Elton John was just a shy, gawky 22-year-old struggling pianist/songwriter when drummer Nigel Olsson first laid eyes on him. It was early 1969 and John was a staff songwriter for Dick James’ DJM Records, desperately trying to write songs for the likes of Lulu, Roger Cook and the Eurovision Song Contest along with his lyricist Bernie Taupin. “I would hang around the Dick James office,” recalls Olsson. “And if Elton was cutting a demo and needed a drummer he’d say to me, ‘Hey, would you come back into the studio and help me out with a couple of things?'”
Those off-the-cuff demos sparked a five-decade relationship. Olsson has played on many of Elton’s most enduring albums — including Honky Château, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Too Low For Zero, Songs From the West Coast and many, many others — in addition to more than 2,000 concerts.
As he prepares for Elton John’s upcoming Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour (kicking off September 8th in Allentown, Pennsylvania) we spoke to Olsson about his long tenure in Elton’s band, what fans can expect from the upcoming tour and the time he taught Elton how to order a salad in America.
You were with Elton a couple of years before he had any real success. What’s your first memory of hearing an Elton/Bernie original and thinking they’d really come up with something special?
That’s going back. I think it was a song called “Lady What’s Tomorrow” that we cut as a demo. There were a few other things we did, like “Turn to Me,” but the real stuff started to happen when we did the second album [1970’s Elton John]. He had Empty Sky before that and then the next one came out, and it had “Your Song” on it. The record company wanted him to play a showcase at this place called the Roundhouse, which was a big club in London. Elton asked [bassist] Dee [Murray] and myself if we were interested in helping out with that show, doing a few songs off the new record.
At the time, I was in a band called Uriah Heep. I’d done about nine shows with them. But then we went into Dick James’ studio to rehearse for this Elton show. Within the first eight bars of the first song that we played together, I knew that this was the music that I wanted to be playing. It had so much feeling and was so original. It was this surge of energy that told me, “Hey, this is what I want to do.” We went down very well at the show. In fact, I think we supported the Who. We kinda looked at each afterwards and said, “Well, maybe we should put a band together.” That’s basically how it started.
The setup back then was just Elton on piano and vocals, Dee on bass and you on drums. There was no guitarist or anything. Whose idea was that? It made for a very unique sound.
It just kind of happened that way. Before we came to America we did a few gigs in England, just colleges and stuff. But when we came here, to get the sound of that particular album, which was so orchestral with the Paul Buckmaster string arrangements, Dee had this knack of making his bass sound like cellos and stuff like that. In those days, there was no effects or anything like that we could use on a stage besides maybe a wah-wah pedal. But Dee had this knack for filling out that kind of sound. So yeah, people were pretty amazed when it was just us doing “Burn Down the Mission” and stuff like that. It was amazing.
Was the 18-minute version of “Burn Down the Mission” on the 17-11-70 live album rehearsed or just totally improvised?
That was improvised. That was a jam, basically. When I listen to it now I think, “What the hell were we thinking?” It just went from one thing to another, but it flowed so well together. That particular radio show was live, so it went out as we were doing it.
The Troubadour show where Elton first played to a U.S. audience has obviously become incredibly legendary. Was it as magical in the room that night as the lore suggests?
Oh, yeah. It was just insane. We were these lads from England that came over and it was kind of a one-off. Dick James told us, “OK, boys, I’m going to send you to America and this is going to be make-it-or-break-it. If you pull it off, great. But if you don’t, I can get you a job at the shoe shop here on Oxford Street” [laughs]. And, well, we obviously never got the job at the shoe shop, so I guess we did good.
It was magical because Dee and I had been over here with the Spencer Davis Group. In fact, I was involved with the last tour that Spencer Davis ever did as the Spencer Davis Group. That is where I first met Dee. When we came over, Dee and I would teach Elton how different it was in the States, even down to silly things like ordering a chef’s salad. We’d say to him, “You’re going to get a whole plate of salad.” That’s because in England the portions are very small.
