Seeing as it’s Thanksgiving…
Listen to John Lennon and Elton John play ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving 1974
‘Seeing as it’s Thanksgiving, we thought we’d make tonight a bit of a joyous occasion by inviting someone up with us onto stage. And ah, I’m sure he will be no stranger to anyone in the audience when I say it’s our great privilege and your great privilege to see and hear Mr. John Lennon!’
— Elton John
‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ began taking shape in the early summer of 1974. It was initially a rough demo and early versions feature a segue into John’s song ‘Jealous Guy’. John Lennon took inspiration for the melody of the song from George McCrae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’ that had been released in May 1974, before later topping the Billboard chart.
As work on his new album, Walls And Bridges was underway, a second, more polished, version of ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’ was recorded at the Record Plant in New York in high summer, with the help of Elton John. Elton had been in the US recording his album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Having completed his record, Elton was staying in New York and one evening stopped by the studio where he added harmony vocals, piano and organ to the track.
According to John, ‘I was fiddling about one night and Elton John walked in with Tony King of Apple. Elton said, “Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?” I said, “Sure, love it!” He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability: I knew him, but I’d never seen him play. A fine musician, great piano player. I was really pleasantly surprised at the way he could get in on such a loose track and add to it and keep up with the rhythm changes – obviously, ‘cause it doesn’t keep the same rhythm. And then he sang with me. We had a great time.’
Having sung their harmony vocal around one microphone, Elton also added organ to the track, despite his own admission that ‘I’m the worst organist. But we put that on and it was over and done with in five minutes.’
When they finished the recording, John told Elton that he was the only Beatle that had not achieved a No.1 single. Elton’s response was to bet John that if ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ went to No.1, John would join Elton on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden at Thanksgiving. There’s little doubt that John Lennon thought there was only a slim chance of him having to keep to his side of the deal.
But shortly after ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ made No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on 16 November, Elton called to remind him. Lennon to his credit did just as he had promised, despite later saying, ‘It wasn’t like I promised some agent or something, so I was suddenly stuck. I had to go on stage in the middle of nothing.’
On 28 November 1974 John Lennon, dressed in a black suit and playing a black Fender Telecaster, joined Elton on stage to perform his chart-topping record along with a version of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’; ironically the latter originally had Paul McCartney on lead vocal.
Concert pictures of John with the Elton band
This was John Lennon’s last major concert appearance, but his appearance has an interesting coda. At this time John was estranged from his wife Yoko, but he had arranged for tickets to be sent to her. Yoko, for her part, sent orchids to her husband and Elton, which they both wore onstage. John and Yoko nervously met backstage after the show and then fully resumed their relationship in February 1975.
John Lennon returned the favour by adding backing vocals and guitar to Elton’s recording of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ in late July. It came out as a single during the week before the Madison Square Garden concert, going on to top the US Hot 100 for the first two weeks of January 1975.
Lennon is credited on the recording as Dr. Winston O’Boogie, but it was fooling no one, especially as the b-side was Lennon’s, ‘One Day (At a Time)’, a cover of a track that had originally featured on Mind Games. Elton’s follow-up, in early 1975, was ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ and the b-side was ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, recorded at Madison Square Garden and featuring John Lennon.
In a lovely footnote to the story, as a result of working together, and becoming friends, John and Yoko asked Elton to be Sean’s godfather following his birth in October 1975.
Elton John takes up the story…
‘It was magic, magic, magic evening. When we did the track and when the album did really well and the single got to number one, I thought it would be nice for him to do ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ with us onstage because he was all knocked out that we did that. And I thought it’d be good if he did ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’. And I didn’t pressure. I didn’t actually phone him up and say, “will you do it?” I got Tony King to breach the ice. And he said he was interested, but petrified. “Interested but petrified of New York” (laughs).
So I phoned him up and said. “listen it’ll be alright, just come and do ‘Lucy’ if you’re going to be nervous.” But we got together in New York and we talked about what we should do and we had a rehearsal on Tuesday night at The Record Plant. We did ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ and ‘Lucy’. And then I said, “listen, they’re going to want more than two. You’re gonna have to do another one.” So I suggested ‘Imagine’ first of all. And he said. “well yeah but it’s a bit boring. I’d rather do something uptempo.” So I came up with ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ which is the first track on the first Beatles album. And it was great because he said he had never sung it. Paul sang it.
So all the three songs that we did onstage last night he’d never performed on stage at all. He never did ‘Lucy In The Sky’ on stage because at that point the Beatles had given up touring. He came to Boston with us last week and got petrified and was more nervous than I was going on stage. Last night it was reverse. I was absolutely jittering. I was just terrible and he was okay. It was just one of those magical things. I mean, for me anyway, just to actually be playing on stage and then on walks John Lennon, you know? Just completely blew my head off.’
JOHN LENNON & ELTON JOHN AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
Dennis Elsas: Elton John was a frequent and welcome guest at WNEW-FM in the 1970’s. One of his most historic visits happened November 29, 1974, the day after Thanksgiving, when he stopped by to co-host my show. The night before he had performed at Madison Square Garden and welcomed a “surprise” guest on-stage. Though no one could have imagined it at the time, it would turn out to be John Lennon’s final concert performance and we discussed how it happened.
Listen to and read Dennis’s 1974 interview with John Lennon here.