How Elton John’s Legend Was Cemented by an Early Live Album
Elton John released his debut album Empty Sky in 1969, though it didn't appear in the U.S. until 1975. Instead, his self-titled second album quickly took flight stateside thanks to the success of "Your Song" and classics like "Take Me to the Pilot."
John made his American concert debut in the summer of 1970, and in October he released his third album in less than two years, Tumbleweed Connection. By year's end, he was back in the States for more shows, one of which would be the setting for his first live LP, 11-17-70.
John gave the performance on Nov. 17, 1970, with drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray at A&R Recording Studios in New York City. The show was set up as a promotion for his new LP, and was broadcast live on WABC-FM.
It also served as a document of the first chapter in John's long career. His live band at the time was made up of only three members, even though his records included many more musicians. This show marked the end of the live-trio era, since guitarist Davey Johnstone would soon join the band.
Even though he was signed to the DJM label in the U.K., John was on UNI Records in the U.S. at the time. But he wasn't so sure the company was doing everything it could to push him.
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"UNI is fucked up, so I've been told, but ... they really worked for us in the States 'til it got to be too much, and I told them to fuck off," John said in a 1970 interview with the Guardian. "When you say fuck off in the States, they listen. But hey, they're introducing you to Quincy Jones as the new British superstar, and it takes three days for it to sink in: That was Quincy Jones."
John was never shy about acknowledging his debt to American artists. "My roots are ... listening to records – all the time," he said. "I live, eat, sleep, breathe music. Neil Young, the Band, [Buffalo] Springfield, the [Grateful] Dead, the [Jefferson] Airplane. I feel more American than British."
As he started to make inroads in the U.S., John gave one of his most definitive early performances on 11-17-70. In addition to original material like "Take Me to the Pilot," "Burn Down the Mission" and "Sixty Years On," John and the band take on songs by the Rolling Stones ("Honky Tonk Women") and a medley that includes nods to both Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
The original performance featured a 13-song set, but when the LP was released on April 9, 1971, only six of the songs were included. (Later compact-disc versions would add some of the material, and the full concert was put out for Record Store Day in 2017.)
11-17-70 just missed the Top 10, but it helped cement John's reputation as one of the new decade's greatest performers. More significantly, the album captured Elton John and his band at their earliest stages, before massive success changed everything.
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