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.

October 5 – Elton Was The Wizard Of Gold Records

Elton John said Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and “hello” to his best album on this day in 1973.

Elton was already hot at that point, as Rolling Stone would later point out. “By this time, he was the most consistent hit-maker since the Fab Four and soon enough he’d be recording with John Lennon” they noted when retroactively reviewing the album which they rank as the 91st greatest ever. It certainly was an ambitious work – a double album of 17 songs (18 if you include the epic, 11-minute lead track “Love Lies Bleeding/Funeral for a Friend” as two different songs) and 76 minutes of music. and those 76 minutes traversed the rock genre widely, from the glam of “Bennie and the Jets” to the prog-rock of the lead track to classy pop to the straight-ahead rock of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Not only did it give us the hit title track and “Bennie and the Jets” (both #1 hits in Canada and platinum-selling singles in the U.S.) but the lovely “Candle In the Wind” which was a hit in the UK and later remade as a monster smash tribute to Lady Di. Little surprise then that the album, his seventh, topped charts in the U.S., UK, Canada and elsewhere and would eventually go 8X platinum in the States. Worldwide, with better than 30 million copies, it’s his biggest-selling  album.

Surprisingly, Elton and Bernie Taupin wrote the album within two weeks while on holiday in Jamaica and recorded it with producer Gus Dudgeon in France, as they had the previous couple of records. Most consider this Elton’s acme, although allmusic rate it at 4.5 stars, good but below Honky Chateau. They describe it as “truly the debut of Elton the entertainer” and describe it as “always messy but usually delightful.” Surprisingly, on release, Rolling Stone didn’t care much for it, calling it “cornball” and “over-produced” although giving props to the honky-tonky-ish “All the Girls Love Alice” which put him “in Stones territory.”

Another way Elton is in Stones territory is remaining a popular live act to this day. Like them, he’s in the midst of a large, world-wide tour, and also like them, Covid restrictions and health problems within the band have interfered. In Elton’s case, his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour, begun in 2018, is set to resume in New Orleans early next year… after he has hip surgery, necessitated by injuries he sustained in a recent fall.

February 24 – City Of Brotherly Love Got Some Love From Across The Sea

“I can see why people get sick and tired of me. In America, I get sick and tired of hearing myself on AM radio – it’s embarrassing.” So said reluctant superstar Elton John in a 1975 British interview. The public hadn’t tired of him over here yet, and on this day in ’75, the adoration of him grew some more with the release of his single “Philadelphia Freedom.”

Elton was of course, red-hot at that point. He’d dominated the radio and album charts the year before with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Caribou, then released a multi-million-selling Greatest Hits album just in time for Christmas. However, he was taking a bit of time putting together his next record (which would be Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy) so he, or perhaps MCA Records, wanted to keep his name prominent and to that end, they put out a couple of standalone singles. The first was his cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, and the second one this one.

Despite his dour disposition when talking to Melody Maker, one might expect this one was one he was happy to have dominating the airwaves and fattening up his bank account. It was one of the very few songs in his catalog he came up with as a deliberate attempt to make a hit single, and he dedicated it to a close friend of his, tennis star Billie Jean King. King was at the time ranked as the top female tennis player in the world and had become widely known for winning the much-publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against loudmouthed male player Bobby Riggs. King was the captain of the Philadelphia Freedoms, a team in the then-new World Team Tennis. The concept was simple enough. Why not turn tennis into a team game where there’d be a league of competing teams – like baseball, football, etc – instead of an individual sport? Although it never caught the public’s attention like the NBA or NFL, the league has soldiered on, more or less continuously since and after retiring as a player, King became Commissioner through much of the ’80s and ’90s.

