Monday, October 21, 2013

'Induct Nigel, Dee & Davey Into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame'

My friend on Facebook, Denice Shuba, has come up with a great idea. One that should have been put in train a long time ago, but she's now taken up the baton so everyone should get behind her. This blog fully supports her cause and is throwing it's weight behind it. Anyone reading this, please spread the word around and get people talking about it. Talk may is cheap...but can also be effective. Join the Facebook group and hopefully it will happen!!

Put simply, the greatest combo in rock and roll history so should be admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame sidemen category. Even though that that is the official title of the category, they were more than that. Hopefully over the next few paragraphs those not overtly familiar with what they did and how they did it will have a window of wonder opened. I'm not going to go into any great detail as to their studio and live work. As to do so would mean I'd still be writing this piece on doomsday and I've a feeling that the Hall Of Fame wouldn't be doing any inducting that day.

''On guitars and vocals, Davey Johnstone. On bass guitar and vocals, Dee Murray. On drums and vocals, Nigel Olsson.'' Elton's introduction of them needs no introduction. For an artist of Elton's capability and temperament to trust these guys without question is testament to their abilities. For them to connect with each other, then support and combine with Elton on countless recordings is almost beyond comprehension. From 1969 to 2006, apart from the Victim Of Love escapade, there was not one studio album that didn't feature them. One, two or all three were present and very correct. And with each of their contributions they made each and every Elton album even more special. How and why did they do it? Let's find out...

''Apart from The Beatles, they were the best in-house band for vocal harmonies.'' You know, when George Martin says that you know we're onto to something special. Very special. To have that at your disposal must have been manna from heaven for Gus Dudgeon and later Chris Thomas. Because all they had to do was pinpoint where and when those harmonies were needed and off they went and out them down. Find the note and run with it. But they were a step beyond the usual ''ahh's'' and ''ooh's'' that most artists would be happy with it. The time, effort and dedication in getting all three parts in sync and blending seamlessly is amazing. Harmony, what an apt title when you think about it, for instance took a whole day to get all parts down, an eternity when you consider how long it took to record an Elton album. But the track need that part and benefited from the time and effort. That came from instinct and feel. What they put down from Honky Chateau to Captain Fantastic in that department is mind boggling. Every track they sang on always took their vocals like smooth butter on home made bread. One can only imagine Gus's frustration when that avenue of artistic endeavour was closed off when Rock Of The Westies came to be recorded. No surprise for Blue Moves he brought in Crosby and Nash, a Beach Boy and other 'name' vocalists to add harmonies. That was the calibre of talent required to replace the missing pieces. 

From the 70's to the 10's, all of them, or in other combinations, have been called upon to by a multitude of producers with varying approaches but still with enough foresight to use that sound which was, and of course still is, available to them to give that 'Elton sound'. Gus, Chris, Clive Franks, Pat Leonard and Matt Still all knew the importance of that interlocking sound and it's ability to rubber stamp itself on the music. Chris Thomas when it came to record Too Low For Zero had all the ducks lined up in a magnificent row. Bernie back full time and just as crucially the three amigos on board too. They re-positioned Elton in the 80's as a chart act to be reckoned with again after the holding pattern of the earlier releases. A coincidence...I think not. Chris valued that sound as much as Gus did, he wasn't slow in coming forward in bringing Nigel and Dee in from the cold to put the heat on Reg Strikes Back. Elton's biggest hit of the late 80's features guess what, yep those threesome harmonies again. It all mattered. The last time we heard the trinity as one..but the divinity will never die. As Meat Loaf may say...and Davey would know this better than most...two out of three ain't bad. Nigel and Davey in tandem with various collaborators a have strived to keep that sound alive on disc and onstage. Silence is not an option...Pat Leonard for the second batch of sessions for Songs From The West Coast brought those two in for the very reasons I've outlined. And will outline further on.

The harmonies...incredibly...were only the other string in their bows. The other strings, whether in be in a 4, 6, 8 or 12 setup with a good beat behind them was their meat and drink. Groundbreaking musicianship, in terms of style and technique. To even begin to detail what they did in the studio and how it was developed onstage would have me looking up doomsday in the calendar again. Rest assured though, even as we speak Davey I'm sure is still hard at work plotting the next move for the live arena. The trust they generated in all the producers they worked with was the crucial key. The producers had the wisdom to run with whatever they suggested which more often than not was the right choice. The producers knew what they wanted and where they wanted it. So when they passed it over to them, they were certain it would work. Ten's of millions of sales kind of backs that up.

But the person who gave over the greatest amount of trust was Elton. Once his parts were down, he let them do their 'thing'. Not something that took years to build up, but straight from the off.  Davey's first session for instance on Madman Across The Water was playing Holiday Inn. It was his suggestion to Gus that Elton should come straight in with the vocal and he put mandolin over it. A start like that was bound to lead to good things. It was kismet. For Elton to trust these guys with his and Bernie's babies to nurture them shows to what degree he placed his faith on the. How many major artists...or any for that matter...would do that. Every single part you hear them play on the records was their work. Nobody told them what to do, they just took the song and put their polish on it. Each and every part they wrote from scratch. Sum of the parts and all that...and they were some parts.

When you look at Davey's musical background, it's a contrast to how he developed. His Scots/Irish traditional folk heritage in tandem with the '70's rocker dude with that Les Paul cranked and screaming' persona was an unlikely marriage but has stood the time test. Which ultimately cohabited with Elton. The sound has been unique, refreshing and envied all over. Elton's multicoloured styles demanded and required a myriad of accompaniment. Whatever was needed, Davey could play it. Mandolin, banjo, dobro and every type of electric and acoustic guitar were thrown in with taste and edge. A fine line that was and still is tread with a steady hand.

