How Elton John Set the Stage for Modern Las Vegas Residencies
If there was ever a rock artist born to play Vegas, it's Elton John: He finally did, beginning a long-term residency on Feb. 13, 2004 at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.
These five-nights-a-week performances attracted adoring fans, vacationing tourists, and high rollers who dropped a couple hundred thou at the poker tables for the privilege of seeing the Rocket Man up close and personal.
The modern Vegas show ultimately evolved into a true theatrical event. Look no further than the Cirque du Soleil Beatles celebration Love or the intimate and improvisational Garth Brooks run for examples. John's Vegas productions helped set the template for multi-platinum artist residencies on the Strip, with a level of production values far beyond just John and his seasoned touring band playing through his hits.
For his first Las Vegas show, The Red Piano, John teamed with director David LaChapelle to develop a full production that incorporated videos playing on a massive screen (it was 120 feet wide, and 40 feet high) behind the band. There was more – much more: For "The Bitch Is Back," Pamela Anderson performed a pole dance; a clip for "Rocket Man" starred Justin Timberlake as a young Elton John, relating the song's otherworldly lyrics to John's own stratospheric launch into super-stardom in the '70s.
"I wanted to do a production that really reflected my tastes in art and photography," John said at the time. "It was a chance to be reflective about my career, not in a sentimental way but a fun way. ... It's one of the biggest stages in the world, so if you don't fill it up, you're in trouble."
Watch Elton John Perform 'Bennie and the Jets' in Las Vegas
The Red Piano show also toured Europe and was made into a concert film for home video; in Vegas alone, it's believed to have grossed more than $160 million dollars.
John kicked off a second Vegas show in September 2011, as the The Million Dollar Piano built more variety into the set list by featuring some deep album cuts and a duet interlude featuring his voice and piano along with percussionist Ray Cooper. The show's production centerpiece was just as the title suggested: a Yamaha grand piano tricked out with 68 LED screens that featured images as John played the hits.
In addition to Cooper, John also enlisted a Croatian cellist duo known as 2Cellos to accompany the band. They became known for opening some of John's concerts with a cellos-only cover of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell."
Since then, rockers like Styx, Def Leppard, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Billy Idol, Motley Crue, Journey and ZZ Top have all mounted their own long-term Las Vegas residencies, often departing for months at a time before returning for extended engagements. It all started right here.