Drummer Nigel Olsson On Playing With Elton John, Opening For The Who & ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Farewell Tour’

David Warner Ellis / Redferns
Nigel Olsson (drums), Dee Murray, Elton John and Davey Johnstone performing on “Top of the Pops” in the U.K. circa 1973.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Elton John’s famed Troubadour performance, Pollstar caught up with longtime drummer extraordinaire Nigel Olsson to get his take on the historical gig that changed the course of not only Sir Elton’s life but Olssons’ as well. Here he discusses how he met Sir Elton, opening for The Who and the record-setting “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Farewell Tour.”

Pollstar: When did you meet Elton?
Nigel Olsson: I was with Plastic Penny, Elton was with Bluesology at that time. My friend, Mick Graham, the guitar player, and myself were living up in the northeast of England; Newcastle, Sunderland area. We played a gig and this guy came up to Mick and said, “I’m shopping for a drummer and a guitar player for this band in London.” It was a session band they put together to do a song called “Everything I Am,” which actually was the B-side of the Box Tops record. 

Oh, Alex Chilton, that’s cool.
It was put out by Dick James Music and going up the charts and they needed a band to tour it. Mick and I went to London, auditioned, got the gig.  Being with Plastic Penny, who was handled by Dick James, we were there at the office hanging around. At that time, Bernie [Taupin] and Elton were staff songwriters for Dick James Music. If we were in the office, we would see them coming in and out and we’d get talking and we just became friends. That’s where it all started.

When did you first play with Elton?
Elton had done what we call the Black Album, the Elton John album. Basically, he and Bernie wanted to be writers. Elton was actually writing for the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a big deal in Europe. Elton asked Dee and I if we’d be interested in doing this showcase at the Roundhouse in London. So we said, “Yeah, sure. We’re not doing anything else.” And he said, “OK. Well, let’s go in the studio,” which was a tiny little room in Dick James’ office. We set up our gear up and it was just Dee, Elton and myself and obviously Bernie. The first thing we rehearsed was “Your Song,” and within the first eight bars I said to myself, “This is the music I want to do. This is it for me. It’s got meaning, feeling; I want to do this.” 

How was the Roundhouse show? 
We did very well and were in total awe because we supported The Who. 

Oh my God, The Who?!  
We were opening for The Who because obviously with all that gear on stage, Mooney [Keith Moon] let me use his drums and I was like, “God, this is like … pinch me.”

What kind of state of mind was Moonie in? 
We became [laughs] quite good friends and there were lots of escapades that – well, let me put it this way, lots of embarrassing moments, especially if you went to dinner with him. It was pretty interesting.

Did he drive his car into a pool or something?
I’ve seen him do stuff like that, but he was a lovely guy and I think about him all the time. We had some great times together. And when it was him and Ringo together, it was insane, absolutely insane. But I learned a lot actually, from those two.

And you were a trio, I’d think it would be difficult to do the full orchestrations.
The only other three-piece I think that was dominant at that time was Cream. But the songs were as you say fully orchestrated, just like the London Symphony Orchestra but it was only a trio. I don’t know how it came off, but I guess we fooled them. It was because Dee, he and I would be doing backgrounds together and the way he played the bass was very orchestral and it clicked with people. 

I don’t know if people realize how great a piano player Elton is, obviously he’s a brilliant singer and songwriter but he’s an incredible pianist, too.
Yes, he’s classically trained at the London School of Music so he could do inversions of chords and make them bigger and larger or whatever. We did the circuit in England and then Dick James said, “OK. We’ve got an offer of doing a show in LA and San Francisco, and I’m going to send you boys over there because there’s a record company over there, Universal Records (Uni Records in those days), that wants to put this record out.” They record was making noise in the industry, so we went as a one-off thing. He says, “This is a make or break situation. You go over there and do it. If it works, great. Otherwise, you can come back here, and I can get you jobs at a shoe shop down on Oxford Street.” Turned out I never got that job at the shoe shop. 
How old were you? 
I was maybe 16 or 17? Something like that.

What was it like when you got to L.A.? 
The record company was so nice to us, Russ Regan, Pat Pipolo, and all those people. Russ Regan always said, “We love you guys. We can’t believe you’re over here, and everything’s going great.” It was really, really exciting. And turning up to the Troubadour in a double-decker bus was quite insane.

Yeah, they picked us up at LAX in a double-decker bus and we were just gobsmacked.

Love that term. It’s interesting how jumping the pond can boost a career, certainly with the Beatles or Oasis or Sam Smith. Was there a buzz in the U.K., too? 
We were totally unknown in England and Europe. After we’d done the first few gigs and came back for the next tour, we were filling big arenas. It was strange because nobody knew us in England, but on that second tour people were coming up to us and wanting autographs. Not only of Elton, but Dee and I, as if Elton John was the three of us [laughs] or the four of us with Bernie. In fact, I think the first hit Elton had in England was the one he did with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” 

Dave Simpson / WireImage
– 50 YEARS ON:
Nigel Olsson performing on Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Farewell Tour,” which on Pollstar’s Q1 chart was the highest grossing tour, at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, on Feb. 16, 2020.

