather than cover.

There are some excellent remakes. My all-time favorite is Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Two other terrific remakes that come to mind are “Love Hurts” by Nazareth andProud Mary by Ike & Tina Turner. Not only did Cocker, Nazareth and Ike & Tina Turner make the respective songs their own, but they took them to the next level. I like all three renditions better than the originals!

In some cases, the original tunes are so great that tampering doesn’t make much sense. Two good examples I thought of are the covers of If I Needed Someone and “Hard to Handle by Roger McGuinn and The Black Crowes, respectively.

Yet another rendition I think is absolutely killer is Elton John’s version of The Who’sPinball Wizard.” To me, this falls somewhere in-between a straight cover and a remake. In any case, John did what I always wished The Who should have done – make this fantastic song longer instead of fading it out in a seemingly arbitrary fashion!

Finally, this brings me to my “bold cover” I’d like to select for this post. I deliberately wanted to go with a tune that looked like an unlikely pick by any of the other participants. In fact, it’s not even a remake of a rock tune but a jazz standard: Al Jarreau’s amazing rendition of Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it last or if you haven’t listened to it at all, here’s the original. Composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, the track was first released by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in December 1959 on their album Time Out. This was one of the first jazz tunes I ever heard many moons ago. Even though I wasn’t into jazz at the time, I’ve always loved it!

And here’s where Al Jarreau took the tune on his December 1977 live album Look to the Rainbow: Live In Europe. When I heard his rendition for the first time, I was blown away. How Jarreau used his voice here as an instrument is just super cool. In fact, this type of rendition is called scat singing, which per Wikipedia is “vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.”

Songfacts notesTake Five is one of the rare jazz tunes that became a hit. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 25 on the pop chart in October 1961. Elsewhere it did even better, especially in the UK (no. 6), Australia (no. 7), New Zealand (no. 8) and The Netherlands (no. 8). Take Five has also been used in movies, including Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Pleasantville (1998) and Constantine (2005). And it’s one of the most compelling remakes.

July 15 – Elton Began His Radio Reign 50 Years Ago

Maybe this was the day Elton John became a superstar 50 years ago. Because it was on this day in 1972, Honky Chateau, his sixth album hit #1 in the U.S. It was his first, but most definitely not his last chart-topper in the huge market where he first really made a name for himself.

Mind you, Elton was already well-known and a star on the rise by then. The previous year, his Madman Across the Water hit the American top 10 and delivered the now-classic “Tiny Dancer”; that came months after his first major hit song, “Your Song.” But with Honky Chateau, and its singles “Rocketman” and “Honky Cat”, his popularity was taken to the next level.

To get to #1, it had to dethrone the Rolling Stones, knocking their Exile on Main Street from the top spot. It would spend five weeks – most of that summer – as the top-seller in the land before Chicago finally knocked it out of #1. But he wouldn’t be out of the top spot for long. In fact Honky Chateau was the first of six-straight albums he put out to go to #1 in the U.S. It was followed by Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player , Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou, his Greatest Hits package, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in fact was the top album of all of 1974; Greatest Hits #1 for 1975. In fact, by the end of 1975, he’d spent a remarkable 39 weeks at #1. In that time span, he put out 14 hit singles, plus “Candle in the Wind” which of course later became a smash hit in the ’90s.

How does that compare to other all-time greats? Well, it doesn’t eclipse the records of the Beatles. They put together a string of nine-straight #1 albums, from Beatles 65 through “the White Album”; the streak only ended with the Yellow Submarine soundtrack which got stalled at #2. But compared to his contemporaries, Elton was king of the hill. For instance, the Eagles, perhaps the next-biggest act of the ’70s, only had four #1s total, including their Greatest Hits. Later on, the “King of Pop”, Michael Jackson took his Thriller to #1 (his first) as well as his next four, upto and including 2001’s Invincible. Neither Bruce Springsteen, nor Madonna equaled it either.

All good things must come to an end though, and for Elton it was his late-1976 Blue Moves, an album generally regarded as only “so-so”. It topped out at #3 and it would be 18 years until he had another #1, that being the Lion King soundtrack.

June 6 – Empty Sky Didn’t Exactly Empty Record Racks

From humble beginnings, we recall the obscure start for someone who’d soon be ranked as a superstar – Elton John. The pianist formerly known as Reggie Dwight released Empty Sky, his first album on this day in 1969 – to overwhelming disinterest!

Things would change considerably with his next 29 albums (and 7 soundtracks). Empty Sky was released both in mono and stereo and had Tony Murray from the Troggs playing bass but had little to distinguish it. Rather like the cover, it was only a sketchy impression of the man who’d go on to be arguably the biggest hit-maker of the entire decade following. The highlight was “Skyline Pigeon” a song Elton plays periodically in his concerts to this day and still refers to as the album’s one real redeeming feature. The album was noteworthy both in being the first for Elton and the beginning of his amazing work with lyricist Bernie Taupin, but not so much the actual product. Elton himself may have forgotten tracks like “Lady What’s Tomorrow?” or “Gulliver/It’s Hay Chewed,” let alone his fans.

