How the Rocketman Blasted Off

How the Rocketman Blasted Off

These days, Elton John’s status as a dazzling pop chameleon and sentimental troubadour isn’t in question. However, pop’s beloved Rocketman almost didn’t have a chance to blast off. When John released his debut album, Empty Sky, on June 6, 1969, his publishing house/label, Dick James Music, was less than thrilled with its sales. And, according to an early frequent collaborator, Caleb Quaye, John’s 1970 debut U.S. shows were the last chance for him to prove his mettle. James was fully prepared to drop the budding musician should he go belly-up.

Quaye recalls, “Dick [James] said, ‘We’re sending him to do this gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and on this American tour.’ The idea was if he didn’t crack it on the American tour, then Dick was going to drop him; wasn’t going to spend any more money.”

“When [John] hit the Troubadour and half of the L.A. music industry was there — you know, [members of] the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, [members of] the Byrds — he freaked out,” Quaye says with a laugh.” He started doing handstands on the piano; that was a last desperate attempt to do something. And it worked. The rest, as they say, is history.”

That’s an understatement. In fact, John had his first hit single not long after with a song from his 1970 self-titled second album: the delicate and intimate “Your Song,” which ascended to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1971. During the next half-century, John continued to rack up dozens (and dozens) of chart hits and sell millions of records, all while navigating seamlessly between approaches: soft-glow pop (“Daniel”), canny disco (“Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”), strutting soul-rock (“Crocodile Rock,” “The Bitch is Back”), and moving piano ballads (“Candle in the Wind,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”).

John’s roots were far more unassuming, and didn’t necessarily predict this massive success or eclectic acumen. In fact, when Quaye first met John in 1965, the Middlesex, England, native was still going by his given name, Reginald Dwight, and was a member of the London R&B/blues band Bluesology. Quaye, meanwhile, had his own musical aspirations: in addition to also performing with Bluesology, he joined the publishing house Dick James Music.

The two men remained in each other’s circle in the coming years. Most notably, Quaye found himself running the Dick James recording studio — where John eventually ended up cutting demos on the sly — and operating as an in-house A&R representative. Quaye’s position gave him leverage to be a champion for John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, and he was instrumental in getting them signed to Dick James Music as songwriters in November 1967.

During this time, Taupin and John’s unorthodox creative partnership — they worked separately, with Taupin providing lyrics that John then used as a foundation for music — was already firmly established. At first, however, the pair wrote music that other people recorded. (Notably, this included “I Can’t Go on Living Without You,” which was unsuccessful as a potential Eurovision 1969 entry for the British singer Lulu.) This arrangement didn’t last long: future Empty Sky producer Steve Brown, who also worked at Dick James, pushed John toward being an artist in his own right.

In 1968, John released his first original single, the Quaye-produced “I’ve Been Loving You,” via DJM Music, Dick James’ label. Quaye also recalls that John would also turn up at gigs by his then-group, Hookfoot, and want to jam: “He would ask me, ‘I’ve written these songs, can I come and try them out? Sit in with you guys and try them out on your gigs?’” (Quaye’s answer, of course, was yes.)

Today, Quaye calls this time leading up to Empty Sky as “a transitional point in the development of [John's] career” as an artist. “These two guys, who had been signed as songwriters to Dick James, had been under pressure to write commercially,” he says. “And they got fed up with that. [Empty Sky is] the first expression of them really writing for themselves and not worrying about whether or not it’s commercial.”

Quaye adds that Brown, who died in 2018, deserves a lot of credit for encouraging John to follow his muse and pursue original music. “He really championed, ‘Write for yourself. Don’t write for whatever somebody else says is commercial. Write for yourself.’ And he was absolutely correct.”

Empty Sky feels like John working to find his unique voice by trying on different styles for size. The title track boasts Rolling Stones-esque swagger, thanks to John’s forceful yawp and Quaye’s smoldering guitar; “Western Ford Gateway” is a peer to David Bowie’s proto-glam work; and “Skyline Pigeon” is a dainty ballad driven by stately harpsichord and a powerful, emotion-drenched vocal performance.

