I’ve often speculated about Elton John’s third album, Tumbleweed Connection, and its influence on a coming generation of keyboard players. That bridge between roots country, bluegrass, hillbilly, gospel brought to you by two London saddle hoppers – Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Home on the Range, British style.
I came to John through Long John Baldry.
1966, Baldry created Bluesology, featuring Reg Dwight on keyboards, Elton Dean, later of Soft Machine, as well as Caleb Quaye on guitar. When he recorded as a solo artist, Dwight adopted the name Elton John from Elton Dean, and his family name from John Baldry. Baldry’s best-selling album, It Ain’t Easy, with Rod Stewart and John producing opposing sides, caught my attention.
The early years in Canada were spent watching over a shoulder, deep in worry about prowling lawmen out to arrest political malcontents, and hooking up a reasonable sound system.
I acquired that Dual 1219 portable system and separated the speakers a healthy six feet apart, but was never satisfied with the bass response. I then invested in a Marantz tuner/receiver—I’m suggesting 50 watts—and built my speaker cabinets. Monstrosities. Two six feet tall cabinets, with three 15-inch Jensen’s in both. They sounded like shit, but I could crank them. I craved to hear It Ain’t Easy, loud and in a loop! My ass bouncing off the floor. More ELP and Tarkus!
We keyboard players devoted incalculable hours chasing the dream—locate an instrument that most served us. Sound persons grumbled about miking live pianos, and we griped about the shitty instruments available. That wheezing VOX organ, Rhodes with two missing keys after a night of pounding, that broken Clavinet string, monophonic Moog, the Farfisa, etc. I do wonder where my last Farfisa went, possibly enroute with a ‘60s cover band - stolen from my Greenwich Village apartment.
Elton had a sound and style many coveted. Tumbleweed Connection is a keyboard album. Nothing fancy; I can’t recall Elton ever soloing on any recording.
John and Taupin get this tonally correct. This is what co-writer Bernie Taupin said of the album, “Everybody thinks I was influenced by Americana and by seeing America first hand, but we wrote and recorded the album before we’d even been to the States. It was totally influenced by The Band’s album, Music from Big Pink, and Robbie Robertson’s songs. I’ve always loved Americana, and I loved American Westerns. I’ve always said that El Paso was the song that made me want to write songs, it was the perfect meshing of melody and storyline, and I thought that here was something that married rhythms and the written word completely.” John has remarked, “Lyrically and melodically, that’s probably one of our most perfect albums. I don’t think there’s any song on there that doesn’t melodically fit the lyric.”
This is where high art meets ambition. Storylines orchestrated with plenty of juice and Southern mysticism and a piano borrowed near the pews of a Southern Baptist church. It rocks; it consoles. We feel good about it. Garth Hudson, Leon Russell, Bill Payne, Richard Manuel, Big Maceo, Jerry Lee, Little Richard - Elton was listening.
Upon revisiting Tumbleweed Connection, it is clear Elton’s voice grew stronger and more impactful through the years – more convincing and personable, yet the playing remains much the same.
“Soon the pines will be falling everywhere, Village children fight each other for a share, and the 6:09 goes roaring past the creek. Deacon Lee prepares his sermon for next week. I saw Grandma yesterday down at the store, well, she’s really going fine for eighty-four, well, she asked me if sometime I’d fix her barn, Poor old girl, she needs a hand to run the farm.” Don’t you wish you wrote that?
Elton grabs us from the downbeat – broken rhythm, piano in full revival mode, then those soulful words delivered with just enough curve in the phrase to persuade us, this young man grew up somewhere near the banks of the Arkansas River.
Then there’s Love Song – from this vantage an ode to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Gone are the vocal articulations that colour most of the album and in with new folk trends. Sweet harmonies, light and airy. “Do you know what I mean? Have your eyes really seen?” I can visualize a CS&N album cover with this as the theme.
Let’s get to the bravo moment – Amoreena. Nigel Olsson drums, Caleb Quaye guitar, Dee Murray bass. Quaye played with John off and on for over ten years as a session man and full-time band member. Why pick out Quaye? It’s that blend of Duane Allman tempered guitar style that rides comfortably along John’s stream of jagged piano chording, Olsson’s sparking drumming and Murray’s melodic bass play. No better example of creative thinking/playing, and most representative of the freewheeling minds of musicians exiting the ‘60s and entering a new decade.
You know you have a great album when track ten may be your best, Burn Down The Mission.
“You tell me there’s an angel in your tree? Did he say he’d come to call on me?” For things are getting desperate in our home, living in the parish of the restless folks I know. Everybody now bring your family down to the riverside, Look to the east to see where the fat stock hides, behind four walls of stone, the rich man sleeps. It’s time we put the flame torch to their keep.
Burn down the mission, if we’re gonna stay alive, Watch the black smoke fly to heaven, see the red flame light the sky, Burn down the mission, burn it down to stay alive, It’s our only chance of living. Take all you need to live inside."
With verse like this, an outside voice can work magic too. Enter Phil Collins.
Critics have smiled mightily on Tumbleweed and with rare exception.
I can’t say I tuned Elton in the decades that followed. He lost me at Crocodile Rock. I remember rolling my eyes and placing the vinyl aside. Little Feat had just arrived. Deeply rooted electric Americana with a brilliant pianist, Bill Payne, who grabbed my attention.
I last caught Elton live in Toronto a decade back. What an evening. Three non-stop hours of bristling entertainment, with brief interludes to sip, I’m guessing champagne on ice.
Did you know? Elton and photography. A man of my needs and passion.
“Sir Elton John’s photography collection could fill the show many times over, at the peak of his passion he was buying close to four recent works a week. There are times when an entire chunk has been lifted from a wall in his home in Atlanta, Georgia and recreated for the exhibition—a rare chance to peek inside the collection of this gregarious musician. Many of the most intriguing works are documentary photography, such as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, 1936 and Walker Evan’s Floyde Burroughs. Photographs were used as a mass communication tool and did much to reveal the plight of those during the Great Depression. They tell a tale of “great sorrow and anxiety,” he explains, the woman in Migrant Mother “changes her expression every time I look at her.” Fineartmultiple.
Elton’s collection is massive, principled, curated and defining. The real images that shaped the world from only the greatest documentarians.
As far as books. The bar was set high when Dylan scripted Chronicles, Keith Richard Life, Robbie Robertson - Testimony. I admit to fading fast with John’s memoir. Music people sometimes do great storytelling, at others, drop pages of little interest. Maybe Bernie Taupin should have co-written?
Sir Elton is about to make a last visit to Toronto at the Rogers Centre on September 7 and 8. Yes! Yet I have tickets for Wynton Marsalis on October 6, which is my go-to concert. All this final tour stuff spooks me. Tumbleweed – 1970 – it’s 2022 – 52 years out. I suspect the Rolling Stones' last tour will go unannounced—an abduction! Planet Thrash. Busted Fender Showman, blown Marshall amps, creepy VOX organs, and piles of thorny wire strings courtesy Ernie Ball there to greet them and a few thousand sidemen from seventy years of rock ‘n’ rolling, empty beer cans and Keith Moon tossing a set of Premiers off a makeshift stage. That dustbowl planet of unscripted possibilities. There’s a lyric there I suspect!