My mother had an 8 track deck, (no, not 8 discreet channels we all ended up using in the 80’s to record new songs… the old school ones that had ONE cartridge… click here for a link to see what they looked like…), and it was probably around 1972 when I heard Elton John for the first time.
The tapes in her collection, (that I remember), were Elton’s “Honky Chateau”, a Carpenters Greatest Hits album and Bread. Probably a greatest hits of Bread as well. Oh, that’s right, to mix it up a bit I remember she had Led Zeppelin’s IV.
The album that absolutely LIT ME UP was “Honky Chateau” though. “Honky Cat” was, (and still is), about as funky as it gets. If I were to single out what probably inspired me as much as anything as a bass player would be Dee Murray’s bass playing on “Honky Cat”. It’s no wonder Elton was the first white artist to appear on “Soul Train”. That was for “Benny and the Jets”. Funk? Ask Mary J. Blige about that!
And of course, I can’t go on any further… (Cause I can’t go on, no I can’t go on…), without mentioning THE SONG that sent me on the course of my music career more than any other… “Rocket Man”.
(here’s a version of Rocket Man I was just goofing around with one day)
Rocket man took me to that place where it was otherworldly… obviously due to the lyrics but the atmosphere of the song itself was one of those transportive vehicles that made me *feel* things were going to be alright.
As a child of a broken home that had lots of questions, music was, (and still is), the medicine. “Rocket Man” was my cure and little did I know a seed was being planted that I could never have imagined would grow and eventually bloom.
My grandmother *loaned* me the money… (I don’t think I ever paid her back), for me to buy my first record… a 45 single, of, “Rocket Man”.
I wore it out… I studied the label… the colors… and it was MINE.
Go to the next year and I was walking down the aisle at this great store we had in San Diego called “White Front”. White Front was one of the original super stores… they had everything… (I think… my SD friends who remember it can correct me if I’m wrong) But I remember they had clothes, groceries and they also had this music section…
They sold stereo systems and records. If you were at the back of the store and you were heading out the front, the music section was on the right, probably about 3 or 4 *sections* from the front.
I was walking out one day and all of a sudden coming blaring out of the speakers was the guitar/drums intro of a sound that absolutely changed my life… “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”.
I was pulled into that music section with no resistance… it was if some alien spaceship was beaming me up, and I WANTED TO GO!
I walked in and heard this song and I was DONE… FOREVER! This is my guy… this is my band…
I went home and told my mother about this and she stored the information.
Now that I look back on it and know what the marketing schedule looks like, (or at least it used to), this was a CLASSIC Christmas release…
Released at the beginning of October of 1973, it was on my Christmas list!
So when Christmas came we were opening presents over at my Uncle Doug and Aunt Pat’s and I saw the *shape* or an album! I was going nuts! Tore it open and sure enough, there was “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.
AND, as a bonus… there was a 2nd album… “Tumbleweed Connection”.
Suffice it to say, I opened “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and the artwork was, (and still is), pure genius. I wasn’t home so I couldn’t put the record(s) on but that didn’t matter, yet. I had this INCREDIBLE masterpiece of art to pour over.
Talk about going to a new and different world… as an 11 year old this was pure transformation.
Well, when I got the album home, FORGET ABOUT IT! Masterpiece, masterpiece, masterpiece… and this album planted another seed in me that lives to this day… DIVERSITY.
The radio DJ of the time that was THE guy, (and guess what? STILL IS!), is Shotgun Tom Kelly. Shotgun has become a great friend of mine over the years and I’ve told him HE was the older brother that turned me and our generation on to music.
Radio back then was COMPLETELY diverse! It started with KCBQ on the AM dial and we heard everything from Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, Chicago, Elton John, Dr. John, Bloodstone, Bread, Eddie Kendricks, Charlie Daniels… IT WAS INCREDIBLE! We were turned on to EVERYTHING!
So when I heard MY SONGS starting to be played non stop on the radio… “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Bennie and the Jets”, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”… man, I’d made it… into the “I know what I’m hearing and I know it’s GREAT club!”
And then, all of a sudden, he comes to town! Elton is booked to play the “San Diego Sports Arena”! My mother takes me down to the arena and it’s SO EXCITING! We go to the box office and it’s SOLD OUT. Whoa…
So we’re just standing there, outside… probably trying to think of what to do and all of a sudden I hear the crowd ROAR… I hear the opening notes of “Funeral For A Friend”, (the opening track on GBYBR), and the place goes even MORE ballistic…
My mother sees my face… I’m dying… we’re MISSING IT. She runs up to a scalper and says, “I’ve GOT to get my son into this show! How much?” and he tells her $50 a piece… that’s $100. She says, “I’ll do it!” and starts reaching in her bag… and then I stop her.
I said, “Don’t do it” because I knew we couldn’t afford it. Do I look back and wish I’d been more selfish at times? Maybe but I now know there are sacrifices in life that start a trajectory of growing. Delayed Gratification and boy was this a HUGE bit of unfinished business…
(A slight detour for a second here… when Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” came out I couldn’t believe they were telling my story… JUKE BOX HERO)
I devoured the next few albums of his and then started losing interest once he changed his band. (So there’s a note to all the Chicago fans who wish other versions are still intact… I get it…)
I went on my way, starting to play music as a professional musician joining the San Diego Musician’s Union at age 14.
