Nigel Olsson talks exclusively to George Matlock from California, 13 November 1999
His friends call him the "Drop-Out Drummer", the fans call him a legend. And legally we must refer to him as Nigel Olsson - one of the first drummers of Elton John's remarkable career.
Why drop out? Nigel was asked to leave the Elton John Band - twice - but what's earned him that title? In his own words: "It's what I leave out that makes people appreciate my playing style."
Like successor Charlie Morgan, whom we interviewed a year ago, the life-span of an Elton drummer never exceeds 13 years. That's what Charlie and Nigel each survived when they were full-time drummers for Elton.
And why is Nigel a legend? Well, for those of you numb about Nigel here's a quick reminder...The one with the girlish looks. He's played drums and sung backing vocals on most of Elton's repertoire 1970 through 1984. He was briefly out of the band with colleague and bass guitarist Dee Murray in 1975, and then returned. He was again released - along with Dee - in 1985.
His first successful recording for Elton was "Lady What's Tomorrow" on 1969 album "Empty Sky", while Roger Pope filled in the fills on all that album's other tracks. Nigel's next appearance was on "Tumbleweed Connection", drumming on "Amoreena" as well as backing vocals with Dee on a number of other tracks. Then came the legendary live radio show "17-11-70", with Elton's sound stripped down to piano, Dee on bass and Nigel on drums.
Nigel next played drums on "All the Nasties" from "Madman Across the Water" as well as vocals on other tracks. His full-time stint started with "Honky Chateau" in 1972, and among his classics are "Rocket Man" and of course our anthem "Hercules".
The drums stopped rolling in 1976, when "Blue Moves" was released without Nigel. Elton went through a phase of bringing back Roger Pope, and new talent Steve Holly, while sound engineer Clive Franks punched a mean bass in place of Dee.
Nigel and Dee reappeared in 1980 at the biggest crowd-puller of the era...the infamous Central Park, New York show in September. Nigel was also drummer for that belter "Chasing the Crown" and ecclesiastical anthem "Dear God" on "21 at 33", while Alvin Taylor took the remaining credits. In 1981, Nigel shared the credits with Alvin, but was the drummer for "Breaking Down The Barriers", "Heels of the Wind", and the title track, "The Fox".
In a further twist of confusion for the record-buying public, Nigel was again off the 1982 album "Jump Up!" but Dee was still on. Jeffrey Porcaro was the drummer. Nigel then made a full return on 1983 and 1984 hit albums "Too Low For Zero" and "Breaking Hearts."
Sunderland, north east England-born Nigel emigrated to California in 1972, before moving to Country capital Nashville for 7 years. Old pal Dee was with him there. They did backing vocals for local hero Earl Thomas Connelly. More importantly, Nigel met his wife Schanda in Nashville.
Nigel became disillusioned with the music scene for a while. But he didn't descend into fast cars, fast women and drugs. Instead, he took up a worthwhile hobby in racing cars, which continues. Nigel moved back to California four years ago.
That's the history lesson over with. Now what's Nigel up to?
GM: Thank you very much for participating in this interview. The whole thing snowballed following an interview we did with Charlie Morgan earlier this year. And that generated a lot of interest, and here we are. Let's start with your CV:
NO: I was with a band called Plastic Penny since the mid-1960s. They were put together by the record company. Page One Records, which was a subsidiary of Dick James Music had got this song "Everything I am" and they went into studio with session guys, cut the song, and put it out. And it started going on the charts. So they were madly scrambling to put a band together to promote that record. And they were auditioning lots of people. And in this business it's all about who you know and where you are. A talent scout guy in Sunderland, where I lived, was looking for a guitar player and drummer for this band. At that stage, I was playing with local bands in Sunderland. He said 'would you guys like to come down to London and audition?' We said 'give us the (train) ticket and we're there.' We went to the studio at Dick James in Oxford Street, and got the gig. The record made position 6 on the UK charts (Jan. 3, 1968). We made two albums, but nothing ever came of them. We were one of the original one-hit wonders [laughter].
GM: Not so much a Plastic Penny as a bad penny.
NO: It put me in the right circle. We were handled by the Dick James organisation. Elton and Bernie were staff songwriters. On the books were Gerry and the Pacemakers, Spencer Davis Group, and The Beatles. Elton would come in to do demos, and if I was available I'd do drumming on them.
Nigel, who'd met Dee playing in a band called The Mirage, then got a phone call from Dee, who by then had been elevated to Spencer Davis Group. Dee said the band was doing a US tour and would Nigel like to come over. Nigel had no problem uttering 'yes'!