So Elton wanted a song to honor his friend, and also to honor the Sound of Philadelphia…the sound of Gamble and Huff who produced bands like the Spinners and O’Jays, the sound which had more or less taken the baton from Motown to lead the R&B parade in the ’70s. He told writing partner Bernie Taupin he’d like a song written called “Philadelphia Freedom.” Taupin wasn’t impressed. “I can’t write a song about tennis,” he carped. So, as it turns out, happily for all involved he didn’t. Instead he wrote a powerful set of lyrics that seemed inspiring and could be interpreted to be about a parent, a lover, a city or the whole concept of the United States … something that went over well as the country prepared for the Bicentennial celebrations the next year. With references to “living free”, flags and Whip-poor-wills, it could hardly miss in the Land of the Free. Elton meanwhile wrote music that he figured sounded reminiscent of Philly soul, and brought in Gene Page to arrange an orchestra behind his usual band. Page had arranged music for the likes of the four Tops and Barry White before.

Although it wasn’t available on an album at the time (it first appeared on an Elton album in 1977 with his Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 and has at times subsequently been added to re-releases of Captain Fantastic... and even Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), the fans would have reason to buy the single even if it had been. As a b-side he included a live recording of “I Saw Her Standing There”, from his Madison Square Garden concert the year before…the one John Lennon appeared on stage with him at.

And buy it they did! The song quickly rose to #1 in both the U.S. and Canada. It became his eighth chart-topper in three years in the latter. It ended up among the five top-sellers of the year in both lands. Meanwhile, in the UK, perhaps they were sick and tired of him. The single only got to #12 there and he was remarkably enough, still awaiting his first #1 hit.

Ironically, by the time the song hit #1, King’s tennis team had been sold and moved to Boston!

January 12 – Long John’s Legend Lives On

We remember one of the most-influential musicians that many people have never heard of – Long John Baldry, born this day 80 long years ago in Northamptonshire, England.

The 6’7″ (hence the “Long” prefix to his moniker) gentle giant had minor touches of stardom and commercial success through the years – his slightly bawdry 1967 song “Let the Heartaches Begin” was a #1 hit in Britain, his 1979 single “A Thrill’s A Thrill” was a significant hit in Canada, his concert standout “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie…” is a bit of a cult hit for instance – but the shadow of his influence is far longer and wider-reaching.

As one of the first blues singers in the UK in the ’60s, he started bands that would have as members at one time or another, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Rod Stewart, and a young Reggie Dwight. Dwight would leave that band (Bluesology) and take a different name – Elton John, the “John” a tribute to Baldry. (Elton acknowledges that in his biography Me ,despite the suggestion in the movie Rocketman that “John” was Lennon…who also was a good friend to Elton, as it turns out.) Years later, Elton would credit Baldry for talking him out of committing suicide, which turned into the song “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Rod Stewart called Baldry “my mentor” and helped produce Baldry’s biggest-selling album, It Ain’t Easy. And then there’s Eric Clapton, who Billboard point out, “was inspired to pick up the guitar after seeing him play.”

Long John died at age 64 in Vancouver, where he had moved to decades earlier. His career is well-documented in several TV specials and the book Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues by Paul Myers.

December 8 – Sadly, Johnny Can’t Come Out And Play

Today marks a dark day in rock – and American – history as we mark the 40th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. It’s weird to note that now, he’s been dead almost as long as he had lived when the freak gunman took his life in New York City back in 1980. Ironically, in an interview aired today on NBC (see the original full-length one here), Lennon noted shortly before his death that he loved New York because people left him alone and he could go out undisturbed, save for an occasional autograph-seeker.

Smooth Radio has a good article recalling the tragic crime, and its immediate aftermath. His widow Yoko Ono, and son Sean put out a news release the day after the murder, saying “there is no funeral for John. John loved and prayed for the human race, please do the same for him.” Of his ex-bandmates, George Harrison seemed the most distraught at the news, saying, among other things, he was “shocked and stunned” and it was an “outrage that people can take each other’s lives.” An outrage it was, and more of an outrage it remains since little has changed in four decades.

