(Pictured: Elton John, 1970.)
In the days before K-Tel became a powerhouse by marketing “original hits by the original stars,” viewers of after-school TV in the early 70s were often treated to ads touting budget-priced compilations of current radio hits. These ads were carefully edited to underplay the fact that they contained not the actual versions of the hits, but soundalikes hacked out by session musicians. If I’m recalling correctly, they were sold largely by mail in the States; in the UK, they were frequently found in record shops.
Elton John started doing sessions for UK compilation labels late in 1968 and continued for nearly two years, continuing even after he had released his first album, Empty Sky. His last recordings were made in August 1970, the same month of his first American appearance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Sharp-eared researchers have discovered more than 50 songs on which he’s believed to sing backup or lead vocals. Some of them have been released in various combinations over the years with various titles, although none officially by Elton himself. A collection called Chartbusters Go Pop! has appeared with several different covers and in different configurations; I have a version with 16 tracks, although there’s another with 20. What follows here is a ranking of the 16 cuts, from worst to first.
16. “Travelin’ Band” (originally done by CCR) No. Just no.
15. “Up Around the Bend” (CCR) Somewhat grittier than “Traveling Band,” but that’s not saying much.
14. “It’s All in the Game” (Recorded by many, but this is a cover of the Four Tops’ version) Echo-drenched soul crooning over pillowy soft romantic music. Sorry, do not want.
13. “Cotton Fields” (Written by Lead Belly and recorded by many, although this version is a takeoff of the Beach Boys’ countrified 1969 hit, which was one of the top songs of the year in the UK) How much you will like this is directly correlated to how good an idea you think it was for the Beach Boys to record it in the first place.
12. “She Sold Me Magic” (Lou Christie) This is neither interesting enough nor terrible enough for me to have an opinion on.
11. “Love of the Common People” (Recorded by many, including several country versions; this is a cover of a reggae version that was a big UK hit by Nicky Thomas) The best-sounding stuff on this collection is where Elton is either being himself (the himself we would come to recognize in a year or two, that is), or where the songs match his style. “Love of the Common People” is a good song for many people, but not Elton, and trying to copy Thomas doesn’t help.
10. “United We Stand” (Brotherhood of Man) The original has a female and male singer trading lines on the verses; I’m not entirely convinced Elton isn’t singing both parts on this.
9. “Yellow River” (Christie) A version of a song we like a lot around here, on which the backing track sounds exactly the same as the original.
8. “I Can’t Tell the Bottom From the Top” (Hollies) Talented pop singer meets good pop song, and the expected result results.
7. “Come and Get It” (Badfinger) Elton is joined by another lead singer on this for a halfway-convincing simulation of the original.
6. “My Baby Loves Lovin'” (White Plains) In which anonymous session musicians cover a song originally recorded by anonymous session musicians and we all have a real good time.
5. “Good Morning Freedom” (Blue Mink) Elton’s duet partner on this is alleged to be Clare Torry, famed for her wordless wailing on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.”
4. “Spirit in the Sky” (Norman Greenbaum) It’s pretty easy to imagine Elton’s version as a radio hit, actually.
3. “Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” (Stevie Wonder) In which Elton can’t keep his personal style from busting out all over.
2. “Lady D’Arbanville” (Cat Stevens) Would have fit seamlessly on Elton’s self-titled 1970 album.
1. “Natural Sinner” (Andy Fairweather Low) Elton is obviously having a blast on this; he wouldn’t record anything so energetically fun under his own name until “Honky Cat.”
Even at its best, this stuff is a footnote to Elton John’s career. It’s fun to hear, though.