It was the last tour Spencer Davis Group ever did, and a very small tour. "But it was a great chance to get to America, in about 1967," Nigel says.
NO: After eight weeks the tour ended, I returned to England and the band disbanded. Then Elton rang me. He had a friend who did jingles who was forming a band called Uriah Heep. I auditioned with them, and played about nine dates with them, and two tracks on the record. Elton called again. He said he had this gig to do at the Roundhouse in London. At that stage he was just trying to get his songs cut (recorded). He and Bernie were basically writing for the Eurovision Song Contest [laughter]. So he said he had this album produced by Gus Dudgeon and Paul Buckmaster. He asked 'would you come and do this one-off gig with Dee?' And I said, yes, let's go and see what happens.
That's when Nigel found his musical destiny.
NO: We went into Dick James's studio and within the first 16 bars of music, then I knew that's what I wanted to do. It hit me in the heart, in the head, everywhere. It was very original. Before then, I hadn't had any direction. Until then, it had been Keith Moon-ish, get a lot of drums and bash anything in sight!
GM: Well it worked for Keith Moon [laughter]!
NO: Yes it worked very well for Keith. I became quite friendly with Keith in the latter stages of his life.
GM: So what happened next? Did Elton say 'come on board' or did you say 'I want to come on board'?
NO: He said 'this is great. Let's call this the band and go out and do a couple of dates.' So we did a couple of college dates. We went to Leeds and York (England). And every time we went on stage it was amazing.
GM: How about Dee? My biggest disappointment is going to be that we didn't get around to interviewing Dee. As far as you can comment on his behalf, what was going through his mind at that time. Was he similarly struck by all this?
NO: Exactly the same. There was never a time when we asked are we doing the right thing.
GM: That's always the sense the fans have had. That you both enjoyed being in the band.
NO: In those days the money wasn't that good. It was just that surge everytime you went on stage. Amazing. Especially when we went into the studio as a band. The way we recorded was to go away and stay at the studio. We heard the songs being created. There was never a time when Elton would say 'Nigel I want you to play this like this, and Dee I want you to play this like that.' We were on the same wavelength before we sat down to cut the songs. And that's why those early songs sound so fresh. Because we never really did more than three or four takes of any song. If it wasn't there in the first four or five takes, we'd go on to the next song!
GM: Anyone who's recorded with Elton since 1985 has probably met with a different kind of Elton. By then someone who was in auto-pilot, under the influence of certain vices, drink, drugs. Presumably when you were first recording, none of this was present. Weren't these the Golden Years?
NO: They were the Golden Years. There were a couple of times when he'd go in and do a vocal and he couldn't quite sing in tune for some reason. I don't know whether the phonos or the monitors were out. There was a time - it's quite funny - when he got so frustrated that he couldn't get this one line, he screamed to Gus Dudgeon 'screw this. Send it to Lulu, and if she doesn't like it, send it to Englebert (Humperdinck)' [laughter]. But five minutes later it was fine. And we had our differences on the long tours, especially when we did those bus tours. They were Greyhound buses, and no telly or catering on board. A bus with seats in, and a long, long drive. We were very worn out, and tempers get frayed. We all travelled together. It was a 'touring circus'! But they were the Golden Years. At the chateau in France, for "Honky Chateau" (1972) that's where Davey (Johnstone) came on board for good. He'd always, with Ray Cooper, been on the records as session musicians. But when Davey joined the band, it took off. Elton John was the whole band, it wasn't just one guy. I guess the people in the hierarchy then told Elton 'listen, these guys are sidemen, you've got to be the front man. That's how that changed.
GM: That's one of the things I did want to feature. Charlie Morgan was recounting to me that he found the musicians were treated as session musicians, hired and fired at will. The sleeve of "Philadelphia Freedom", who are there with the band, and it says "Elton John Band". So this began to change. Would this be around the mid-seventies?
NO: It was really in the early 1980s, when it became more of a business than the enjoyment of the music. We still pulled the music off. When he first let Dee and I go, when he went to Caribou to cut "Rock of the Westies" that was both a kick in the pants and total shock. He hadn't told us what was going on. In fact, he called me the week before, and he was raving that we're going to do Dodger Stadium, it was a sold-out gig, and nobody plays at Dodger Stadium, especially rock and roll bands. The next week I got this call from Steve Brown saying 'Elton doesn't want you guys involved in gigs or recording anymore, what are you going to do?' all in one sentence. I was floored.
GM: Did you feel that was Elton speaking or management? How did you interpret it?
