Multi-instrumentalist Davey Johnstone has been Elton John’s guitarist for 50 years, which hasn’t left him with much free time to focus on his solo career — his debut LP, Smiling Face, came out on Elton’s Rocket Record Company label way back in 1973, and it’s taken him this long to make a follow-up album. Johnstone found the time, obviously, during 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary halt to Elton’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour — and the result is Deeper Than My Roots, a family affair featuring musical contributions from four of Johnstone’s sons and artwork by his daughter Juliet. Fifteen-year-old Elliot, Johnstone’s youngest child, sings lead on most of the tracks, including a cover of “Here, There and Everywhere,” which Johnstone describes as “one of the great Beatles songs of all time.”
As Johnstone speaks with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume about the record, which comes out Feb. 4, he also looks ahead to Elton’s Farewell tour, which finally resumes Jan. 19, and he naturally looks back on his literally thousands of past concerts with Elton. The full-circle conversation eventually leads to a particularly memorable Thanksgiving Day 1974 show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, when he and Elton actually shared a stage with a Beatle: John Lennon. “And that was to be, unfortunately, his last [public] performance,” signs Johnstone.
The night was “legendary” in another way, as it was this concert that ultimately led to the reconciliation of Lennon and his second wife Yoko Ono after their separation. “At that time, he was with May Pang, who's also a good friend of mine from all those years ago,” says Johnstone, referring to Lennon and Ono’s personal assistant who, at Ono’s behest, became Lennon’s romantic companion during his 18-month “lost weekend” away from Ono. “But that night, Yoko came to the show, and John didn't know she was in the audience. I think he would've been really nervous if he'd known Yoko was in the crowd. But they got [back] together soon after that, and it was very special for them.”
Johnstone believes that Elton “conspired” with Lennon’s assistant Tony King, a “wonderful guy” who later worked as Elton's assistant, to get Yoko to the show. “They knew she was coming and all the rest of it. And Yoko actually sent some beautiful gardenias for John to say, ‘Good luck with the show.’ If you look at the footage — there’s not very many pictures from that show; God knows why not, but there aren't — you'll see in John's button hole, this gardenia that he'd gotten from Yoko. But he didn't realize she was at the concert at the time.”
Lennon was nervous even without the knowledge that his estranged wife was in the audience, because hadn’t performed live at all since his own Madison Square Garden gig two years earlier. He also hadn’t played with the Beatles since the January 1969 Apple Corps rooftop concert immortalized in Get Back, and he planned to sing two Beatles songs at the Elton show. While Johnstone recalls that the Elton band’s “quick rehearsal” with Lennon the night before went well (“It wasn't really a rehearsal. … We chatted and laughed and had a few drinks”), Lennon was completely on edge by the time he actually showed up at MSG on Nov. 28, 1974.
“The night of the concert, I was tuning all the instruments backstage, and John came into the dressing room looking terrified,” Johnstone recalls. “And I said, ‘John, are you OK?’ And he was like, ‘Well, no. I think I wanna throw up. I feel so nervous!’ — because he hadn't played forever. It was so long since John had done a live performance. … But I tuned his guitar up and I kind of gave him a hug and said, ‘Look, I'll see you up there. It's gonna be great!’” But Johnstone, a “massive Beatles fan” who remembers “getting chills” when he first found out that Lennon was a fan of Elton’s work, confesses that he was secretly nervous as well. He almost couldn’t process what was transpiring onstage.
“I’m walking on with Elton and [bassist] Dee Murray and [drummer] Nigel [Olsson] and [percussionist] Ray Cooper, and I'm thinking, ‘John Lennon is gonna come onstage with us. This is insane!’” Johnstone laughs. “When Elton announced John in the middle of the show, it was a big surprise; none of the New Yorkers knew this. And because he'd become a New Yorker — and, well, because he was John Lennon — the place went completely nuts. When I think about it now, it was very surreal, the whole thing. … I could never forget such an amazing night.”
And so, the night went down in rock ‘n’ roll history for being Lennon’s last public performance (he did perform one last time, in 1975, on the television special Salute to Sir Lew – The Master Showman), and for marking the beginning of a new chapter of the Beatle’s life with Ono (the couple officially reunited in February 1975, welcomed their son Sean in October that year, and stayed together until Lennon’s death in December 1980). But the Lennon appearance almost didn’t happen, because the whole thing was the result of a lost bet.
“When [Elton and his band] were coming out to tour in the States [in 1974], we decided to take a ship to America. We were all living in London at the time, and instead of flying and getting jet lag, we decided to take a voyage on the SS France,” Johnstone recalls. “We had brought [John Lennon’s son with first wife Cynthia] Julian Lennon on the ship with us, because he wanted to spend the summer with his dad in New York. So, we get to the New York docks and there's John waiting for us, and we come off board and we all say hi and hug and all the rest of it. I was totally star-struck! Then the next day we went to the studio with him and watched some of the recording of [Lennon’s solo song] ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,’ which I sang and played piano on. John ended up coming to [Colorado recording studio] Caribou Ranch to visit us and record ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ with us and a couple of other songs, and it was agreed then that if ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ goes to No. 1, then John would come onstage with us. And he said, 'Yeah, of course' — because he never thought it would be a No. 1 record. It was a No. 1! So, he had to fulfill his obligation.”
At Madison Square Garden, Lennon ended up performing “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” “Lucy,” and a surprising Beatles oldie, “I Saw Her Standing There,” while Johnstone “kept looking over; he was right next to me onstage, and I'm going, ‘This is f***ing insane!’” And Johnstone was still star-struck the next day, when Lennon paid a surprise visit to his hotel room.
“Elton called me… and he was like, ‘Wow, what a show that was! Listen, John would like to come over and hang out with you. Is that OK?’ And I [joked], ‘Nah, tell him to piss off. Um, of course tell him come over!’” Johnstone chuckles. “And so John arrived at my suite about 15 minutes later. It was in the snow and he had the typical [Lennon look]: granny glasses, a cape, roll-neck sweater, a scarf. I was looking out the little spy-hole [in the hotel door], and I'll never forget the vision of him walking towards me. It was just like, ‘This is really one of the greatest things in my life.’ … I tell you, I miss him obviously to this day, as so many people do. What a legend, what a guy, what a writer, what an artist.”
While Johnstone never got a chance to perform onstage with Lennon again, he continued to play with Elton for decades, except for Elton’s 1980 tour, during which Johnstone busied himself working with other rock legends like Alice Cooper and Stevie Nicks. “It is an amazing achievement, because I don't know anybody who's been with any other artist that long and played that many live shows,” Johnstone says of his tenure with Elton, who estimates that they’ve performed about 3,300 concerts together. Now, as he gets ready to do one last trek with Elton, serving as the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour’s musical director, he’s as appreciative of his dream job as he was in 1974 — although he admits he never imagined he’d be playing with Elton for a half-century.
“Back then, in the day, we never really thought about stuff like that. When you're in your early twenties, you're just doing it for the love of it. It’s like, ‘Wow, I've been allowed to do this. This is a giftI've been given.’ … So, it's quite amazing that I've been able to do it [for so long],” Johnstone marvels. “I put that down to Elton's staying power and his tenacity, and just the way he handles the whole thing. He's a great, great singer. His voice has changed over the years, but I think he's used it to his advantage; he's got kind of a bigger, more soulful voice now. The guy’s a monster. He's one of those guys who plays and sings brilliantly, every night. I've never heard him not do it great every night.”
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The above interview is taken from Davey Johnstone's appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.