I’ll get into all of that stuff in a different post but for now, to stick to the title of this blog I’ll fast forward to a few weeks ago…
I was finishing up a tour with Chicago and REO Speedwagon when I landed to go home and saw a billboard on the highway that said Elton John was coming to town that weekend. How lucky for me to be home when he’s playing a big venue!
I’ve seen him a couple times in Vegas at Caesars and it was great, but, it wasn’t the big, LOUD, rock show… and here it was… coming to town!
I jumped on the phone and called Nigel, (Nigel Olsson… Elton’s drummer who, yes, played on ALL THE GREAT STUFF that I grew up on! GBYBR, ALL OF EM!) Nigel has become one of my dearest friends… and more on that in another blog post…
So I call him, (and his wife Schanda! I’m covering all angles!), and I launch! “NIGE! SCHANDA! I just got home from my summer tour and Elton’s coming to town… I KNOW THE DRILL THESE DAYS! We’re going through it too… I’m not asking for comps… I WANT TO BUY 5 GREAT SEATS! Get back to me!”)
I didn’t hear from them for a couple days because they were super busy with many things… so I called our management and said the same thing… “I want to buy 5 GREAT seats! Who do I talk to?”
Graciously, the promoters got us 6th row RIGHT IN FRONT OF ELTON, (and they ended up comping them which I wasn’t expecting), and we were going NUTS! I took my family… they are all Elton freaks and they know what this means to me.
We met up with Nigel before the show and it was, as always, great to see him and hug him… what a smile… and WHAT A DRUMMER!
We went to our seats and then, RIGHT ON THE BUTTON, 8:30 pm, the lights go down and the place GOES BALLISTIC! I look at my phone to see the time and note that he’s RIGHT ON TIME. As a musician in a world class touring organization I see how important this is… it’s COMPLETELY PROFESSIONAL. World class… and I’m also nothing… a few fundamentals… BE GREAT, TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF, STAY ON TOP OF YOUR GAME, and BE ON TIME.
Here he is… one of my original and THE MOST influencial music figures of my life… and I’m taking the que… THIS IS HOW TO DO IT.
And guess what first notes start? “Funeral For A Friend”… the hair stood up on my WHOLE BODY. This was my moment to complete the circle.
His tour he was on was called “All The Hits”. And guess what? He played TONS from the 70’s! I was completely transported back to that time… This was my completion of a circle… was I there in 1973 when I was first lit by Elton? No… I had to wait…
But I’m a big believer in how it all works out… I know the cliches… “Everything happens for a reason”, etc. and I’m convinced now, if I could change one thing, everything changes. I look at what’s going on now… I think, “What if I was at that show in 1973? What if the tradeoff of that was I didn’t get to sing background vocals on Elton and Leon Russell’s “Union” album a few years ago? What if I didn’t know Nigel, (and have plans to make some new music with him coming up in 2015… shhhhhhh)?
I really believe that now… I believe you can’t have both… that’s greedy… gotta pick one or the other… I’ll take this one.
And no, even though I was on that album a few years back, I still haven’t met Elton… but that’s ok. I’m a part of his legacy… having worked on one of his projects.
And I was able to experience that which I missed… back in 1973… and you know what? Kim Bullard, Elton’s 2nd keyboardist wrote me the next day telling me he was bummed he missed me backstage before the concert… but then again, I didn’t want to bother anybody… I live this life… and I know what the rigors of this touring life are… and the older I get I’m respecting the rules more, the ropes… but that made me feel good Kim was reaching out.
And Nigel asked if Matt could have my contact information the next day… he was asking about it. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? How funny! Matt Bissonnette is the GREAT bass player who has stepped in to play bass for Elton now. Being a great musician from that spawning ground of great musicians, Detroit… and and coming from a great musical family, The Bissonettes… Matt and I go WAY BACK! Back to the early LA days when I was playing at “Whomphoppers” with John Keane, Guy Thomas, Donna McDaniel and Jim Tauber in “Donna and the Kids”!
I left to try and go to the next level and Matt came in to replace me in that band! And here was asking for permission for Nigel to give him my contact info! I almost fell off my chair laughing, but again, I understand the protocol
So Matt and I recap the next day… they fly to their next city and we get on the phone… and talk for 2 hours! About the early LA days, about how Matt’s played with Bobby Caldwell playing our song “Heart Of Mine”, about it all!
Talk about full circle… amazing.
And probably the biggest takeaway was to be in an audience of people who were reliving the experience… I now know what that feels like… I see it in the faces of the people who come and see us play… Chicago… and they tell me, but I couldn’t completely understand until I saw this Elton show.
So I reiterated that to Nigel and Matt… I told them this… “Just know this… at this stage of the game when it’s so easy to get tired, lazy and start phoning it in, and some do… but the cream rises to the top and that’s those who CARE enough to put the effort in to staying sharp. And you guys are doing that…
Just know that you are delivering at a level that a super freak fan, myself, could so easily be disappointed seeing this in the latter stages and think, “Well, I should have let my mother take food off our table to get me in back in 1973…”
But instead, I realized I made the right choice… (I also get to spend the day with my mother tomorrow… and I’ll tell her this story as well…)
Hello Yellow Brick Road!
ps… if this post has reminded you of signposts along the way, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear about your own journeys…