When Elton first went to the US in 1970, it was exclaimed Dee played chords. He had too in order to recreate that sound off the Elton John album. And more than capable he was too. Anchoring the greatest piano rock three piece there was is only the start point of his contribution. His wasn't just a case being the link between the drums and the lead, but actually inextricably linking himself to all those parts. He became embedded of both elements. He could weave in and out in a flash with deftness and toughness with equal skill. His lines were pure melodic, as interesting as the lead parts. All his successors in his position have cited him as a major influence. They have recreated his stunning lines with the respect they deserve. He was an industry leader in equipment choice, his use of the Steinberger in the 80's is legendary. The sounds he generated out of it on disc and onstage were breathtaking and dramatic. All essential moods for Elton's music.

Nigel is descriptive, to use his own words. Like the other two, he had a feel for the music. All of them being aware of Bernie's lyrics, an important part of the process, their parts in turn complimented both Elton's and Bernie's parts rather than crush them. Which for a drummer is like walking a tightrope. But Nigel high wires every line with balance and poise. His ability to roll back and let the music speak is his Nigel to a tee. Over playing was and still is not on his agenda. His attention to detail in terms of the sound he created is again standard setting. Compare any 1973 album and the drum sound on them with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and it's years ahead of it's time. His trademark slow drumming style on the ride cymbal has been copied countless times. But only he can pull it off with such sweet touches. Even in the 21st century it never lost it's impact on record. Or relevance.

If the studio was where gold was mined, the stage is were it was turned into the finest hand crafted creations. Because that was where Elton..and still is of his element. And they were too. They had already fine tuned the songs but when they were let loose on stage with them, they grew immeasurably. Elton, like all proper musicians, learnt his trade the hard way. Working through a diet of tough, hard nosed clubs. From which he gained the ability to read an audience and work them. The three lads had the same groundwork behind them in their various previous musical lives. Whether it be 500 or 500,000 the method is the same. The stage can be a lonely place, but they made it their kingdom. None of them had any problems in bringing their studio parts to the stage. They transferred with consummate ease. As tight a combo that can be imagined, but with the freedom to follow the lead. Watch Elton, see where he was going and follow. No explanation needed here to detail Elton's endless journeys he made over the years in stretching out the numbers. These guys always locked into a different groove that Elton threw in each night...and it was incredibly if it were planned. A technique which doesn't exist with Elton doing freestyle. Spontaneous in the extreme. They even found time to bring in one of their creations for a memorable live moment. The solo for Davey's Keep Right On from his 1973 album Smiling Face (on which they all played, including Elton) was used as the coda to herald the extended jam on Rocket Man in the 80's. Both slipped together like silk. Even the songs they didn't play on the studio, they expanded and gave new life too. Ticking on the 1982 tour a perfect example. Simple additions of backing vocals (of course), rhythm guitar and light percussion upped the songs game. Upmanship indeed.

Whether it be with the three piece, orchestra or playing with other musicians they always combined in any given situation. Elton over they years occasionally tried the new sound route, but these were short lived ventures. Bringing Nigel and Dee back in 1980 made sense all round. They helped to begin him getting a foothold back in the charts, his biggest hits in the early 80's, Little Jeanie and Blue Eyes, both featured Nigel and Dee on their own respectively. A statement that they could still be effective apart. As Davey has been on numerous occasions over the years when he's been left holding the reins.

Since 1969 they've played on about 90% of Elton's recordings. In pairs, on their own or most influentially, together. Some feat considering Elton has recorded in and around half a thousand songs. And performed over 3000 shows. An incredible fact that stems from the last stat is that when Elton played the Revolution Club on March 25th 1970 (two weeks to the day that The Beatles officially split incidentally) every single band show after that, including orchestra, Face To Face with Billy Joel, The Red Piano, either featured Davey or Nigel (or both of course) onstage with him. A run that ended, wait for this, on the 19th October 2010 at The Union promo show in New York. 40 and a half years. I bet that must be some world record and if it is won't be broken. When you consider Elton's longevity and penchant for changing band lineups that is some feat. It's been noted that other band members should be included. A point I am in agreement with. People like Ray Cooper, Roger Pope, James Newton Howard, Caleb Quaye, Richie Zito, Fred Mandel, David Paton, Charlie Morgan, Guy Babylon, Bob Birch, John Mahon, Kim Bullard and Matt Bissonnette have all made tremendous contributions. And deserve their moment. But not knowing too much about how these things work, I suppose the number of years and amount of albums etc. that have been made would surely create a cut off point. But I do agree that they should find themselves being acknowledged too. Maybe that will be the end result of all this. Fingers crossed.

I'm not into number crunching or rivet counting, but here are some remarkable figures. Just taking the US charts as a yardstick...all three lads have played on either together, in pairs or solo on the following chart successes over 4 decades. (All figures open to correction)

22 top 20 Albums of which:
11 are top 5 albums (7 of which went to number 1)
2 are top 10 albums
9 are top 20 albums

31 top 20 singles of which:
6 numbers 1's
9 top 5's
5 top 10's
11 top 20's

Even the sales figures alone would put most artists in the ha'penny place.

To sum up, I've tried to be brief but to compress what they've helped to contribute to Elton's work would be impossible on this post. But by scratching the surface, it gives an insight in to why they should be honoured in this way. For anyone not overly familiar with them, use this a bids eye view and swoop down alter like a High Flying Bird for a closer inspection. The cultural impact of Elton has been immense. Their contribution to it cannot be ignored or underestimated. To do so would be an oversight of epic proportions. So Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, it's over to you...

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