Who is Elton John?

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. November 26, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 48

Who is Elton John? By Don Heckman

Look at it this way. If you could put Mick Jagger's viscera into Reg Dwight's body, give it the pianistic prowess of Jerry Lee Lewis and the voice of Jose Feliciano, what would you have? Elton John? Well, not quite. But close -- very close. The missing ingredient, of course, is important -- John's extraordinary gift for composing truly lovely songs.

Okay, I'm being facetious. But I can't recall a performer who has stimulated such a schizophrenic reaction in me as I felt last week after hearing John.

His UNI recording, which had preceded his appearance by several weeks, was so good that I found myself listening to it over and over again. Then I heard John live, twice last week, first at the WABC-FM broadcast from the A&R Studios (a good idea; I'm glad to hear they're planning to do more), and then at the Fillmore East on a bill with Leon Russell and McKendree Spring. Many of the same songs as on the record, performed by the same performer. Then why did they seem so different?

Well, a couple of reasons are fairly obvious. On the recording, John is supported by a slick string orchestra that provides sweet -- sometimes too sweet -- counterpoint for his rough vocal style. And the recording balance keeps the strings, John's voice, the rhythm section, and the piano in accurate and unobtrusive perspective with each other. Finally, and perhaps most important, Bernie Taupin's lyrics, an integral and absolutely essential part of John's songs, can be heard, clearly and coherently, on the recording.

The live performances are something else again. John must have grown up filled with visions of Little Richard and Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis, because he comes on stage dressed in an outfit -- shiny blue satin cape, bright canary coveralls, and a light-up Donald Duck pin at his crotch (at the proper climactic moment he reaches down, pulls a string, and Donald glows) -- that would do justice to a rock Liberace. As he gets into the music he becomes more and more agitated, kicks over the piano stool, gets down on his knees, jumps up and kicks his heels in the air, runs back and forth across the stage, trucking, waving his arms, having an absolute ball with the music. But, despite my comments at the beginning of this review, John ain't no Mick Jagger; he lacks both the grace and the sensuality of Mr. Evil. Yet, somehow, his very awkwardness is charming -- his near-clumsy movements and earnest attempts to do a star number are not quite on a par with Joe Cocker's spastic writhings, but they produce a similarly benign reaction. How can you possibly dislike a guy who is that far into his music, even if he does have all the grace of a grounded Dumbo?

I feel less positive about what happens to the John-Taupin songs in the performances. Perhaps wisely, John avoids singing the more sensitive pieces from the album -- "The Greatest Discovery" and "The Cage," for example. Other songs -- "The King Must Die" and "Your Song" -- suffer from John's enthusiastic interpretations; the sensitivity that went into their creation seems to disappear in performance. And endless riffing may turn on an audience, but it's a pretty cheap way to get a reaction -- too cheap for someone with John's skills.

So I was left with, as they say, mixed emotions. Seen on the same program with Leon Russell, one fo the absolute masters of piano-based rock music, John's performance paled in comparison. He simply lacks the rhythmic charge and the masterful control of energy required for the kind of performance he seems intent upon giving. But I still love his and Taupin's music, and I still think John is going to be a very big star. I only hope that his success will be based upon his very real talents rather than the fantasy of rock & roll revisited. Metaphor just doesn't work very well as reality.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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