It was great taking Elton around the Sunset Strip and all the places you heard about in the early days of the movement, so to speak. Then it was fun doing that first gig at the Troubadour here in L.A. It was magical, but it also frightened us to death. We looked into the audience and there’s Neil Diamond sitting in the first row. I think Stephen Stills was there, as was Leon Russell. I even think Diana Ross was sitting there for some reason. I don’t know, but it was packed to the rafters and we were so nervous about it. But once we cranked it up it was amazing, just amazing.
Why were you only on a single song each on the early albums?
Well, because I was doing other stuff. I was with Uriah Heep. I also went away to rehearse with this new band. This guy called me and asked if I’d be interested in just working with this band for a couple of months to try and write songs, see how they turned out and then maybe put a record together. But I was a road dog. I wanted to be on the road. I didn’t want to be cooped up in the country. So I went back to London, and that group I was rehearsing with actually turned out to be Supertramp [laughs]. Go figure. They were putting together great songs, but it just wasn’t my thing. I was probably doing that when Elton was putting together that whole thing together with Gus [Dudgeon] and Paul Buckmaster.
Do you recall making “Amoreena”? That’s the one Tumblewood Connection song you do play on.
Yes, we did that at Olympic Studios I think. That was one of the first songs Dee and I did for the Elton records. It was so different. Nobody said to each other, “Oh, you should play like this” or “You should play like that.” Everybody had their own input. It was the same thing in the later days when we went to the studio right outside Paris or when we went to Caribou Ranch in Colorado. That magic of our band was, and still is now, that we’re on the same wavelength. We all know exactly where everyone is going. It comes out especially on the early records because it was so new and refreshing. We had a great time together. We were a band of brothers.
The sheer number of great songs you guys churned out in the early 1970s is just staggering. Did it stun you that everything was happening so quickly?
It was magic. But we had so much going on. We could come and do a tour and then go back in the studio to do another album and then come back out, play our earlier songs and then a few ones from the unreleased album. We were always an album ahead when we toured. It happened so quickly for us, we didn’t have time to sit down and think, “Wow, we’re doing really good.” And all of this was in America. We weren’t heard of in England at the time.
Describe the process Elton uses to write a song. I’ve heard him talk about getting lyrics from Bernie, sitting down at the piano before he’s even read them and then just coming up with a melody there on the spot as he reads them.
Well, he does sit down and he does have lyrics that Bernie has sent him. In the early days, Bernie was in the studio even though he had nothing to do with the melodies or anything like that. But Elton would sit down and go through the lyric sheets, and he’d go through words to see if the song should be midtempo or uptempo. Then he would just start playing round with different chords and it would suddenly come together.
Some of the song were written … I think “Daniel” was written in about 15 minutes. It was that magical. We would sit down for breakfast and he’d go around on the piano, have the song and then we’d go into the studio. The studio was already set up with sounds and everything. We just had to go sit down and play. We’d hear him inventing the song. Then we’d all get on the same wavelength. Most of the big records happened in probably no more than four takes. Some of them happened on the first take. We were there from the beginning.
I play to the lyrics and the low-end of the piano. And I describe myself as a descriptive drummer. I will play to the lyrics. So it’s basically what you leave out. If there’s a break in a song, in some songs you expect this huge drum solo to come out. I’ll leave that out so it’s all the anticipation. That’s my style of playing and it’s worked out well for me.
Do you recall the creation of “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”?
I remember it being a very involved recording because of it being two songs in one. To get my particular drum sound, we always loved to use a very, very large room with high ceilings so we could put drums close to the microphone. Then we’d have what we call ambient mics way, way up in the ceiling as far away from the drum kit as possible. That gives you a natural ambiance and a little bit of a delay that makes the drums sound larger. That’s how I get my drum sound.
So we put those songs together, but we didn’t like to do edits because it doesn’t flow correctly. But that particular song was long and involved, so we had to play it a few times to get the different segments together.