NO: I've had many years to grind my teeth about it. I think it came from the hierarchy. I never got to know why that decision was made. Me and Dee were called back a few years later, and let go again in that sudden way. We called from someone. I had wished Elton had made the call himself. It would have been much easier. The reason for why he let us go, as far as I read in the press, was that Elton wanted to change musical direction. And I don't think he's quite got that together yet. Still the records sound like me and Dee play in the background. And Dee went to his grave not knowing why [Dee died in 1992]. We were very close and living in Nashville. A few weeks before Dee died, I visited him. He was very sick, and we would reminisce about our careers. One of the last things Dee said to me was: 'Nige, I wish we'd been told what the hell we did to be fired. We never got the right story.' That really saddens me, and there's really not a day that goes by I don't think about Dee. It was the best band Elton's had - ever.
GM: Elton's had many highlights since, but it was, I suppose, an amazing era because the band was producing up to three albums a year, and all were consistently good. Going back to the 1970s split, you at least had Steve Brown contacting you. But did you already feel that management or the record company was commercialising?
NO: Yes, I already felt that a little before, because when Dee and I came back from the second tour we did here (USA), we were called into the office, and got told we were earning too much money as sidemen and that we'd have to take a break in our wage packets. In those days we didn't think twice about it. We were so into the tours, recording, we were playing an album ahead of ourselves on tour. It was fine. I had money in the bank, a house and a Mini Cooper car! Whereas now I'm absolutely fuming about it. In those early days the management people in the industry were very cut-throat.
GM: I want to come a little later on to issues relating to your latest projects and to the Internet and the way it may influence management policy in the future. But first, I wanted to ask about your roots. You haven't lost your Sunderland accent. How do you keep it polished?
NO: You know, I don't know. My mum, who passed away three years ago, would always notice an American word, and would say 'you're losing your accent. Don't forget where home is'!
GM: It's definitely more West Country than West Coast [laughter] Do you spend all your time in the States, or do you ever come back to Sunderland?
NO: I've had a Green Card since 1972. And lived all over the States, here in Los Angeles, Atlanta for nine years, North Carolina for nine years, Nashville for seven year, and now I'm back here. So coming home is rare and far between. The last time was for mum's memorial. And she would have been proud of us. All the brothers and family members got together and had a great piss-up! It was great. We celebrated life, not mourned passing away. That was the last time for me in England. But now I have BBC America on cable television, so I keep up with what's going on in England. Especially when I see these shows in the English countryside, I get this urge to come back and enjoy what I've missed. When you're on tour you're worn out. You see just arenas. In the latter period on tour, we'd have the whole stage and dressing rooms flown with us. We could be in Los Angeles one day. Two days later we'd be in Australia, and ask whether after a 17-hour flight we leave anywhere!
GM: I understand you have a special request Nigel.
NO: Yes, I'd like you to stick in here. We as a band always took care of our people. We opened the door for a lot of the road crews. We realised that without them we wouldn't be able to out the gig on. I think we were the first band to put washing machines on the truck. The crew would always have clean clothes and clean sheets on their bunk beds. They had three meals a day. They had a full breakfast when they arrived in the morning. We came up with things which nowadays is there in the crew's contracts everywhere. We pioneered this. Now they're making so much money. In old days, you had to have at least two major records and wouldn't make any money until the third record. Likewise, touring you never broke even on the first two tours. It cost the record company or whoever to put you out there. Nowadays, it's mega money, and the ticket prices are unbelievable.
GM: Well, that's a moot point with Elton fans, who have paid £55 for solo shows recently. But I guess they're paying for an established name. Okay, do you long to come back to the UK for a while?
NO: I'd love to come back to record. Basically, I'd love to record with producers I haven't before, or those I have, on a big record. I'd love to record again with Gus Dudgeon. We have actually discussed many times on the phone. Want to do it the old-fashioned way. With real drums, in a real studio, with a real microphone. These days you just post a disk and you have sounds. Me and Gus were probably the first in and the last out at the studio, perfecting the drums. These days I think it takes away from the energy and the heart of the record.
GM: You mean it's a good thing to suffer a little for your craft.
NO: Absolutely. That's what we did in the old days, and it worked very well.
GM: Is it that your and Gus's time schedules don;t permit, or are there any other anxieties?
NO: It costs a lot of money to do it the old-fashioned way. And with the names I'd like, the record company would have to come up with a lot of smackeroos (money).
GM: Let's fly a few kites. Who would you like to bring in? I understand among names are Lee Sklar on bass, with whom you worked in your early California session days.
NO: Production-wise, Gus, Jeff Lynne. Also David Foster on keyboards, with whom I've been close friends since the mid-70s when I moved here. Playing-wise, I still love the way Davey Johnstone plays. In fact, there is a project in the air for a small company in Japan who want me to put together an album with Davey, Guy Babylon and Bob Birch.
