One of my favorite hangouts in Las Vegas has always been Caesars Palace. It’s hip, current, yet somewhat nostalgic for me all at the same time. Elton John spared no expense at re-creating the magic of his 45 year career for ‘The Million Dollar Piano’ show at Caesars.
The last time I saw Elton John, I was a crazy young kid who ran out on the tarmac of Seatac Airport in Seattle with friends to greet him, as his plane arrived for the tail end of the ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Tour.’ Yes, those were very different times back in 1974. Simple and happy times.
Like many of you, I have grown up with Elton John’s music. I thought I was listening to the soundtrack of my life as I heard “Rocket Man,” “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” being performed in a very warm, yet electric show. One of the things I remember from seeing him so long ago was a blue neon sign that said ‘Elton’ at the left part of the stage, and it’s counterpart, a neon ‘John’ at the right side. I was not let down this time as there was plenty of radiant LED neon lights all over the stage at the new show.
‘The Million Dollar Piano’ is the sequel to his highly acclaimed five year run at Caesar’s with “The Red Piano.” The new show is expanded from 90 minutes to a full 2 hours, and is far more personal and nostalgic. Elton weaves his own life history into every song he performs from his very first hit “Your Song,” up through the more recent “Circle Of Life.”
As we all know, the gripping lyrics of Elton’s most successful compositions were written by Bernie Taupin. The two met back in 1967 as teenagers when they both responded to each others’ ads in Britain’s “New Musical Express.” Elton was looking for a lyricist. Bernie was seeking a musical composer. Thank God they met. Pop music for the past four decades would not have been the same without them. Elton weaves his music around Taupin’s majestic poetry. One of the personal stories he shares in the show, in the past 45 years, the two have “never been in the same room” when composing a song.
Elton’s ‘Million Dollar Piano’ is actually a Yamaha Grand that took four years to assemble, and contains 68 LED video screens. It also has a name, ‘Blossom,’ after singer Blossom Dearie. “The Red Piano” from his previous Caesar’s show is named ‘Nikita.’ He also has another classic piano (not in the current show) named ‘Aretha.’ I’ll bet you can guess who that one is named after. Backed by some of the best female singers of the past four decades, Rose Stone (Sly Stone’s little sister from Sly & The Family Stone) Tata Vega (sister of Chaka Khan), Jean Witherspoon, and Lisa Stone, along with two young men known as ‘The 2 Cellos,’ it was a captivating performance from start to finish.
The piano maestro made his lifelong fans happy by hitting them hard with “Crocodile Rock,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” and “Bennie & The Jets.” Two lessor known 1970s album favorites of mine were also performed, “Mona Lisa’s And Mad Hatters,” and “Better Off Dead.” All of the the songs sounded dead on, as three members of Elton’s band that I saw back in 1974 are still with him. Drummer Nigel Olsson, percussionist Ray Cooper, and guitar man Davey Johnstone never sounded better. Davey is married to singer Kiki Dee, who I wish was there, so I could have heard her and Elton sing their 1975 smash,”Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
I was particularly touched by Elton’s personal memories of Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, singer Leon Russell, and a name you may not recognize, Ryan White. Ryan was a young man that put a face to the HIV/AIDS crisis early on. A hemophiliac, Ryan contracted the horrible disease through a blood transfusion when he was 12 years old. Elton was so outraged when this young man got booted out of his school due to bigotry, that he adopted the HIV/AIDS cause that he is still fighting today. Elton claimed that Ryan White made him take a good look at himself, and he didn’t like what he saw. He credits Ryan with inspiring him to clean up his own life in every way, thus becoming a more worthwhile and humanitarian man. Ryan White passed away in 1991, but his influence is still showing in Elton John’s life.
Another great story Elton told is the one about John Lennon. At the peak of his career, Elton sang back-up on John’s 1974 single “Whatever Gets You Through The Night.” Lennon, who was in a dark period at that time, separated from Yoko Ono, did not think the song would be a hit. Elton bet him that it would hit #1 on the charts, and if it did, Lennon would have to appear at an Elton John concert.
A few months later, the song hit #1 in America. Surprisingly, Lennon was the last of the four Beatles to have a #1 solo hit in the US. Even harder to believe, his signature song “Imagine” only hit #3. Lennon kept his promise, appearing with Elton at his Thanksgiving show at Madison Square Garden in November of 1974. John and Yoko also reunited that evening, and had their son Sean, a few years later. It was an eerie yet satisfying feeling that crossed my mind when Elton said, “four of us that were on stage that night…are here with you tonight.” Davey Johnstone, Nigel Ollson and Ray Cooper were silent, as those were the guys that played with John Lennon, and Elton John that night. Elton then sang his rarely performed John Lennon tribute “Empty Garden,” which ironically, I had just been listening to in the car before the show.
Elton John returns to Caesars Palace September 18th, for 14 more “Million Dollar Piano” shows. If you are an Elton John fan, don’t miss this show. It just may be two hours that chronicle your life, as perfectly as it did mine.
Click here for showtimes and tickets to Elton John’s “Million Dollar Piano.”