40 Years Ago: Elton John Duck-Walks Through Central Park
The duck suit.
That's become the takeaway from Elton John's massive concert in New York's Central Park. On Sept. 13, 1980, the Rocket Man took the stage with his band in front of more than 400,000 people and played for two-plus hours, an epic set and one of the biggest shows of his career.
And yet, everyone remembers the duck suit most of all. Although John had moved away from his most outlandish concert outfits by 1980, he still possessed an unparalleled flair for the theatrical. When costume designer Bob Mackie (who outfitted Cher with her most outrageous dresses in the '70s) offered to create a Donald Duck outfit for John's Central Park gig, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
After spending most of the concert in a loud military-style suit covered in piano keys and abstract designs, John slipped backstage after the first encore for the big transformation, which turned into the "longest costume change in history," as he told talk show host Tom Snyder a few days later. It was his longtime personal assistant and right-hand-man Bob Halley who faced the unenviable task of stuffing the Rocket Man into the feathers and short pants.
"I put my legs in the armholes and arms in the leg holes, and I'm saying to Bob, 'They're going to go,'" John recalled. Instead, the hundreds of thousands of fans stuck around to watch John emerge in what has become perhaps the most legendary stage getup of his career – and given his track record for crazy costumes, that's really saying something.
Watch Elton John Perform 'Your Song' in a Duck Suit
In addition to the legendary duck costume, the crowd was treated to a high-energy set from John and his band, which included Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass. Also in the mix was a young James Newton Howard, supplementing John's piano on synths and keyboards. The set list saw John drawing from his biggest hits and select deep cuts, from his latest album to his first. Three songs from his then-current record, 21 at 33, were showcased, as was a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," perhaps designed to draw the former Beatle out from his apartment nearby at the Dakota. Throughout the show, John's fingers danced across the keys, delivering incredible solos and that ever-present rhythmic pounding, while his band followed eagerly along.
Watch the video above and experience it for yourself – sure, there's a duck costume and it's pretty wild, the quintessential Elton John concert moment. But as always, there's also that incredible music, played by musicians at the top of their game and a twerpy kid from Penner, England who delivered equal doses of soul, rock, funk, schmaltz and sarcasm with nearly every note.