“It was like a ball of fire hit the Troubadour. When he got to ‘Take Me to the Pilot,’ the place levitated,” Linda Ronstadt said of the first night of Elton John’s 1970 residency at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. And as that show is depicted in the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” the crowd in the audience does the same, soaring off their feet in a moment of musical magic.
Of course, Ronstadt and director Dexter Fletcher are embellishing a little bit – we’re quite sure no one literally defied the laws of gravity when John took the stage on that night on Aug. 25, 1970. Though for people who were there, it no doubt felt that way. Just look at this iconic photo of John sideways at his piano as he quite literally turned heads among those lucky few in the crowd.
Elton John performs at the Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970. pic.twitter.com/aUBB31YQ7s
— Eric Alper ???? (@ThatEricAlper) May 24, 2019
In “Rocketman,” John (Taron Egerton) is shown with a serious case of the butterflies before taking the stage, hiding away in a bathroom stall when he learns that music stars like Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys are in attendance. But when he finally finds the courage, he launches into a roaring version of “Crocodile Rock.” He smashes his foot on the edge of the piano and the crowd goes wild, and it’s at that point that John levitates from his piano bench and the whole crowd floats into the air along with him.
Unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman” is more of a jukebox musical that uses the emotions and themes in Elton John’s songs to tell a larger story, and it takes more liberties with the timeline and real-life history than just the levitating part. Most notably, John wouldn’t write “Crocodile Rock” for another two years, so he couldn’t have played it at the Troubadour.
But the movie doesn’t overstate the significance of this performance as a true turning point in his career.
As described in a recent oral history via the LA Times, John’s debut album in 1970 wasn’t selling, and in a moment of desperation, his manager, Dick James (the British music mogul who also published The Beatles), put a final $10,000 behind John in an attempt to launch him in America.
The Troubadour gigs, an eight-show residency across six nights, would be John’s introduction to an American crowd, and music luminaries like Quincy Jones, Peggy Lipton, Linda Ronstadt, Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, Don Henley, Randy Newman, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash were all truly in attendance in the intimate venue. In a surprise moment, Neil Diamond even introduced John on stage.
“I’m like the rest of you,” Diamond said. “I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album.”
On Aug. 27, Robert Hilburn published a review in the Los Angeles Times that opened with the word “rejoice,” heralding the arrival of rock’s next star.
“His music is so staggeringly original that it is obvious he is not merely operating within a given musical field (such as country or blues or rock) but, like Randy Newman and Laura Nyro among others, creating his own field,” Hilburn wrote. “By the end of the evening, there was no question about John’s talent and potential. Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”
John’s early singles were adorned with string sections and lush production values, but at the Troubadour he was accompanied only by Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass. So John stepped up and demonstrated that he was as much of a performer and showman as he was a musician. Hilburn described John knocking down the piano bench and dropping to his knees like Jerry Lee Lewis.
“The atmosphere during those nights at the Troubadour was electric. Something inside me just took over. I knew this was my big moment and I really went for it,” John said in a recent oral history of the night published by the LA Times. “The energy I put into my performance, kicking out my piano stool and smashing my legs down on the piano, caught everyone off guard. It was pure rock ‘n’ roll serendipity. Even before the reviews came in, we knew that something special had happened.”
“Rocketman” even makes mention of Hilburn’s glowing review, and in another brief moment, Egerton’s John says he plans to wear Mickey Mouse ears he got from Disneyland on stage, an early precursor to John’s many wild costumes and stunts on stage. Turns out the ears too also come from a real place.
“Dee Murray, Bernie [Taupin] and I were sitting in the tiny Troubadour dressing room when Elton came in with Mickey Mouse ears on his head,” Olsson said. “He said, ‘I’m going onstage like this tonight.’ It was horror and laughter at the same time. I think that was the start of his crazy stage wear.”
John’s American publisher UNI then capitalized on the success of those shows by releasing “Your Song” as a single in October of 1970. It quickly rocketed up the charts, and John Lennon even referred to it as “the first new thing that’s happened since we [the Beatles] happened.”
Unfortunately, you can’t hear or see footage from the Troubadour show. You can however see a clip of John performing “Take Me to the Pilot,” which he played that night, on the BBC just three months before his American debut.
Your best bet then is to see “Rocketman” in theaters, or catch John on his farewell tour. “Rocketman” opens in theaters Friday. Below, check out the full setlist from John’s Aug. 25, 1970 show at The Troubadour.
Elton John – The Troubadour, Aug. 25, 1970 – Full Setlist
- “Your Song”
- “Bad Side of the Moon”
- “Sixty Years On”
- “I Need You To Turn On”
- “Border Song”
- “Country Comfort”
- “Take Me To the Pilot”
- “Honky Tonk Woman” (The Rolling Stones cover)
- “Burn Down the Mission”/”Get Back”