GM: We look forward to plugging that at the appropriate time. Is that happening in 2000?
NO: We're discussing it now, we should know the deal is there in the next couple of weeks. But it's in the 'hurry up and wait' situation [laughter]. We'll cut that probably in Los Angeles. I've been talking to a lot of people about this Internet deal you were talking about. Several people have phoned me to say I should put recording out on the Internet. But being not yet Internet-friendly yet, it's way above my head. But it would cut the middle man out. In ten years there'll only be one record company who owns everybody, run by lawyers and doctors!
GM: So do you think this is the way you'll go, down the world wide web?
NO: It could be. You know it's still very, very new. I've just got this set of electric drums. After years of swearing at electric drums, I just got sponsored by a drum company in Los Angeles, called Drum Tech. They sent me all these electric drum pads, so that I can rehearse in the house without blowing the neighbours. So the (Internet) is still new. I just want to get into the studio again. I have a 17-year-old son who's into all that Internet.
GM: Good luck with the record. Hercules keeps in touch with the band members, and I think we feel a big debt to you all. I should ask your age.
NO: I'm 50 years.
GM: I can't tell that from your voice. You don't sound like Leonard Cohen! [laughter]
GM: Now turning to events in the news a year ago. Charlie suffered a similar experience to you. At the time of his departure, there was a lot of speculation that Nigel Olsson might come back. It wasn't to be. But would you have come back? And was the invitation made?
NO: I wasn't invited, but my name was put forward by a couple of people involved with Elton. But I can't tell you by whom. It was put forward to His Majesty [laughter]. They were told 'no I don't want to go backwards'. Whatever that means. I'd have loved to have gone back and do small tours. You know when Reidie was involved (John Reid) we'd get a call that we're doing a tour of 32 cities. Then when you get on the tour, it becomes 2 years! So, I'd like to do small tours. And do those early songs, like "Better Off Dead" and "Danny Bailey", and "Tower of Babel". In fact, I'm doing a Drum Clinic tour at the moment where I play in music stores and feature two of the early CDs. I'm playing "Roy Rogers", and it's going down a storm. People are coming up and asking 'where did you find that song?'. Little do they know its buried on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road".
So I would have loved the invite, and I may be invited back. But to learn he would be 'going backwards' was another kick in the face. It would never be the same without Dee, but I just want to play with the lads.
GM: Well, your enthusiasm is registered loud and clear. This appears to be a gestation period for the band, however. It seems most of the 2000 gig may well be solo shows anyway. Do you feel Elton's trying to keep overheads low?
NO: Probably so. You know I don;t know how correct the press has been able millions owing by Reidie. But I'm sure (Elton's) got enough money to see him through the weekend [laughter]. The tour's selling out everywhere. And in discussion with many people over the years, they say 'what do you need a band for, when it's selling out anyway?' But fans like the band atmosphere. Although Elton's very exciting to watch solo, the band adds an extra attraction, and you can get up to more antics on stage.
GM: In California, do you have a view over the sea?
NO: No, we're in one of the valleys. I live in a cosy Spanish-style house with my wife and son, Justin. We're just a short drive away from the beach, Malibu and Santa Monica.
GM: How do you put up with the smog? Or isn't that a problem where you're living?
NO: It's great now, because we had some rain two days ago, and kind of washes it away. But you find normally about three inches of dirt on top of your car. I've got a white Range Rover, but now it's kind of a smoggy yellow [laughter]. It really takes the paint off.
GM: What makes you want to live in a place like that? Think of your lungs.
NO: I know. Well of course I'm smoking ciggies! It's close to the music business, and close to by racing interest. I've been racing cars for 10 years now. I've got a big race in Las Vegas next weekend. It's also close to other band members. If I was in the band, where I lived wouldn't matter as I'd commute wherever. Of course, the tax situation here is mental. We pay a state tax, and a federal tax.
GM: So you're happy where you are!
NO: Well I'd love to end up in the south of France somewhere. But hey, God loves a trier and a dreamer, and that's me!
GM: For the new album with Davey and friends, have you got songs together? And what style are they?
NO: Well, I'm a great balladeer. "Yellow Brick Road", "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", those are my forte. And I love doing background vocals. I have enough songs now to do two albums. Some are mine. Some are from friends. David Foster given me a song, there's also Bill Champlin, who plays with the band Chicago. In fact, I saw him at the supermarket the other day, and he said 'I've loads more songs. Come up to the house and we'll go through them.' I want to use real strings. I'm not going to be singing lead vocals on all the tracks. It's very hard on stage to sing and use your hands and feet throughout two hours. So I want to have a couple of really strong female vocalists.