As Ultimate Clasic Rock say, it’s “A great example of a debut album that only hints at the brilliance to come… it’s not a bad record” but, neither is it very memorable. Allmusic would give it just 2-stars, worst among his first 13 albums (it would be tied by 1978’s A Single Man). They said of it “there are no hidden gems on the record,” although they note it did have “ambitious arrangements and lyrics” framed by a “vaguely psychedelic” sound.  Elton says of the album, “I remember when we finished work on the title track, it just floored me! I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard!” Few shared his enthusiasm… Rolling Stone would later go on to list it as one of “20 Terrible Debut Albums by Great Artists” (he was in good company, the list included Billy Joel and Genesis as well.)

The album would eventually become a top 30 hit in North America, but not until it was re-released in 1975 at the peak of his popularity. But even if it was a flop, it got Elton onto the musical map, and pointed him in the right direction. Only a year later he was out with his self-titled album that had his first worldwide hit, “Your Song” as well as near-classics like “Bad Side of the Moon.”

April 13 – Sting Of The Jungle

Call him pompous or egotistical if you will, but one thing that can’t be said of Sting is that he won’t show up for a good cause. One of the big voices in the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and on the Wembley stage for 1985’s Live Aid to a fundraising concert for out-of-work autoworkers in Canada more recently, if there’s a wrong to be righted, Sting will probably sing out for it. And Big Apple music fans were able to benefit from that 20 years ago today…and 22 years ago too! That was when the 2000 and 2002 Rock for the Rainforest Concerts were held at Carnegie Hall.

Sting’s always been something of an environmentalist and long ago he realized one of the big problems for the planet was the deforestation of tropical rain forests, particularly the Amazon (but also to lesser extents ones in Africa and south Asia.) It was hastening extinction of numerous species, adding to climate change problems and forcing a number of indigenous people from their traditional lands. So he and his wife, Trudie Styler started a non-profit organization called the Rainforest Foundation in 1987, aiming to raise money to preserve forest lands and fight plans for development for mining, urbanization, dams and the such in sensitive areas. Given his profession and history, it was natural that he’d try to highlight it and raise money through a concert. The first one was in 1991 and saw him joined by Elton John and some Brazilian classical and bossa nova artists like Gilberto Gil and Antonio Jobim. It raised about $250 000, and won good reviews, so he ran one again in ’92, with Elton returning and being joined by James Taylor and Don Henley. It became an annual spring tradition in New York throughout the decade, then switched to every second year after 2000. Several times they even managed to get the Empire State Building lit up in green lights to mark the event. Elton and James Taylor have been regulars, and the list of other performers through the years is quite impressive – Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow plus comics Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Murray just for starters. The 2000 one was noteworthy for the only appearance by Stevie Wonder, while 2002’s saw a lineup that included Nina Simone and Ravi Shankar in addition to Sting and Elton as always.  2019 appeared to be the last one, with it changing venues to the Beacon Theatre in the city. Rolling Stone reported it featured Sting (of course) as well as an “extremely rare Eurythmics reunion” and “Bruce Springsteen (who) came onto the stage and called on John Mellencamp to help him sing ‘Glory Days’”. Also in attendance, Bob Geldof who taped the show with his smart phone “a look of absolute joy on his face.”

Presumably any plans for one in 2020 and ’21 were scuttled by the pandemic and right now it doesn’t seem like one is on tap for this year, although one might expect an announcement soon. After all, Sting spoke out again recently saying “legend has it that Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. While obviously bristling at the dubious factoid that such a stupid man could be a musician, none of us, including me, can be complacent about the tragic dimensions of the disaster taking place in the Amazon…(fires for land clearing) are up 80% from last year…this is criminal negligence on a global scale.” Sounds like a guy who’s readying to take the stage with some angry words and ditties soon to us!

To date, the foundation has saved 28 million acres of rainforest in 20 countries and led battles to stop several large developments. The concerts have raised at least $20 million and are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest environmental fundraising event”.

January 15 – Dee Murray, Elton’s First Bass-man

Creating musical masterpieces is rarely the work of just one artist, even most of those on which only one name appears. Thus it is with Elton John. As talented a singer, piano player and composer as he is, there was more to his success than just that or even the frequent addition of Bernie Taupin’s great lyrics. When he was at his best, he was backed by a very solid band to bring his creations to fruition and today we remember one of them, Dee Murray. Murray passed away on this day in 1992 at a young 45.

