“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” began taking shape in the early summer of 1974. It was initially a rough demo and early versions feature a segue into John’s song “Jealous Guy.” John Lennon took inspiration for the melody of the song from George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” that had been released in May 1974, before later topping the Billboard chart.
As work on his new album, Walls And Bridges was underway, a second, more polished, version of the song was recorded at the Record Plant in New York in high summer, with the help of Elton John. Elton had been in the US recording his album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Having completed his record, Elton was staying in New York and one evening stopped by the studio where he added harmony vocals, piano and organ to the track.
According to John, “I was fiddling about one night and Elton John walked in with Tony King of Apple. Elton said, ‘Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?’ I said, ‘Sure, love it!’ He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability: I knew him, but I’d never seen him play. 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 – obviously, ’cause it doesn’t keep the same rhythm. And then he sang with me. We had a great time.”
Having sung their harmony vocal around one microphone, Elton also added organ to the track, despite his own admission that “I’m the worst organist. But we put that on and it was over and done within five minutes.”
When they finished the recording, John told Elton that he was the only Beatle that had not achieved a No. 1 single. Elton’s response was to bet John that if “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” went to No. 1, John would join Elton on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden at Thanksgiving. There’s little doubt that John Lennon thought there was only a slim chance of him having to keep to his side of the deal.
But shortly after “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” made No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 16, Elton called to remind him. Lennon to his credit did just as he had promised, despite later saying, “It wasn’t like I promised some agent or something, so I was suddenly stuck. I had to go on stage in the middle of nothing.”
On November 28, 1974, John Lennon dressed in a black suit and playing a black Fender Telecaster, joined Elton on stage to perform his chart-topping record along with a version of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There”; ironically the latter originally had Paul McCartney on lead vocal.
This was John Lennon’s last major concert appearance, but his appearance has an interesting coda. At this time John was estranged from his wife Yoko, but he had arranged for tickets to be sent to her. Yoko, for her part, sent orchids to her husband and Elton, which they both wore onstage. John and Yoko nervously met backstage after the show and then fully resumed their relationship in February 1975.
John Lennon returned the favor by adding backing vocals and guitar to Elton’s recording of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” in late July. It came out as a single during the week before the Madison Square Garden concert, going on to top the US Hot 100 for the first two weeks of January 1975. Lennon is credited on the recording as Dr Winston O’Boogie, but it was fooling no one, especially as the V-side was Lennon’s, “One Day (At a Time),” a cover of a track that had originally featured on Mind Games. Elton’s follow-up, in early 1975, was “Philadelphia Freedom” and the b-side was “I Saw Her Standing There,” recorded at Madison Square Garden and featuring John Lennon.
In a lovely footnote to the story, as a result of working together, and becoming friends, John and Yoko asked Elton to be Sean’s godfather following his birth in October 1975.