The young Elton John struggled to make his voice heard as a singer-songwriter throughout the late 1960s. Even the June 1969 release of his debut album Empty Sky didn’t dramatically change his fortunes, and nor did the early 1970 single ‘Border Song,’ despite considerable UK airplay.
That spring, he was still doing session work for the likes of the Hollies, even though his second, self-titled album did chart in the UK in May. Then, after signing to MCA’s Uni label for the US, 25 August 1970 was the first of the nights that changed Elton’s life.
That was the date of Elton’s historic first performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where he was invited to open for one of his favourite artists, David Ackles, as part of the venue’s 20th anniversary celebrations. Another of his artistic heroes, Leon Russell — one of the musicians who had inspired Elton to make music at all and a true representation of the Americana that he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin loved so much — was in the audience.
Russell wasn’t the only notable in attendance. The crowd also included producer-bandleader Quincy Jones, as Elton and his band — Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums — played the first of six nights, sometimes two shows per evening. It’s amusing to reflect on the fact that just ten days before that first Californian experience, they were playing a gig back home in Halifax, West Yorkshire.
The set at that first Troubadour show opened with ‘Your Song,’ still five months away from making its UK chart debut. ‘Border Song’ was part of the performance, as was ‘Sixty Years On,’ ‘Take Me To The Pilot’ and even a cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ which had been a major hit only the year before.
The late Russ Regan, president of Uni Records, would later observe: “I didn’t come down for two days I was so high from the excitement of that night. I think there were maybe 300 people in that room Tuesday night, but everybody I talk to [now] says, ‘Yeah, I was there!’ So there must have been 30,000 at the Troubadour that night.”
“The Troubadour was one of those catalytic moments,” soon-to-be band member Caleb Quaye remembered, “where it forced [Elton] to dig deep and find out what it was he had to give people on stage. Sending him over there was actually the last desperate attempt by Dick James Music to get him across to the public.”
‘Border Song’ had entered the Billboard Hot 100 in the week of the show, and although it was only a modest chart entry, the Troubadour appearance created the momentum that would fuel Elton’s commercial explosion. The Elton John album entered the US chart in the first week of October and would eventually reach No. 4 in a 51-week chart run. It all began in a little room holding no more than 400 people that night in West Hollywood.
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