Elton John is on his ‘Farewell Tour of the US’. But wait, that could change. The multi talented French star, Maurice Chevalier, enjoyed his first farewell tour of the US so much he took two more farewell tours after.
I worked many Elton John concerts in arenas, theaters, and even a private show for the managers of Best Buy stores. The finest was at the U of MN’s Northrop Auditorium. The 1st half was John on piano and Ray Cooper, the fine percussionist from the UK, on a variety of things including a large gong. He was actually on the gong at one point, hanging on and beating time. The 2nd half was Elton going alone. The sound system was a new package of the Clair Brothers, the top audio company on the road. What a concert!
I worked Elton John’s 1st US tour when he came to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Sue Weill, promoter extraordinaire of the Walker Art Center booked him, and I handled the lighting. Gosh, thinking back I can’t get over how shy and polite this young man was then. Little did anyone realize he would be the UK’s biggest star after the Beatles.
Here’s a reblog from March 2013 of that experience from the Old Hand.
Elton John’s first USA tour was in 1970. One of his stops was the Guthrie. Like all these concerts at the theater in those days, the sound was provided by a local company and the lighting by the Guthrie. Sometimes the acts brought in a lighting designer; but most of the time, I was the designer as well as the electrician. Even if a lighting designer came with the act, I usually ended up designing the show because very few designers knew how to light on a thrust stage.
When Elton came for sound check, I asked him about his lighting needs. He just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know and would leave it up to me. He said that he didn’t require anything fancy. Such a polite ‘chap’. He always called me ‘sir’.
As usual, we did two shows that evening. Both were sold out. Elton put on two great shows. In the last show, he loosened up and did things that he didn’t do in the first show. He really attacked the piano. Hands, feet, standing up, spinning around on the bench.
His manager sat next to the lighting board up in the booth. He clued me in on what the next song was going to be so I could think of what kind of ‘look’ would work. At the end of the last show he asked what I thought of Elton. ‘What do you think? Do you think he’ll make it big? I mean really big.’
‘Well’, I said, ‘He puts on a good show, that’s for sure. I really like his Jerry Lee Lewis piano playing. Good voice. Should do good. Except – those glasses. Get him contacts. Nobody is going to make it really big wearing glasses.’
We were tearing down the sound and Elton came on stage and thanked us. When he shook my hand, he mentioned his manager had told him that I liked the shows. Nothing was said about my not liking the glasses though.
I worked him many time since, but never again at the Guthrie. He outgrew small venues quickly and played the big arenas like TargetCenter. Like any arena show, big effects were added, often at the expense of music. Nothing like the pure concert he did at the Guthrie.
Although, well after he made it big, he did forego the arena shows and did an acoustic tour. He played at Northrop, at the U of MN. He reverted back to his ‘not requiring anything fancy’. It was minimal, great sound system, and basic lighting. The first half, Ray Cooper, the great percussionist, joined him. The second half it was just Elton. Certainly one of the best concerts I have ever worked. In spite of the fact he still was wearing glasses.
A while back, a very talented cartoonist, Joel Orff, had a weekly cartoon, Great Moments in Rock and Roll, in a local paper called The Pulse. A stagehand, Rich Labas, suggested to Joel that he get together with me and do some of my stories. I asked him to use the name Old Hand on our stories. That’s the Old Hand in the hat. He did several, Elton, Prince, James Brown. And then the paper folded. Joel does his magic for a paper out in California now. Here’s his cartoon of my story.
Joel’s work can be seen at much better at:
For his farewell to the Twin Cities he is playing the Xcel Center, an arena in St. Paul. While I worked his 1st Concert here, I won’t be working his ‘last’ one.
Wonderful story, Don. You tell the best stories. 🐱👍😍
Thanks, Pat. Some of my adventures are just too good not to share.
We do appreciate that too.
Don, that’s quite a set of stories with Elton. His instincts were the better on the keyboard and the big glasses, but yours were the better in telling his cozier performances. “Lights, camera, action.” Good on you!
Sent from Tom King’s iPhone
Wow! What an ‘up close and personal story’. I like what you said, “Like any arena show, big effects were added, often at the expense of music. Nothing like the pure concert he did at the Guthrie.” What a pleasure to meet Elton John, especially in his early years. I’m glad to know what a fine person he was back then. Fame hasn’t changed his heart.
You hit the nail on the head, Jennie, when you got my gripe. All that smoke and mirrors have reduced music to a minor ingredient in a lot of concerts.
Glad you liked my post. Thank you.
Thank you, Don. I absolutely get your gripe. I heard Chicago perform in a college gym (the great groups did the college circuit back then), and the sound was perfect. It’s supposed to be about the music and not the hoopla. I absolutely love your stories.
Thank you, Jennie. Does Gloria like my stories also?
Yet another great story, Don, and the cartoon was excellent too. I liked Elton a lot when he started out, and still think his first album was his best. Once he became ‘outrageous’, I stopped buying his records.
Best wishes, Pete.
I am glad I got to meet him before he became outrageous. Thanks for you kind words, Pete.
That’s what I like about venues like The Guthrie. You can really feel the music and the concert feels personal. 50 years later, he’s still doing concerts. Good for him. Thanks for sharing your unique history, Don!
You are most welcome, Cindy. In my 10years at the Guthrie Sue Weill from the Walker Arts was bring in musical and dance talent, grabbing them before the big arenas g0t them. For instance she booked both Bruce Springstein and Kris Kristopherson just before they made the cover of Time. And we did a 2 week rehearsal of Twala Tharp on a dance Twala titled ‘Sue;s Leg’.
Perhaps a stepping stone, but wealthy a way to experience the artistry instead of the glitter and show of large venues.
Holy Doodle! Elton John! I have most of his music.
Heck of a career. Another great artist out of the 70’s.
Never came around this backwater place unfortunately.
Somehow, JC, I never figured you for being an avid Elton John fan. Glad I got to tell you some of my 1st hand expriences with him.
My tastes are wide Don. I have Musicals, Pop, Psychedelic, Sinatra, Sound Tracks, Belafonte, Classical … a wide range. I am able to appreciate most anything of Quality.
You forgot Rap, JC
I’ve seen Elton John live twice, both times at outdoor arenas. One was in the early seventies when he was doing the oversized glasses (might have been something you said) and platform shoes. The other was decades later when he has paired with Billy Joel. Both great piano players, but I have to say that on that night, Joel was the stronger singer.
Never worked Billy Joel but I agree his voice is much stronger than Elton’s.
You reminded me of how much more I enjoyed concerts before they turned into the extravaganza light and smoke show that they became. I love imagining that first concert you had the privilege to work.
Weren’t they great without all the hoopla, without the drummer drowning out the others, etc.?
I worked lot of pure concerts in my early years because I was working venues like the Guthrie Theater and avoiding the big arenas.
I had not listen Elton John in ages, but reading your story, in fact made me listen to him right now as I write this!
Thank you Don for your wonderful stories.
And thank you for your welcomed comment. Enjoy Elton.
I just watched the film Rocket Man its a great film about Elton John. I love your first hand account.
Haven’t seen the film. Happy to hear you liked my post.