Soul Train History Book: Elton John

Elton John photo on Soul TrainBack in the mid-seventies, when dedicated Soul Train fans tuned in each week to see who the guests were going to be, the last person anyone expected Soul Train announcer Sid McCoy to introduce was British pop artist Elton John. But he did, on the May 17, 1975 broadcast of the program.

Elton John was one of the biggest superstars of the seventies and remains an all-time musical icon. He was only the third white artist to appear on the program, following performances by Dennis Coffey and Gino Vanelli.

Elton was one of the most unlikely artists anyone would think of to grace the Soul Train stage. However, Elton had always been a lover of soul music and had backed quite a few soul artists before forming his own band, and quickly became known for the distinctive soul quality in his singing voice. In 1974, he scored his first soul charted hit with the mid-tempo “Bennie & the Jets,” which went to number 15 on the soul charts. In time, this distinction landed him on the March 22, 1975 taping of Soul Train, the same day Barry White, Love Unlimited, and the Love Unlimited Orchestra taped their segments.

Due to the length of time it took to set up and film Elton, Barry, Love Unlimited and Love Unlimited Orchestra’s segments, no dance segments were filmed at all on this particular taping day. In Right On!  Magazine, popular Soul Train regular Little Joe Chism stated, “When Elton John and Barry White taped the show, we (the dancers) got out of the studio so early, we didn’t know what to do.” The dance segments and Soul Train line that were broadcast on this episode were from a taping a few weeks later on April 5, 1975.

On Elton John’s segment of the taping, many popular Soul Train regulars, including Lisa Jones, Damita Jo Freeman, Sharon Hill, Tyrone Proctor, and Karl Grigsby, were on stage standing around a sheer glass piano. Host Don Cornelius joked that he was going to give his “first piano concierto,” something he playfully attempted to do when Billy Preston had been a guest at a taping months earlier. But then Don got serious and introduced Elton as an “absolute genius as a musician, composer and singer with a sort of psychedelic outlook on life.” After Don introduced Elton John, the pinball wizard himself came out on stage amidst thunderous applause, decked out in a pinstripe suit and oversize-framed sunglasses.

Don asked Elton, “I understand you’ve been quite a fan of these kids (the Soul Train Gang)?” Elton replied, “It’s the only thing you can look forward to on a Saturday, apart from the sports programs. Me and my band watch Soul Train every week.”

Several of the dancers had questions for Elton. Little Joe Chism asked Elton he got his “funky glasses” from. Elton told him that he got his glasses from a boutique on Sunset Boulevard.

Regular Yolanda Toussaint asked Elton, “Out of all the songs you recorded, which is your favorite?” Elton replied that his most recent hits such as “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Bennie and the Jets” were favorites.

Regular Diana Bruner asked if Elton had been singing since childhood. “I’ve only been singing about five or six years,” Elton said. He mentioned that he was a pianist backing artists such as Labelle and Major Lance before forming his own band and deciding to sing.

Don asked Elton about the new single he was about to debut on Soul Train entitled “Philadelphia Freedom,” which Elton stated was a tribute to the city of Philadelphia and tennis player Billie Jean King’s Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team. Soul Train Gang regular and Philadelphia native Tyrone Proctor beamed a huge smile at the mention of the song being a tribute to the city of Brotherly Love.

Elton then sat at the glass piano and performed “Philadelphia Freedom,” singing live as the Soul Train Gang energetically danced around him. When he finished, he received huge applause from the Soul Train Gang.

Elton’s Soul Train performance of “Philadelphia Freedom” undoubtedly gave the single a boost on the charts, sending it as high as number 32 on the soul singles charts and number one for two weeks on the pop singles chart.

Later in the show, Elton performed his 1974 smash “Bennie & the Jets.” For this performance, he was dressed in a green suit and green derby, looking like a psychedelic leprechaun. Again, Elton sang live as a different set of dancers from the Soul Train Gang danced on stage around him. “Bennie & the Jets”’s infectious mid-tempo groove sways the listener into a state of “funkiness,” and even the neon Soul Train signed flashed from red to yellow in time to the song’s beat. Elton showed off his unique vocal range, going from tenor to falsetto at different points in the song. After his performance, he garnered another thunderous ovation from the Soul Train Gang.

Don Cornelius pulled a major coup when he booked a white pop superstar like Elton John on his program, something Dick Clark couldn’t do for his American Bandstand program. In fact, another white superstar Clark couldn’t book on his program was David Bowie, who would later appear on the November 16, 1975 taping of Soul Train. The fact that Don Cornelius was able to attract and book white artists such as Elton John and David Bowie on Soul Train was indicative of not only how extremely popular Soul Train had become, but also of its emergence and ultimate acceptance as an embedded cherished staple in mainstream pop culture.

—Stephen McMillian

Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian, choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.

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