GM: Have you kept your fingers nimble in the past few years? Have you recorded any solo albums?
NO: No. You know, after I got let go in 1985 I got kinda disillusioned with the music business. There was a lot of back-stabbing going on. Me and Dee stayed in Nashville for a while, but working in Nashville is a whole different thing to LA. Most producers in Nashville have their own clique of musicians their frightened to get away from. So it was very tough to get into the session musicians thing there. So I went into racing. The Ferrari Challenge, sponsored by Ferrari in Beverley Hills. I then did some endurance testing for the BMW Motorsport 3. I then did a thing for Ford's 35th anniversary of the Mustang, taking people around the track, and basically scaring the pants off them! And hopefully they'd go out and buy the car.
GM: Did people know you were Elton's drummer?
NO: Well, I kept it low profile, but word got out and I was doing autographs for the fans, which is great. I'm very appreciative of the fans who've put me where I am. So now I've got the surge again, and I'm doing these Drum Clinic Tours. These are sponsored by my cymbal company, which is High-Speed Cymbals, microphones from Sennheiser, Rhythm Tech, who are a percussion company out of New York, and Yamaha Drums will be signed on in a couple of weeks. I used to have a Yamaha Cymbal. The Yamaha sound is great.
GM: Presumably your deal with Yamaha is separate to that with Davey for the recording?
NO: It is separate.
GM: Do you keep in touch with other band members?
NO: With Davey I keep in touch at least once or twice a week. He lives only 30 minutes' drive from me, and that's about it. I talked to Kiki Dee a couple of weeks ago about whether she'd like to record a song on the new album, and about a tentative appearance at the NAMM convention in January, where new musical devices are displayed. She's shown interest. And that's great, because I've always loved Kiki, she's like sister. I've also tried but failed to hook up with Ray Cooper. I think Ray's gone back into the films business. Ray was a big wheel for Handmade Films, when George Harrison was involved. The last time I saw Ray was when I was invited over to Brunei to jam with Prince Hakim. Ray was under contract to the Prince, about three years ago. I've been trying to get hold of him for this record, and do a couple of clinics together. The elusive Raymond!
GM: In an interview two years ago in Zurich, Davey called it "The Ghost of Ray". His influence lives on, he said. Do you keep in touch with Charlie Morgan?
NO: The last time I met Charlie was five years ago when the band played MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
GM: He's actually in Nashville right now. He's promised us a Letter From America. Here's the bit we all really love, a funny anecdote. Have a think about one which isn't litigious in print! In the meantime, are you an Elton fan and do you collect his recent recordings?
NO: I'm a massive fan, obviously, of his older stuff. I've heard "The One" and that's sticks in my mind. I'd love to have played on that, and it even sounds very much like me playing, so there you go! I'm still a big fan.
GM: You refer to the song "The One", as much of the material included drum machine.
NO: Right. He kind of went hi-tech on it, and it kinda lost something in the transition.
GM: What other music do you like?
NO: Beatles, Jeff Lynne, Stevie Wonder. Newer stuff, I love pop records. Britney Spears. It's great to see kids coming through and not being treated like a joke.
GM: Right. Like Neil Reid in 1972, a young lad.
NO: I listen to Brandy. She has a great husky voice, and it's the type of thing I'm looking for on my record. I'd also love to work with Shania Twain. And also (US Country singer Faith Hill). I knew her back in Nashville. She was a shy, laid-back girl, a secretary at a record company. And now she's big. Also heard of Eternal, Oasis.
GM: Have you heard Blur?
GM: You're not missing much. How about the Lighthouse Family?
GM: I think you'd like them. We call them the 'feel good' band, for the uplifting material. Songs like "Lifted". And Ocean Drive" which conjures up images of California.
NO: And I'm so glad that we've finally connected.
GM: I'm very grateful as well, and it's actually been a 5-year project of mine to interview you at some stage. It's been my pleasure.
So you want to play like Nigel? Here's the crucial shopping list. (Talk to your bank manager first!)
DRUMS: Yamaha Maple Custom or Recording Series. 10-, 12-, 13-inch mounted toms. 14-, 16-inch floor toms on stands. 22 inch kick drum. 14-inch Dixon snare drum. 3 Yamaha boom stands. DW 5000 single foot pedal & high hat stand.
DRUMMING STICKS: Johnny Rabb 5b signature series.
DRUM HEADS: Aquarian-coated heads on all drums.
DRUM MICROPHONES: Sennheiser and Evolution.
ASSORTED PERCUSSION: Rhythm Tech.
MONITORS: Wright Bros.