Taupin’s Empty Sky lyrics are earnest and heart-on-sleeve, and feature characters that are feeling trapped by their circumstances, dreaming of freedom that seems out of reach — or wondering what the future might hold. Even so early in his writing career, Taupin unfurled sophisticated turns of phrase (“Soon they’ll plough the desert/And God knows where I’ll be/Collecting submarine numbers/On the main street of the sea”), and peppered his lyrics with references to Greek mythology and Biblical allusions.

John recorded Empty Sky in a familiar place, Dick James Music Studios in London, working alongside a lineup of session musicians that included Quaye and drummer Roger Pope, who was also in Hookfoot; Troggs bassist Tony Murray; and Don Fay, who contributed flute notably on the psychedelic-tinted “Hymn 2000.” Nigel Olsson — who eventually joined John’s first band and then simply became his go-to drummer, including on the current Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour — also appeared on one song, the piano- and organ-driven torch-prog song “Lady What’s Tomorrow.”

According to Quaye, Dick James Music Studios offered cozy digs. “It was converted offices. Very intimate,” he recalls. “In fact, the control room was in a separate office to where the actual studio was. So we didn’t have the traditional glass that you could look through. All we had was a TV monitor and a TV camera. We’re looking at these blurred ghostly images.” He says with a laugh. “It was very different. Very, very different. But we loved it. We used to have a ton of fun in there.”

The studio also had architectural quirks that enhanced the recording process, such as a stairwell that offered fantastic reverb for vocalists. (In fact, Quaye says John recorded one of his Empty Sky vocals there; John recalled in 2013 that song was the title track.) The studio’s upright spinet piano also facilitated musical experimentation. “Sometimes we’d take the front off of the piano and mic it that way to get a more open sound,” Quaye explains. “And sometimes, if we wanted a honky-tonk kind of sound, we’d put little nails — we call them drawing pins — into the hammers, so they would get this clackety-clack sound.”

Empty Sky was recorded fast and mostly tracked live, a process that reflected the talents and intuition of the assembled musicians, who learned the songs on the fly in the studio. “There were no charts written,” Quaye says. “Maybe a few chords were scribbled out, but basically, Elton came in with the songs. We would gather around the piano, and he would sing and play the song.”

Yet Quaye sees his influence on Empty Sky in the way his guitar parts blended with John’s piano. “That’s something Elton and myself had worked on for quite a period of time,” he says. “I think there was a unique music chemistry going on there, especially with some of the acoustic guitar and the piano. We worked together very, very well.”

Quaye especially cites the song “Sails” — which boasts guitar work recorded live, with no overdubs — as another favorite. “If you listen to it, in the chord changes and the groove and everything, it’s like Steely Dan before Steely Dan. I think it’s a song that was ahead of its time,” he says.

Empty Sky‘s diverse influences also emerged from the session work John and Quaye were doing around this time — including a one-off single from Argosy, featuring future Supertramp vocalist Roger Hodgson and drummer Olsson — and voracious listening habits. “Elton and me and Bernie, we spent a lot of time listening to a lot of music,” Quaye says. “All kinds of music — not just pop music, [but] jazz, classical, you name it. You absorb these influences. You become something of a musicologist. When it came to working out on arrangement or a feel for a song, one of the things we would do is — the best way to describe it is to say call out a ballpark, a style. So we would say, ‘OK, this one, we want this to feel like Joni Mitchell.’ Or, ‘We want this more like an R&B kind of a groove.’”

Post-Empty Sky, Quaye contributed to subsequent John albums Tumbleweed Connection, Friends and Madman Across the Water, and also toured with John in 1975 and 1976. Although currently “semi-retired,” Quaye is playing with a jazz band, the Faculty, and seeking distribution for a documentary about his life story, Louder than Rock. Looking back at the Empty Sky era, Quaye sees how the combination of ambition, talent and sheer determination buoyed him, John and others in their orbit — and led to their eventual success.

“We knew back then that we were doing something different,” he says. “We knew it was quality, we knew it was good; and we knew it was different. We were excited. We couldn’t wait to get in the studio to do these songs. And at the same time, we were young, we were still learning our craft.”

“It was just a bunch of young guys just working on a dream,” he adds. “They were some busy years. And it was great. We were chasing after something — and, and by the grace of God, it worked.”

(Photo credit: Elton John performs in concert at the San Francisco Civic Center on May 9 1971 in San Francisco, California. Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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