Murray was the bassist for Elton during his most successful period. He and his friend, drummer Nigel Olsson had been members of the Spencer Davis Group briefly at the tail-end of the ’60s before being recruited by Elton. They both first appeared on Elton’s live 11/17/70 and the Tumbleweed Connection studio albums, doing session piece work basically. However, by 1972, both were regular members of Elton’s band, appearing on all the tracks and being a part of his touring entourage. Dee added backing vocals to several Elton songs, including “Rocketman” and was present on all of Elton’s smashes upto and including Captain Fantastic…

Then, somewhat inexplicably, Elton fired Dee and most of his band, citing a desire to go in a different musical direction (which he did with Rock of the Westies right afterward, although few thought the new sound was an improvement.) Perhaps because of diminishing sales, or perhaps because he listened to his favorite producer Gus Dudgeon (who said he “hadn’t heard a bassist quite as good as” Dee), Elton brought Murray back by 1980 for the 21 at 33 album and the massive Central Park concert and the pair worked together regularly through most of the ’80s. In the interim, Murray kept busy doing session work for the likes of Shaun Cassidy and Yvonne Elliman and touring with Procol Harum and Alice Cooper.

By the late-’80s, Murray was doing less with Elton but had relocated to Nashville and was in demand as a country music session worker. Sadly he’d had skin cancer before and died there as a result of the cancer and as well as a stroke he suffered in ’92. According to the New York Times, he was survived by a wife and three kids, and Elton helped out by playing two benefit concerts at the Grand Ole Opry to raise funds for them.

Although he tended to get lost behind the glitz of the “Rocketman”, Murray was a solid bassist other musicians recognized. Bass Player magazine ranked him as the 74th best bass player of all-time and No Treble complimented him at length. “Accompanying a master like Elton John is no small task,” they wrote, “and Murray shines… he implements a classical approach to soprano-bass counterpart, playing a specific bass note to compliment the vocal melody.” It added “his fills are remarkably fearless.” It’s a shame the sun came on him all too soon.

December 7 – Elton Had Hit With A Little Help From His Friend

If you’re going to record a cover version of a Beatles song (as almost every artist seems to) who better to help you with it than a real Beatle? It certainly worked for Elton John who hit the U.S. Top 40 on this day in 1974 with his version of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.

As one can clearly hear, none other than John Lennon sang backing vocals on it and provided some guitar work as well. The B-side to the single also got a helping hand from Lennon: “One Day At a Time” was a Lennon song off Mind Games. The pair were friends and Elton had helped out on Lennon’s big hit “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” and thus Lennon returned the favor by helping out on this one, which was initially just a 7″ single. (Elton had actually told Lennon he’d score a #1 song with “Whatever…” and Lennon bet him that if he did in fact, he’d appear on one of Elton’s songs.)  It since has been included on newer issues of Elton’s Captain Fantastic… record, as well as in a John Lennon box set. The song went on to become his fifth straight #1 hit in Canada (and seventh overall) and when it hit #1 in the U.S.it became the first Beatles cover tune to top charts. With an asterisk.

Some will argue it is still the only Beatles cover to hit #1 in the U.S., while some might argue it was the second. The debate is due to a 1964 hit by Peter & Gordon, “A World Without Love.” It was written by Paul McCartney, but rejected by the Beatles, so it has a Beatles connection but wasn’t really a Beatles tune. Later, in 1981, there was “Stars on 45” which utilized samples of a number of Beatles hits but wasn’t released under the name The Beatles. And when one considers the popularity of the Fab Four in the ’60s, and how Elton seemed to take the torch and run with it in the first half of the ’70s, that seems somehow appropriate.

November 17 – Easy To Guess When This Album Got Made

Elton John recorded the album 11/17/70 (or as it was called in the UK, 17/11/70) this day in…yes, 1970. It was actually released about six months later.

The album was a live one taken from a show he’d done for WABC-FM in New York. The concert featured only Elton, Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray and ran about 80 minutes but was culled to six songs and about 48 minutes on the original release. One more song, “Amoreena” was later added in to the CD version in the ’90s. Surprisingly, well-known Elton tunes “Your Song” and “Border Song,” which he performed in the show, have never been released from it officially except for a very limited quantity Record Store Day LP in 2017. Nonetheless, there are still highlights including a cover of the Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Women”, an 18-minute version of “Take Me to the Pilot”, with bits of  “My Baby Left Me” and the Beatles’ “Get Back” and “Bad Side of the Moon” (which later was made into a Canadian hit by April Wine) mixed in. Elton figures this is his best live album, something many might agree with.

One dissenting voice, at the time at least, was Rolling Stone which panned it, saying “some might call him (the new) Mick Jagger, but not me, he’s just Jose Feliciano with a twist of Johnny Mathis” and the album predictable “tried and true.” Many didn’t care what that magazine felt, the album was a top 10 in Canada and in the more important U.S. market, hit #11. Along with his self-titled album, Tumbleweed Connection and the Friends soundtrack (that was a movie, not the ’90s TV show), it gave Elton four albums in the U.S. Top 100 simultaneously at one point in ’71! But as we would soon find out, he was only just getting going.