In celebration of Elton John: enjoy some of his greatest piano performances

Elton John
(Image credit: Tom Hill/WireImage)

Following his triumphant headline appearance at the Glastonbury Festival, Elton John is now on the last leg of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, the conclusion of which will see him retiring from life on the road. Whether this is really the end remains to be seen, but if it is, the boy from Pinner will leave quite a legacy.

It’s amazing to think that Elton John has been performing and creating hit songs and albums for more than 50 years. His career has included more than 4,000 live performances, 70+ Top 40 hits, and in excess of 300 million album sales.

I watched his final show from LA via a live stream and was blown away at how well he was playing. Age ain’t nothing but a number, indeed! Here are my picks of some of his most celebrated performances and partnerships over the years.

Early success

Elton John (born Reg Dwight) first came to public notice with the release of his self-titled album in 1970 (actually his second release). Launching his career in a big way with his first hit single, Your Song, he provided a counterpoint to the burgeoning singer/songwriter boon by being a strong piano player.

Before his arrival, piano-led rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were well known, but their songs lacked the sophistication of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin masterpieces first heard on that album.

Most of the pop singer/songwriters played acoustic guitar, or just sang: Elton was a wonderful classically trained pianist with a powerful voice and a bevy of great tunes. Check out this great BBC show he performed back in 1970: he ranges from sentimental to rocking, with an already great body of music to present to the world.

Shortly after that, he made his first trip to the US to try to break into the largest music market in the world. His appearance at Los Angeles’ Troubadour Club in August of 1970 is the stuff of legend, and quickly spread his reputation throughout the music industry. 

But for music lovers around the US and elsewhere, it wasn’t until he did a radio broadcast in New York City the following year - one that was widely bootlegged and then quickly released by his record company - that we got to experience the power and dynamics of Elton John as a live performer. That recording, 17-11-70, is one of the best piano-led rock sets, and is cited by almost every keyboard player in rock/pop as a prime influence on their playing. Elton proudly recalls it as one of his best performances.

My favourite tunes include...

Take Me To The Pilot

The Greek Theater Los Angeles 1994 – chock full of rockin’ licks to learn!

Indian Sunset

A lesser-known ballad that showcases how to support a vocal with a range of piano styles. 

Bennie and the Jets

The Rainbow Theatre London 1977 – the perfect way to learn how to play this classic hit.

Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me

This solo performance from his 1990 MTV Unplugged broadcast shows Elton in all his expressive and rockin’ glory!

The piano men

Elton John and Billy Joel are certainly the two biggest piano-playing pop stars. Fans were thrilled when they started touring together in 1994, in shows they called Face To Face. 

They did multiple tours over the years, the last occurring in 2009. I attended a show in 2002 and one of the highlights was when each artist covered a song written by the other. 

Here are some examples:

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Madison Square Garden, NY 2000

You May Be Right – Tokyo, 1998

An obvious Influence

Elton always mentions how he saw Leon Russell in the audience at his breakthrough Troubadour gig. A lot of Elton’s country and boogie styles come from the music of Russell, whom he revered.

Decades later, Elton decided to pay back that influence and bring Leon back to the attention of the modern music audience at large. As you can read here, this resulted in the pair recording an album together and performing a few shows, with Elton pushing to get Leon Russell inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. No doubt Leon was past his prime, but the resulting music and performances are a touching tribute and an example of Elton’s huge heart and selflessness. 

If It Wasn’t For Bad - 2010 live performance in NYC

Monkey Suit - 2013 live performance in London

The Best Part Of The Day - 2010 live performance

RRHOF Induction Speech

Elton’s heartfelt introduction and Leon’s acceptance speech.

A fitting ending

We’ll close out with a few of the Rocket Man’s most outrageous performances: Elton is nothing if not over the top when he wants to be.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting – Wembley Arena London 1984

Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance) – Live in Central Park, NYC 1980

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – Hammersmith Odeon London, 1974 

Your Song – Live in Australia 1986 w/Symphony Orchestra