How Elton John’s Second Album Became His Breakthrough Hit
Elton John's first album was not a hit. At least not at first, and certainly not in his native U.K., where it was released in June 1969. That album, Empty Sky, wouldn't be released in the United States until 1975 – after John secured his spot as the world's most popular pop star.
But that didn't stop him from moving forward in January 1970 with the recording of his second LP, simply titled Elton John, at London's Trident Studios. Three months later, when it was released worldwide, he began his domination of the decade's pop charts with his first of many Top 10 albums and singles.
Working with lyricist Bernie Taupin, who was also his songwriting partner on Empty Sky, John took a more studied approach to his second album. He's since dismissed most of his debut album as "naive," and rarely plays any of its songs live. ("Skyline Pigeon" is the occasional exception.) For the follow-up, John and Taupin got serious about their careers. For one thing, producer Gus Dudgeon (who had worked with the Zombies, among others, early in his career, and went on to work with John during his '70s streak) was brought in to help steer the recording. For another, both John and Taupin had considerably sharpened their writing in the year since Empty Sky was released.
Armed with a new batch of songs – including "Your Song," "Take Me to the Pilot" and "Border Song," all infinitely better than anything found on his first album – John and a group of session musicians recorded Elton John over several weeks. They added violins, they added cello and they added harp. They added a gospel-sounding choir to "Border Song." They added Spanish guitar and harpsichord. And they emerged with a record that was ready to take on the '70s.
Fortunately for John, the '70s were ready for him. With soft-rock, folk-infused records by Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and James Taylor making inroads with music fans, Elton John was a perfect fit with the emerging singer-songwriter scene. The album's best cuts – especially the opening "Your Song," John's first classic and a timeless piece of piano-based pop songwriting – even transcended the genre, which could be a bit too self-absorbed at times.
Listen to Elton John Perform 'Take Me to the Pilot'
Not that John was totally immune to this, but working with a partner naturally kept some of his more narcissistic instincts subdued. And Elton John is far from a perfect album. At least a third of it verges on forgettable, but it was a giant leap forward for the artist, who not long after the LP's release hit the road in support of it.
By August, John and his band – which now included onetime Spencer Davis Group members Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson on bass and drums, respectively, and who would anchor the Elton John Band during the '70s' peak period – played their first U.S. show in Los Angeles. A few months later, "Your Song" reached No. 8. ("Border Song" hit No. 92 around the time of John's American concert debut. By the time the decade ended, John had racked up 15 more Top 10 singles, including six number ones.
Elton John made it to No. 4, kicking off a string of Top 10 albums that would last almost until the end of the decade (including six straight No. 1 LPs between 1972-75). It went gold in 1971, the same year it was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy (Simon & Garfunkel's career-capping Bridge Over Troubled Water ended up winning, surprising no one).
John's next album, Tumbleweed Connection, released six months later in October 1970, was even better, as he and Taupin went all in with an interlocking set of songs that demystified the American West. They were just getting started. Empty Sky was finally released in the U.S. in January 1975, between Caribou and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and with John's superstar status firmly set in place, climbing to No. 6. He may have launched his career with that first album, but his legend began with his second one. All these years later, it still sounds like the arrival, even if it's somewhat tentative at times, of someone destined for bigger and better things.