Nigel Olsson has been Elton John’s drummer for nearly 50 years. He speaks to Duncan Seaman ahead of the band’s Leeds gig.
Nigel Olsson remembers his first meeting with pop-superstar-in-waiting Elton John well. It was in late 1960s and Olsson was then drumming in the group Plastic Penny, who had a top ten hit with the single Everything I Am.
“We were handled by the Dick James Organisation and Dick James had Elton and Bernie [Taupin, his long-time songwriting partner] under writing contract so when I was at the office I would run into them both and when they started recording demos for their songs if I was hanging around they would ask me to play on the demos,” he recalls. “Basically we just hung out together and had a great time and everything kind of went from there.”
His first impression of the pianist and singer, he says, was of a “great bloke, very down to earth and very funny”.
Together with Elton, Roger Hodgson, later of Supertramp, and the guitarist Caleb Quaye, Olsson also formed a short-lived studio act, Argosy, who cut a ‘flower power’ single called Mr Boyd, and had short stints in Uriah Heep and the Spencer Davis Group before being invited to join Elton John’s band permanently in 1970.
The drummer remembers quickly forming a rapport with fellow newcomers to the band Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone.
“It was actually instant, especially when Dee and myself got together with Elton. The music was so refreshing. We were big fans of The Beatles, obviously, and Jimi Hendrix around that time and Elton and Bernie’s music was very refreshing and the songs had lots of meaning and lots of heart within them.
“In fact when Elton had recorded the first album – which we call the ‘Your Song album’ – he didn’t see himself going out on the road and doing big shows and all that kind of stuff. Basically him and Bernie were writing for the Eurovision Song Contest and stuff like that. He had this record company out and he said ‘Would you guys’ – Dee and I – ‘be interested to help them out and play this gig at the Roundhouse in London, just to promote his songs’ and we got together in this tiny studio at Dick James Music and for me within the first eight bars of the first song we played together I realised then ‘Wow, this is it, this is what I want to do’.
“We did the Roundhouse and it was amazing and we looked at each other and said ‘Do you know? We should put this band together and go out and play some college dates and clubs’. Then it all suddenly ballooned into this amazing experience.”
Hit after hit was to follow as Elton and Taupin went on a song writing hot streak. Olsson says it was “a magical experience” playing each song for the first time. “Mostly we’d hear it being written so we basically knew how we were going to play it then once we went into the studio to cut these records nobody said ‘You play this and that part’, we were all so in tune with each other that it just flowed. It was an amazing experience – and it still is. He has Bernie’s lyrics and he goes away and writes the music to it and that’s the way we still do it. We’ll go in the studio and he’ll write the song on the spot and 15 or 20 minutes later we’ll go in and cut the song.”
I like the ballads. I’m a big romantic and the big love songs are my favourite to play because I can put my whole heart and soul into them.Nigel Olsson
Olsson left Elton’s band for a time after the release of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and made several solo albums. Although he had two top 40 hits in the US, he says he didn’t enjoy the experience of being a frontman. “I loved singing and I loved doing my own records and I was quite successful on my own, but I was based out of Atlanta at the time and we planned to go out on tour with a band that I’d put together but I was too freaked out by it, I didn’t really want to come out front, it was too scary.”
Even back behind the drumkit in Elton’s band today he admits to getting “so nervous” for the whole day before a show. “Fifteen minutes before we go on I’m shaking. People look at me and say ‘Are you all right, Nige?’ and I’ll say ‘I’m just nervous’. After all this time it’s still there but as soon as I get on stage it’s fine and I don’t know why it is. Whether I’m frightened I’ll break a stick or drop a stick or play the wrong song it’s just a thing that happens and I guess it keeps me going in my old age.”
Elton was a famously flamboyant performer in the 1970s. Olsson remembers feeding off his energy on stage.
“When he first came out in these crazy outfits Dee and Davey and I would have a good laugh before, saying ‘You’re not wearing that, are you?’ and he’s say ‘Oh yeah, I am’.
“It was amazing to see when he first started wearing all the crazy stuff and people were looking and saying ‘This is a joke, isn’t it?’ and then once we started playing we frightened the life out of them and they’d say ‘Oh, they are good’.”
Olsson says the band’s relationships today “are closer now than ever”. “It’s like a touring family, even down to our crew, they’re wonderful people. In fact my technician has been with me now for 25 years and all I have to do is sit down and start playing. He knows how I like the drums tuned, he knows exactly the way to set them up within millimetres. All I have to do is sit down and start playing.”
He feels the band are “blessed” to still be filling arenas after almost 50 years. “In these days and times when it’s pretty scary even to go out of your house if I can look out there and see people smiling my job is done. To take them out of this crazy world we live in and give them some enjoyment and make them smile and try to forget all this nutty stuff that’s going on.”
As for his personal highlight of the band’s set, Olsson says: “I like the ballads. I’m a big romantic and the big love songs are my favourite to play because I can put my whole heart and soul into them.
“I’m not too keen on the very uptempo ones,” he adds, “because they’re usually at the end and I’m worn out by then. But I fool them every night and I get through them,” he laughs.
“But just playing this music still after all this time is an amazing feat and we’re going to go on as long as we can.”
Elton John plays at First Direct Arena, Leeds on Thursday June 8. For details visit www.eltonjohn.com