If you want to make a career in the music business, you have to cut your teeth somehow.

For Elton John, known in his early days as simply "Reggie," that meant doing quite a lot of work as a staff songwriter and sometimes a session pianist. One of those gigs was with the Hollies, who got together with John in June 1969 in what was then EMI Studios in London (it would later become Abbey Road Studios) to record a song written by Bob Russell and Bobby Scott called "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," originally recorded by the American singer-songwriter Kelly Gordon.

According to Hollies guitarist Tony Hicks, the cover came about pretty haphazardly.

"In the 1960s when we were short of songs I used to root around publishers in Denmark Street [in London]," Hicks recalled to The Guardian in 2006. "One afternoon, I'd been there ages and wanted to get going but this bloke said: 'Well there's one more song. It's probably not for you.' He played me the demo by the writers [Bobby Scott and Bob Russell]. It sounded like a 45rpm record played at 33rpm, the singer was slurring, like he was drunk. But it had something about it."

His bandmates weren't all that impressed when Hicks brought it to them, but nevertheless, they went along with it.

"There were frowns when I took it to the band but we speeded it up and added an orchestra. The only things left recognizable were the lyrics," Hicks explained. "There'd been this old film called Boys Town [1938, multi-Academy award winner] about a children's home in America, and the statue outside showed a child being carried aloft and the motto He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother. Bob Russell had been dying of cancer while writing. We never got, or asked for, royalties."

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At that point, the Hollies didn't have a piano player. (Many years later in 1991, they would get one in the form of Ian Parker.) This meant calling in an outside contributor.

"The group generally didn't have keyboards on their basic rhythm tracks," Alan Parsons, a staff engineer at EMI told Sound on Sound magazine in 2005, "unless Elton John happened to be around."

And on June 25, 1969, he was. John played piano for the song and got paid £12 for it. He also played piano on the Hollies' next single, 1970's "I Can't Tell the Bottom From the Top."

Listen to the Hollies' 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'

But that actually wasn't the first time the Hollies and John had crossed paths. Three years prior, they'd both appeared on an Everly Brothers albums called Two Yanks in England.

"That's when we met," Graham Nash of the Hollies recalled to Stereogum in 2002. "I've been friends with Elton ever since. He was a session player on somebody else's album, so he was just a piano player. He was a really good piano player, but he wasn't Elton John then. He was Reggie Dwight." (Nash would later return the favor and sing backing vocals on a track called "Cage the Songbird" on John's 1976 album Blue Moves.)

"He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" was released two months later on Sept. 26, 1969, landing at No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 7 in the U.S. Nearly two decades after that, it was re-released in 1988 where it promptly made it to the No. 1 spot in the U.K.

How Elton John's Session Musician Career Came Full Circle

Many years later, John found himself making a new album that involved collaboration with over a dozen guest artists, eventually titled The Lockdown Sessions for having been recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. In making it, John recognized the parallel to his former life as a session player.

"I'm playing on other people's records, you have to fit in with what they want and what they tell you to do, which was great because in the early days I was a session musician, before I became Elton," he told Hot Press in 2021. "When I did the Lil Nas X track ["One of Me"] and Glen Campbell ["I'm Not Gonna Miss You"], I was in Studio 2 in Abbey Road. Fifty-four years prior to that I was in the same studio playing on the Hollies' 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother.' I thought, 'I've come full circle and I'm really loving what I'm doing.'"

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Gallery Credit: Matt Springer

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