What was your impressions of the Troubadour? 
We’d been told by the record company this it’s quite a prestigious venue. There’s lots of famous people you would know like Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, Leon Russell and all these people. And when we get there on the first night, look out there and there’s Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Quincy Jones and I think Diana Ross. It was like, “Are we in a movie or what’s the deal here?” We could not believe it, we were freaking out. And then Neil Diamond gets up on stage to introduce us. It was so exciting for us.

Was it an inordinate amount of pressure?
It was but the adrenaline was going and we knew we had to be good. We didn’t say anything to each other, but we were all on the same wavelength: “Hey, we’ve got to do good here, just do your best and try and not to think about all these really, really famous people looking at you and critiquing everything you do.” It was just magical. 

Elton wrote in British GQ on the Troubadour show that:  “I had a shit hot band. Nigel Olsson had been in the aforementioned Plastic Penny band, but he was an incredible drummer. Gus Dudgeon said Dee Murray was the best bass player he’d ever worked with. You get those “100 greatest musician” lists in magazines, neither Dee nor Nigel are ever in there which drives me mad. Just the three of us could make an incredible noise. We rocked….”  Is that an accurate portrayal?
Yes. I agree. I think actually Dee, and also Davey [Johnstone, guitarist] and Ray Cooper [percussionist] and myself should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t like to come off as big-headed or anything, I’m quite a calm person, but it kind of is annoying that Dee and I and Davy are part of music history. It’s something that should be recognized.

It’s great to see Elton give you credit.
That’s really, really cool. I’d written him a note, just checking on him and everything and how we miss touring and he said something like, “You are part of my legacy, dear boy.” He doesn’t say much but when he does it’s really, really honest and it made me feel so, so, so, so good. We’re so close, like a family. It’s my brother, in fact my mum, bless her heart, she used to say, “Well, I remember when you guys came and played in Newcastle and you all came up to the house, and we had lunch. And he was asleep in the front room on the couch.” It was always a family deal, still is. 

What recollections do you have of the performance? 
It happened so quickly, we didn’t have time to think about it. The record company took Elton to Disneyland and he came into the dressing room with Mickey Mouse ears.  He said, “Hey, boys.” It was just Dee and myself and a road guy. He said, “I’m going to wear this on stage tonight.” And Dee and I looked at each other in horror …and that was the beginning of the crazy clothes. 

Blame Walt Disney.
Dee and I kept looking at each other, we couldn’t stop laughing. We were kind of embarrassed, but we thought, Well, shit, this is working. I mean, we’re still believable, it’s not just a comedy routine, it’s for real. 

Was he doing the handstands off the piano then?
That’s when it all started when he kicked the stool away because the confidence level was building and building. We kept telling him do whatever you want because people love the music.

“Your Song” was the first on the setlist.
We started out with that because that was the song we wanted to promote.

Then it looks like you did “Bad Side Of The Moon,” “60 Years On,” “I Need You To Turn To,” “Border Song” – some of these are so ornate – “Country Comfort,”  “Take Me To The Pilot,” –  isn’t there’s a choir on that song? – and then “Honky Tonk Women,” a Stones cover. 
We were jamming one night and suddenly went into that. It was just very off the cuff stuff that we used to do on jams. 

And then the last one was “Burn Down The Mission/Get Back.”
Again, same deal. It was flying by the seat of our pants and having a great time doing it.

When you finished, what was the feeling? 
It was crazy seeing all these people on their feet, we were totally overwhelmed. We couldn’t believe it. I thought people were planted, it was the Hollywood hype we’d heard about, but no, it was for real.

Was it as much of a game-changer as it’s seen now?
Yes, it was a game-changer. It didn’t register with us because there was just so much going on we didn’t have time to sit back and think about it. This was not Plastic Penny anymore. 

What’s your take on the show 50 years later? 
It was an amazing, amazing part of my life. I went down actually on the day of the 50th anniversary of the Troubadour and had some guy on the street take a selfie in front of the marquee, which said Elton John played his first US date here on this day 50 years ago. 

The Goodbye Yellow Brick Tour is incredibly successful and won Pollstar’s 2019 Major Tour of the Year; I saw it and it’s an incredible show.
We had to stop, obviously, in the middle. It amazes me that here, 50 years on, I can look out at the audience and see little kids sing the songs, knowing the words, and then their parents, grandparents and even great grandparents. It just felt amazing that we’re still on top of it all. And to be a part of music history, I still have to pinch myself and say, “Wow, this is really happening,” I feel blessed, I’m a lucky man.