As he prepares for the upcoming Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour (kicking off September 8th in Allentown, Pennsylvania) Nigel Olsson spoke with Rolling Stone about his long tenure in Elton’s band, and even about the time he taught his friend how to order a salad in America.
The interview is now online, and below are some highlights.
You were with Elton a couple of years before he had any real success. What’s your first memory of hearing an Elton/Bernie original and thinking they’d really come up with something special?
That’s going back. I think it was a song called “Lady What’s Tomorrow” that we cut as a demo. There were a few other things we did, like “Turn to Me,” but the real stuff started to happen when we did the second album [1970’s Elton John]. He had Empty Sky before that and then the next one came out, and it had “Your Song” on it. The record company wanted him to play a showcase at this place called the Roundhouse, which was a big club in London. Elton asked [bassist] Dee Murray and myself if we were interested in helping out with that show, doing a few songs off the new record.
The Troubadour show where Elton first played to a U.S. audience has obviously become incredibly legendary. Was it as magical in the room that night as the lore suggests?
Oh, yeah. It was just insane. We were these lads from England that came over and it was kind of a one-off. Dick James told us, “OK, boys, I’m going to send you to America and this is going to be make-it-or-break-it. If you pull it off, great. But if you don’t, I can get you a job at the shoe shop here on Oxford Street” [laughs]. And, well, we obviously never got the job at the shoe shop, so I guess we did good.
It was magical because Dee and I had been over here with the Spencer Davis Group. In fact, I was involved with the last tour that Spencer Davis ever did as the Spencer Davis Group. That is where I first met Dee. When we came over, Dee and I would teach Elton how different it was in the States, even down to silly things like ordering a chef’s salad. We’d say to him, “You’re going to get a whole plate of salad.” That’s because in England the portions are very small.
The sheer number of great songs you guys churned out in the early 1970s is just staggering. Did it stun you that everything was happening so quickly?
It was magic. But we had so much going on. We could come and do a tour and then go back in the studio to do another album and then come back out, play our earlier songs and then a few ones from the unreleased album. We were always an album ahead when we toured. It happened so quickly for us, we didn’t have time to sit down and think, “Wow, we’re doing really good.” And all of this was in America. We weren’t heard of in England at the time.
Describe the process Elton uses to write a song. I’ve heard him talk about getting lyrics from Bernie, sitting down at the piano before he’s even read them and then just coming up with a melody there on the spot as he reads them.
Well, he does sit down and he does have lyrics that Bernie has sent him. In the early days, Bernie was in the studio even though he had nothing to do with the melodies or anything like that. But Elton would sit down and go through the lyric sheets, and he’d go through words to see if the song should be midtempo or uptempo. Then he would just start playing round with different chords and it would suddenly come together.
Asked about turning 70 next year, Nigel says he takes care of himself, watching what he eats. He takes vitamins and doesn’t drink, and he has quite a few people who look out for him.
Addressing rehearsals for the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, Nigel says these haven’t started yet. They are to begin next Wednesday.
The musician isn’t sure what he’ll do after the tour, as he does not plan to leave the road. As for car racing, he’s still in the business but thinks he’s a bit too old ”to do proper racing.” But he’s a certified instructor, so this could be an option.