‘It was very special for them’

‘It was very special for them’

Davey Johnstone and Elton John in 1974. (Photo: Robert Knight Archive / Redferns)

Multi-instrumentalist Davey Johnstone has been Elton John’s guitarist for 50 years, which has not given him much free time to focus on his solo career – his debut LP, Smiling face, appeared on Elton’s Rocket Record Company label way back in 1973, and it’s taken him so long to make a follow-up album. Johnstone apparently found the time during 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary stop to Elton’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour – and the result is Deeper than my roots, a family affair with musical contributions from four of Johnstone’s sons and works of art by his daughter Juliet. 15-year-old Elliot, Johnstone’s youngest child, sings the lead role on most of the tracks, including a cover of “Here, There and Everywhere,” which Johnstone describes as “one of the great Beatles songs of all time.”

While Johnstone talks to Yahoo Entertainment / SiriusXM Volume about the album, which will be released on February 4, he is also looking forward to Elton’s Farewell tour, which finally resumes on January 19, and he naturally looks back on his literally thousands of previous concerts with Elton . The conversation throughout the circle eventually leads to a particularly memorable Thanksgiving Day 1974 show in New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he and Elton actually shared the stage with a Beatle: John Lennon. “And unfortunately it was to be his last [public] performance, ”Johnstone signs.

The night was “legendary” in another way, as it was this concert that ultimately led to the reconciliation of Lennon and his second wife Yoko Ono after their separation. “At the time, he was with May Pang, who is also a good friend of mine from all those years ago,” says Johnstone, referring to Lennon and Ono’s personal assistant, who at Ono’s instigation became Lennon’s romantic companion during his 18 months. “lost weekend” away from Ono. “But that night Yoko came to the show and John did not know she was in the audience. I think he would have been really nervous if he had known Yoko was in the crowd. But they got [back] together shortly after that and it was very special for them. ”

Johnstone believes that Elton “conspired” with Lennon’s assistant Tony King, a “wonderful guy” who later worked as Elton’s assistant, to get Yoko to the show. “They knew she would come and everything else. And Yoko actually sent some beautiful gardenia to John to say, ‘Good luck with the show.’ If you look at the footage – there are not many pictures from that show; God knows why not, but there is not – you will see in John’s buttonhole, this gardenia that he had received from Yoko, but he did not realize , that she was at the concert at the time.

Elton John and John Lennon on stage at Madison Square Garden on November 28, 1974. (Photo: Steve Morley / Redferns)

Elton John and John Lennon on stage at Madison Square Garden on November 28, 1974. (Photo: Steve Morley / Redferns)

Lennon was nervous even without knowing that his estranged wife was among the audience because he had not performed live at all since his own Madison Square Garden concert two years earlier. He had also not played with the Beatles since the Apple Corps rooftop concert in January 1969 was immortalized in Come back, and he planned to sing two Beatles songs at the Elton show. While Johnstone remembers that the Elton band’s “quick rehearsal” with Lennon the night before went well (“It was not really a rehearsal. … We talked and laughed and had a few drinks “), Lennon was completely on edge when he actually showed up at MSG on November 28, 1974.

“On concert night, I tuned all the instruments backstage, and John came into the locker room and looked terrified,” Johnstone recalls. “And I said, ‘John, are you okay?’ And he said, ‘Well, no. I think I want to throw up. I feel so nervous!’ – because he had not played forever. It was so long ago that John had made a live performance.… But I tuned his guitar up and I gave him a hug and said, ‘Look, we’ll see you up there. It’s going to be great! ” But Johnstone, a “massive Beatles fan” who remembers “getting chills” when he first found out Lennon was a fan of Elton’s work, admits he was also secretly nervous. He could barely handle what was happening on stage.