There was one song we recorded at Caribou, which is “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” into “Curtains.” At the end of “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” we went into “Curtains,” which is a whole different tempo and everything. And we were shitting it because we didn’t want to stop and do an edit. So we had to do that whole song one time the whole way through. I remember thinking, “Oh God, we’re almost there to where we have to stop and go way, way down and then come back in with the ‘Curtains’ deal.” It was pretty intense, but the magic happened and there it was. It was larger than life. I still love playing that song.
I always get a chill when he sings, “We wrote it and I played it/Something happened it’s so strange this feeling.”
I do too, still. And what I was saying earlier about me being a descriptive drummer. There’s a line in that song “trickled down the sleepy subway trains.” I do this thing on the cymbals that sounds like rain. It’s just little things that come to you while you’re playing to these amazing lyrics. Also, the sound of the piano is just amazing. I mean, I’m blessed to even be involved in any of that stuff and it’s been now almost 50 years or something like that.
So you guys make Captain Fantastic, one of your true masterpieces, and then Elton dumps you and the rest of the band. How did you hear that was happening?
I just got a phone call from someone in the office saying that he wanted to go in a different direction and that was it. I soldiered on. I had my own career. And I’m happy that we’re all back together and it’s going so well.
At the time, though, were you heartbroken?
Um … yeah. But, you know, you have to get over these things. Life goes on.
There were obviously other factors at work, but it’s interesting to note that the second he got rid of your guys his sales started to plummet.
I have no clue. That’s a question you should ask him.
You went solo and had a hit with “Dancin’ Shoes” in 1978. Did that take you by surprise?
Yeah. It was brilliant. We’d actually done a song before that at Caribou Ranch with the whole band called “Only One Woman,” which was a Bee Gees song they wrote for a band in America called Marbles. I loved that song. When we were up at Caribou we had some downtime and I said, “Hey, listen, can I cut this song? I love it.” The record company liked it and we put it out as a single and it did very well in the States. Then when I went out on my own, we did “Dancin’ Shoes” when I joined Bang Records out of Atlanta.
That was a good record for me. Then we did another couple of songs, like “A Little Bit of Soap.” And so I had my own success, but I was freaked out because Dee wanted to go out and tour and I didn’t want to be the frontman.
You do have a very good voice.
Well, thank you. I love to sing. I love doing backgrounds and it was amazing that my solo records took off. I still get lots of fans asking why I don’t put one of those in the set, but it’s a whole different segment of my life. It’s just a joy to have done something away from the band and had my own kind of success story.
But you never saw yourself as a possible pop star or anything?
No, no, no, no. I did a couple of TV things. I think I did four [episodes of American Bandstand] and became really good friends with Dick Clark. He said to me, “You need to go on the road.” I said, “I’m just too nervous for that.”
How did you reconnect with Elton in the early 1980s and rejoin the band?
I got a call from [guitarist] Davey [Johnstone], who said, “Will you come back and do some background vocals for an album?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll be there.” Then suddenly I got a call that said, “Will you come back and play?” I said, “Yeah, tell me where I need to be.” And that was it. We started over again.
How did it feel to step back behind the kit at your first show back?
It was great. It was great to be back to the joy and the magic of this music. Being a part of it, being a part of musical history, to me, is just unbelievable. When we play shows now, you see old grandmas and grandpas and then their grandkids. We see little kids in the front row singing along to “Crocodile Rock” and other songs that are almost 50 years old. My job — especially nowadays and the pretty frightening times we live in — is to make people smile and have a good time and forget all the bullshit in the world. I count myself very, very blessed to be able to do that.
Were you and Dee Murray close?
Very close. We were all brothers. In fact, we married twins. I married my first wife and then he married her sister a few years later. So it was basically a big family. We worked really, really well together. I think about him all the time. We all actually do. His name comes up all the time.
If he was still alive, do you think he’d still be in the band?
I’m sure he would, yeah.
Why did you leave again after Breaking Hearts in 1984?
