The first credited performance by Nigel Olsson on any EJ collaboration was the song Mr. Boyd by the soon-forgotten band Argosy. The group featured Roger Hodgson (who later founded Supertramp) on vocals and ‘Reginald Dwight’ (Elton’s original name) on keyboards.
Nigel spoke to the Las Vegas Sun recently and was asked about that initial project.
He laughed and said,Wow, that sounds right, probably. Ill have to check my royalty checks.
Olsson also was a member of a short-lived band called Plastic Penny, which was managed by Dick James Music, which also was the publisher of songs by Elton and longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin.
With me being around the office, I got to know all the guys, and Bernie and Elton were there writing songs for other people, the 63-year-old remembered. I got to know them that way.
Nigel decided to join the better-known Spencer Davis Group. When that band fractured, Elton recommended Olsson to play with Uriah Heep, a partnership that lasted nine dates, and, I think, one record, in the drummer’s estimation.
But Elton had more far-reaching plans, as he had just recorded his eponymous first album (using Terry Cox on drums) and was being sent to the United States on a brief but career-changing promotional tour.
The piano player asked Olsson and bassist Dee Murray to join him for a trip to the Troubadour rock clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco for weeklong engagements in each venue. This was in the summer of 1970, as the trio were to debut in the U.S. in late August.
The three filed into James office to rehearse. Among the numbers sampled were Your Song, Bad Side of the Moon and Take Me to the Pilot.
Within the first eight bars, I knew this was the kind of music I wanted to play, Olsson remarked. It took me totally to a different place. It was inspirational, refreshing. I thought, I havent heard this type of music since the Beatles broke through.
Taken as a whole, the club dates were a make-or-break proposition. If they were well-received, Elton and his little band might well be on their way to international success.
If not, Dick James said he knew a shoe store down the street from the Troubadour in L.A., and you can get a job making shoes, Olsson chuckled. True story. So I didnt get the job at the shoe store.
When asked of his music inspirations, Nigel cited the Beatles.
I would say that Im not a technical drummer at all. I cant read music. The way I love to play is just putting the headphones on and listening to the Beatles, the musician said. I idolised Ringo. I modeled my playing after him. I loved his work on songs like I Am the Walrus, and from him I learned that what you leave out makes it work.
Olsson prefers ballads, quickly listing Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Circle of Life and Empty Garden as his favourites.
When you play the ballads, you can feel the warmth from the crowd, he stated. We play the same songs every night, the exact same show, but the feeling from the crowd is always special, you can really feel that each night.
Asked to name another percussionist he counts as an influence, Olssons answer was surprising: Stevie Wonder.
Believe it or not, yeah, the way he plays drums is amazing, Olsson noted. I worked with him on the Songs in the Key of Life album because I was doing a solo record in the same studio complex (the Record Plant in Hollywood). He heard my drums that Slingerland had especially built for me and said, Can I borrow your drums? So I called the company and asked if it would be possible to make a drum kit exactly the same as mine for Stevie Wonder. They said, Stevie Wonder? What? but stopped the production line and had them sent within a week.
Nigel admitted to not being fond of telling Elton stories. Years ago, he grew tired of the questions about the iconic, and occasionally temperamental, superstar. Everyone wanted to know, How many pairs of glasses does he have? Or, How high are his shoes? because he used to wear these knee-high boots. It was just so boring.
But he did speak to Johns brilliance.
Theres no two ways about it. I mean, hes a genius. Hes so kind to people, even though hell throw what we call wobblers now and then.