“I’m moving on with Elton and [bassist] Dee Murray and [drummer] Nigel [Olsson] and [percussionist] Ray Cooper and I think, ‘John Lennon comes on stage with us. This is insane! ‘”Laughs Johnstone. “When Elton announced John in the middle of the show, it was a big surprise; none of the New Yorkers knew this. And because he had become a New Yorker – and, yes, because he was John Lennon – the place went completely crazy. When I think about it now, it was very surreal, the whole thing. … I could never forget such a great night. “

And then the night went by in rock ‘n’ roll history to be Lennon’s last public appearance (he last appeared, in 1975, on the TV special Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman), and to mark the beginning of a new chapter in the Beatles’ life with Ono (the couple were officially reunited in February 1975, welcomed their son Sean in October of that year and remained together until Lennon’s death in December 1980). But the Lennon appearance hardly happened, for it was all the result of a lost bet.

“When [Elton and his band] was going on tour in the United States [in 1974], we decided to take a ship to America. We all lived in London at the time, and instead of flying and getting jet lag, we decided to take a trip with SS France, ”Johnstone recalls. “We had brought [John Lennon’s son with first wife Cynthia] Julian Lennon on the ship with us because he wanted to spend the summer with his father in New York. So we get to the harbor in New York and there’s John standing waiting for us and we get off board and say hello and hugs and everything else. I was completely star-struck! So the next day we went into the studio with him and saw some of the recording of [Lennon’s solo song] ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’, which I sang and played the piano on. John ended up coming to [Colorado recording studio] Caribou Ranch to visit us and record ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ with us and a few other songs, and it was agreed at the time that if ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ goes to # 1, then John would come on stage with us. And he said, ‘Yes, of course’ – because he never thought it would be a record No. 1. It was and No. 1! So he had to fulfill his obligation. “

In Madison Square Garden, Lennon ended up performing “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”, “Lucy” and a surprising Beatles old man, “I Saw Her Standing There”, while Johnstone “kept looking over; he was just about next to me on stage and I say, ‘This is insane!’ ”And Johnstone was still staring the next day when Lennon paid a surprise visit to his hotel room.

“Elton called me … and he said, ‘Wow, what a show it was! Listen, John wants to come over and hang out with you. Is that okay?’ And I [joked], ‘No, tell him to get mad. Uh, af Route tell him to come over! ‘”Johnstone chuckles. “And so John arrived at my suite about 15 minutes later. It was in the snow and he had the typical [Lennon look]: grandmother-glasses, a cape, sweater with a turtleneck, a scarf. I looked out of the little spy hole [in the hotel door], and I will never forget the sight of him who walked toward me. It was like, ‘This is really one of the greatest things of my life.’ … I tell you, I obviously miss him to this day, as so many people do. What a legend, what a guy, what a writer, what an artist. “

Davey Johnstone and Elton John in 2012. (Photo: Reuters / Radovan Stoklasa)

Davey Johnstone and Elton John in 2012. (Photo: Reuters / Radovan Stoklasa)

While Johnstone never got a chance to perform on stage with Lennon again, he continued to play with Elton for decades, except for Elton’s 1980 tour, where Johnstone was busy working with other rock legends like Alice Cooper and Stevie Nicks. “It’s a great achievement because I do not know anyone who has been with any other artist for so long and played so many live shows,” says Johnstone of his tenure with Elton, who estimates they have performed around 3,300 concerts. together. Now that he’s getting ready to take one last trip with Elton, who acts as the musical director of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, he’s just as grateful for his dream job as he was in 1974 – though he admits he never had imagined that he would play with Elton for half a century.

“Back then, today, we never really thought about anything like that. When you’re in your early twenties, you just do it for the love of it. It’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve been. allowed to do this. This is a giftI have been given. ‘ … So it’s pretty amazing that I’ve been able to do that [for so long]”, Johnstone wonders.” I put it to Elton’s perseverance and his perseverance, and just the way he handles it all. He’s a great, great singer. His voice has changed over the years, but I think he has used it to his advantage; he has a slightly bigger, more soulful voice now. The guy is a monster. He’s one of those guys who plays and sings brilliantly every night. I’ve never heard him do well every night. “

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The above interview is taken from Davey Johnstone’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.

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