I went motor racing. I’d always been a motor-racing freak. I’m a car maniac. A friend of mine from Ferrari had called me up and said, “Why don’t you come down? We’re testing a new car at this famous race track 60 miles north of L.A.” I went out there and he wanted me to drive this car because I’d done all the racing schools and got my Super Licence. I loved the car, loved the way it handled. He said to me, “Man, you did some good times. Would be interested in bringing a series called the Ferrari Challenge to the States?” That’s kind of like the race of champions where every car is identical, so it was a competition about driving rather than the power of the car. I did that for for years. Then I went back with the band and made more music.
You kept a very low profile in the Nineties. Were you mainly involved with car racing?
Yeah. I also did some sessions with people like Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond. I was on the session circuit here in L.A.
How did you wind up back with the Elton John band in 2001?
I got a call from Davey again. He said, “We’re doing a tour. Do you want to be involved?” I said, “Yep. Tell me where to be.” And there I was.
You got back right in time for Songs From the West Coast. It’s funny you always come back just when they’re about to make something great.
Well, I appreciate you saying that. That’s just the magic of us. It’s just magic and I’m blessed. It’s an amazing feeling. I’m a very happy man.
You came back 17 years ago and just didn’t leave. What changed this time to allow it to just become permanent?
That’s just the way it should be. It’s the old and the new put together. We’re still making great records. Bernie is still writing great lyrics. There’s no way to explain it. It just happens that way. It’s a wonderful feeling that we’re still selling out football stadiums. And this tour is going to be amazing. It’s a three-year tour and who knows what’ll happen after this. I don’t know. I just go day-by-day.
You turn 70 next year. How do you stay in shape since your job is so physically demanding?
I take care of myself, especially when I’m on the road. I like to swim. I don’t work out on treadmills or anything, but I do look out for what I’m eating. I don’t drink anymore. I take vitamins. I have a good deal of people looking out for me.
You wear gloves when you drum. Why is that?
It’s actually to cut down in blisters and callouses. I’m sponsored by FootJoy golf gloves. They are very, very thin leather so I can feel the sticks. They give me more grip and it helps my hands not come into pieces.
Are you in rehearsals right now for the farewell tour?
We’re starting next Wednesday.
Is the show going to be very different than the last time you went out and played arenas?
It’s gonna be an extravaganza, an absolute extravaganza, but I can’t give it away to you. But imagine all these years and all these different phases that we’ve gone through. It’s gonna be amazing. There’s also a lot of different stuff that I don’t know what’s happening until I get there. I won’t see the stage until a few days before we started. I can’t imagine how it’s going to be, but I’m sure it’ll be outrageous.
Are you going to play any songs you haven’t done in a while? The fans would love some surprises.
Right now we’re sorting through songs because, obviously, there’s so many. It’s going to be a tough decision. I played on almost 200 songs. There’s much to choose from. So I think what we might do is maybe go with two different sets. We don’t have to play the same set everywhere. If we’re playing two or three nights at one place, we could swap the songs out a little bit. But that’s all in the planning stage right now. I’m not involved until we get to rehearsal and we have a chat.
You’ll be 72 when this tour ends. Do you think about retirement at all?
No, I’ll never leave the road. I don’t know what I’m going to do when this ends. Hopefully I’ll still be traveling. I’m still in the car business, but I’m a little too old to do proper racing. But I’m a certified instructor. Maybe I’ll go do that. But I really don’t know. I wanna stay with it. I want to keep playing.
That’s great. I love watching you play an old song with Elton and realizing that you played on the original recording. You don’t get that a lot these days.
That’s how it should be. It would be a joy if Dee, Davey, Ray Cooper and myself would be put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think we deserve it. We’ve done so much. It’s insane. We should be there.
Do you feel overlooked?
No. And I don’t mind that part because I’m part of the whole magical situation. I know what we’ve done and what I’ve put into it. It’s not that I should be on this pedestal. It doesn’t bother me one bit. I’m just happy to be there and to do what I’m doing. And I’ll do it for as long as I can.