It was 50 years ago today that Elton John played the first American concert of his career at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. He was largely unknown in the States at that point even though he’d already released two records, but his self-titled LP was generating a lot of industry buzz and everyone from Leon Russell and Neil Diamond to Quincy Jones, David Crosby, and Graham Nash came to the Troubadour across six nights to check him out.
“It was totally engulfing,” Troubadour owner Doug Weston told Rolling Stone in 1987. “You were spellbound. Nobody had ever seen anybody playing a piano with their feet up in the air like that. He literally flew at the end. There were times when his hands were on the keyboard — and that was the only part of him that was in contact with the ground.”
Word of the incredible new talent started spreading and within just a few months his single “Your Song” began climbing the charts. It hit the Top 10 in February 1971 and helped the Elton John LP reach Number Four on the Billboard 200. It’s an album packed with guitars, backing vocals, and strings, but Elton was joined on the road only by bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. The trio made a thunderous sound that stood in stark contrast with the lush, delicate record.
“We just made a lot of noise,” Murray told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It was new. Elton was experimenting. Plus we had to make up for the orchestra. We just socked it to them.”
There’s no video or audio record of Elton’s debut Troubadour performance, but a recording of “Sixty Years On” from a Troubadour show just days later has surfaced along with bits of video. Check it out right here. And for a broader sense of what an Elton John show sounded like in this era, the official live album 11-17-70 is the best place to turn.
There’s also the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman, where a pivotal scene takes place at the Troubadour. This wasn’t a movie that strived for historical accuracy, so it shows him playing “Crocodile Rock” two years before he wrote the song. It also shows him meeting the band that night despite the fact that they’d already gigged across Europe together. The band in the film also features a guitarist even though John wouldn’t hire one until 1972.
But the film did stay true to Weston’s description of John “literally” flying at the end by having him actually hover above the piano as the audience flies along with him. “What I care about is capturing moments cinematically and musically,” Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher told Rolling Stone in 2019. “I have to take artistic license, which is what Elton said I should do. He’s a creative, artistic person and that’s the way we approached it.”