There’s a little community of musicians who were in and out of Elton John’s band in the early years. They all had their own projects, but one of them stands head and shoulders above the others — drummer Nigel Olsson’s 1971 solo album Drum Orchestra And Chorus.
Olsson, who began as a vocalist and guitar player, has the distinction of being around from the very start. He played drums on the track Mr. Boyd — a one-off single released in 1969 by the fledgling Argosy. The band went nowhere despite the fact it included Roger Hodgson (later of Supertramp), Elton (then Reg Dwight), and future EJ bandmember Caleb Quaye.
Quaye is all over Elton’s first few releases, including the recently released Regimental Sgt. Zippo, which was meant to be the first album in 1968, but shelved in favour of Empty Sky. Quaye returned in 1975 when Elton fired Olsson and bass player Dee Murray, both of whom would return in the ’80s. When Elton made his first foray into America in 1970, Murray and Olsson made up the rhythm section of his power trio. Check out the incredible 17-11-70 album to hear just how damn great they were.
But neither Olsson or Murray were full members of the band until 1972’s Honky Chateau. Up until then, they were only on one track per album — plus a few others as backing vocalists. For example, Olsson has probably performed Tiny Dancer and Levon hundreds of times, but the only Madman Across The Water song he played drums on was All The Nasties.
It was around this time that he self-produced and released Drum Orchestra And Chorus, which features Murray, Quaye, Elton’s early producer Steve Brown, Procol Harum guitarist Mick Grabham and backing vocalist extraordinaire Doris Troy (who co-wrote and performed Just One Look and sings on You Can’t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones, and much of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. She was also one of the first artists signed to Apple Records.)
Drum Orchestra And Chorus opens with the incredibly likeable and catchy Sunshine Looks Like Rain. I’m Coming Home reminds me at times of Behind The Lines from Genesis’s Duke album (and Phil Collins’ first solo album Face Value). Particularly the “whatever happened to you, it’s too late to change now.” Nature’s Way has the curious lyric “it’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong” which sounds like something out of a diarrhea aid commercial. But it’s an unpretentious 1970s environmental song, akin to After The Gold Rush. It’s written by Randy California of Spirit.
Next up is a cover of Leon Russell’s Hummingbird, sung by Janis Joplin/Maggie Bell-esque Kathi McDonald, who passed away in 2012. McDonald, discovered by Ike Turner, actually replaced Joplin as the lead vocalist of Big Brother And The Holding Company. After belting this tune out for Nigel, one of her next gigs was backing vocals on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. There’s a gorgeous, uncredited segue reminiscent of Tangerine from Led Zeppelin III before Side 1 wraps with Some Sweet Day — a great, progressive pop song which reminds you at times of Tommy-era Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane. The hammering piano really sounds like Elton, but curiously is performed by Quaye.
Side 2 opens with another McDonald-sung I Can’t Go Home Again, co-written by Spooky Tooth’s Gary Wright (the dream weaver!). The McDonald-fronted Big Brother later did this song as well. It’s a slightly schmaltzy ’70s anthem-like thing, akin to Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy. Next up is another original — one of six on the record — the jangly And I Know In My Heart. It’s filler, but not a bad song at all — complete with endearing studio chatter at the end. Then there’s a cover of Ricky Nelson’s inclusive We’ve Got A Long Way To Go, with a solid ripoff of Carry That Weight in the outro.
Weirdhouse is next, the only track written by Olsson alone. It’s a synth-led instrumental heavy on percussion but no drums. It’s essentially a segue filler. The album closer is China, penned exclusively by Grabham. It’s a big, soaring ’70s ballad — a little cheesy, but a good song nonetheless and not overdone, drawn-out or over-indulgent.
Olsson didn’t make another solo album until 1975 — after his dismissal from Elton’s band. In 1979, he actually had a hit with the awful ballad Dancin’ Shoes. But the next major event after this album, and the November release of Madman Across The Water, was travelling to France in January 1972 to record the seminal Honky Chateau. For the next three years his life would be all about Elton — major tours, huge shows and platinum-selling albums Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Caribou.
According to Wikipedia, on Feb. 10, 2017 — his 68th birthday — Olsson played his 2,267th concert with Elton at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Since that time, he’s been a regular player in Elton’s 300-show Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour since 2018.
I would actually consider buying a ticket if, for Nigel’s 2,500th show they added Sunshine Looks Like Rain to the setlist. Though Nigel and I might be the only ones who know the words.
More likely, just me.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check out him out on Discogs.