The author has written about music for the Detroit Free Press and was a contributing editor on "MusicHound Rock: the Essential Album Guide."
By William Hanson
With the devotion of the English showman he is, Elton John walked quickly across the elaborate stage last Wednesday night at Little Caesars Arena, sat down at a black grand piano precisely at 8:01, banging out the familiar opening notes of “Bennie and the Jets” — plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk — beginning an emotional nearly two-and-half-hour show to a packed and adoring crowd.
The song was an appropriate opener — the second of two nights in Detroit on this leg of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour — since it went to the top of the charts in Detroit 50 years ago, later peaking at #1 across the American and Canadian markets.
His first concerts here were two sold-out nights in November 1970 at the much-loved Eastown Theatre on Harper Avenue, near Van Dyke, sadly demolished in 2015.
“The Eastown audience knew his music, and they loved him,” Iconic Detroit DJ and announcer Ken Calvert, told me. “FM rock radio, especially underground stations, played his deep tracks.
"Outrageous costumes, a solid band, with one of rock’s premier rhythm sections in Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson, and boom! A bounty of radio airplay and sellouts were no problem,” Calvert added. “I was a fan of Elton after a college friend turned me on to his 1970 eponymous album. ‘Your Song,’ from that album, was an instant classic.”
Windsor's powerhouse radio station CKLW put “Bennie” into heavy rotation, helping break Elton here and beyond.
Last week, his love of Detroit was apparent all night. He talked glowingly about working with Aretha Franklin near the end of her life and sounded awestruck by the return to Detroit. “Imagine a white boy from Pinner (Greater London) playing in Detroit tonight.”
It’s hard to conceive another artist, along with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, who has had a bigger impact on pop music – decade after decade – over the past 50 years. And it’s even harder to imagine Elton without lyricist Taupin. Their songs are joined at the hip and are magically fused in a listener’s brain.
The current tour – complete with its fantastical staging and Captain Fantastic’s still-captivating piano playing – will make final stops in Michigan April 5, at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, and one last visit to the city that helped make Elton John the superstar he is, July 18, at Comerica Park in Detroit (tickets).
“I believe Elton John has done close to 70 shows in the Detroit area,” Calvert, known over his longtime Detroit radio days as the Casual One, remarked. Fitting then that Michigan fans will have two more chances to hear, as the first verse in “Bennie” goes, electric music solid walls of sound.
During the final number at LCA last week, Elton ascended, literally, toward the heavens – an appropriate place for a rock ‘n’ roll god.
William Hanson publishes the2williams.net and tweets at @wilhan.