Christmas With Elton

I’ve done a lot of repeats here over the last year. This is the only one I’m planning this Christmas season. It’s been slightly edited, and it’s from December 22, 2008.

I only wanted one thing for Christmas in 1974: Elton John’s Greatest Hits.

It came out in November, and every time I went into a record store, ultra-cool Elton would look back at me through those tinted glasses, and I wanted to take the record home. Better to wait for Christmas, I thought. Well, sure enough, Mom and Dad and/or St. Nick came through. (As well they might, after two months of begging.) By 9AM on Christmas morning, the record was playing on the big downstairs stereo, and while I was listening, I was also enjoying the visual and tactile pleasures of the album package in addition to the tunes inside. [Thirty-eight] years later, the album is still a triumph of design. The colors are bright and the graphics are sharp; a die-cut inner sleeve contains the track listings and the personnel on them, and the cover picture is reproduced on the record labels themselves.

On December 24, 1974, while I was waiting expectantly for Elton’s album, Elton himself was playing one of his most famous concerts, at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. The Christmas Eve show was broadcast live by the BBC, both on radio and as an episode of its TV series The Old Grey Whistle Test. (Oddly enough, the TV broadcast joined the show in the middle.) Elton was backed by his classic band: Davey Johnstone on guitar, Dee Murray on bass, Nigel Olsson on drums, Ray Cooper on percussion, and by the Muscle Shoals Horns. Whistle Test host Bob Harris described the scene:

It was one of the greatest music experiences of my entire life. That was Elton at his absolute peak in terms of energy, flamboyance, stage presentation, and warmth. . . . I was at the side of the stage throughout most of the concert. Most of the audience were bathed in light, partly from the lights from the stage but also because of television lights used so that the cameras can pick up people’s faces. So I was looking out across the stage toward Elton and then out across the whole crowd into the auditorium, and everyone had a smile on their face. The warmth that was being generated toward Elton that night, you could cut it, you could hold it. Everybody was mouthing the words to every one of his songs, swaying from side to side, arms in the air. Elton also had a smile on his face. It was when he was at his most impish. He was up on the piano, jumping down again, running right up to the audience, smiling, talking. It was one of my greatest nights of music ever.

The show has been widely bootlegged, although not all available bootlegs contain the whole show. At the end, Elton was joined onstage by Rod Stewart and Gary Glitter for a rockin’ rendition of “White Christmas.” Notice the fake snow falling on the band and the audience, as if it were being poured out of a dump truck.

Of all the historic shows I’ve read about, this is the one I most wish I could go back in time to attend—the night when Elton John was just as popular as Santa Claus.

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