One of the more saddened was Elton John. Yesterday we mentioned his friendship with Lennon. The pair were so close in fact that Elton was the godfather to Sean Lennon. So we’ll leave you with one of the better tributes to the late John Lennon – Elton’s 1982 single “Empty Garden.”

That was the single Elton recorded in ’81 and put out early in ’82 to honor John. He says of it “It was a great lyric – not mawkish or sentimental – Bernie (Taupin, his songwriting partner) knew John too and knew he would have hated anything like that.” The reference to “come out and play” is a direct tie-in to “Dear Prudence”, one of Elton and Bernie’s favorite John-sung Beatles songs.

The song hit #13 in the U.S. and #8 in Canada. Despite being one of his bigger hits of the ’80s, Elton seldom plays it in concert. “It’s one of my favorite songs,” he says in his biography, “but I can hardly ever play it. It’s too hard to perform, too emotional.” One time he did play it live was at a Madison Square Garden show in 1982, when Yoko and Sean joined him on stage.

RIP John, and may you try to use your pull upstairs to straighten things out a little down here. One has to think he wouldn’t have been too pleased with the way 2020 has played out in his beloved U.S.

December 7 – Elton Soared High With Diamonds. Or Platinums At Least.

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 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. It since has been included on newer issues of Elton’s Captain Fantastic… record, as well as in a John Lennon box set. Elton says it’s one of the “best songs ever written”, and many would agree.

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 did something special. It became the only Beatles cover song to hit #1 in the States… 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 16 – Year Made Big Difference For John

One year, two different fates for a great. This was a busy day on the calendar of John Lennon back in the early-’70s. In 1973, he released his first self-produced album, Mind Games in Britain this day, a few days after North American release. It wasn’t one of the high points of his career. A year later, he was on top.

Mind Games was the product of Lennon going through a rough period – fighting with the U.S. government which was trying to deport him (“I was so paranoid from [the FBI] tappin’ the phone and following me,” he recalled years later) from his adopted home in New York City. And he was separated from the love of his life, Yoko Ono for over a year. The result was a rather uneven album that few warmed up all that much to. He wrote it in a week, and perhaps should have taken just a wee bit more time on it. For instance, he liked the tune of “Only People” but admitted the lyrics – including lines like “only people know just how to change the world” and “we don’t want no pig brother scene”- expressed his and Yoko’s philosophy on life, but didn’t really get that philosophy over. The title track was rather great though, and as the only single from the album was a top 10 hit. Rolling Stone at the time said was “his worst writing yet” and at the time, British music journalist Peter Doggett opined that John was the least successful Beatle.

One year later, John was doing a bit better. He was at #1 on Billboard with Walls & Bridges, his next album. For all he was going through back then, Lennon was no slacker. He put out three albums within about 18 months with the follow-up Rock and Roll included. Walls & Bridges was generally regarded as a better album and commercially it was his most successful album between Imagine and Double Fantasy. Rolling Stone called it “diverse and spirited” and Billboard predicted its success, noting the “superb production” which helped it be “Lennon’s most versatile and musically excellent album yet.” The versatility probably reflected the roller-coaster life he’d led during the past few months, temporarily moving to L.A. with a short-term girlfriend, May Pang, in what he called “the lost weekend”…all the while yearning for Yoko. The album spawned two great singles. There was the lovely “#9 Dream”, which was a U.S. top 10 single, and the completion of a demo the Beatles had worked on but dropped from the Let It Be recording sessions. And it him the only#1 single there that he lived to see: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”.

That one was helped along by the golden touch of Elton John who “sort of popped in” to the studio and volunteered to play piano on it. And if he was going to do that, why not sing along with John? Elton famously bet Lennon that the single was going to be a #1 hit, and when he won, Lennon agreed to perform with Elton in a Madison Square Garden concert, which ended up being Lennon’s last significant concert appearance. He also helped Elton on his single, the Beatles cover “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”

Walls and Bridges also hit the top of Canadian charts and went to #6 in the UK which was at the time rather cool to the absentee Beatle.