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Forty Years Later: Remembering John Lennon’s Last Major Performance, With Elton John in 1974

When John Lennon stepped on-stage with Elton John, at Madison Square Garden, on Thanksgiving Day (November 28, 1974), we knew history was in the making. Even at the time, we knew this was a special moment: John Lennon’s first stage appearance in two years. But forty years later, the night will always be remembered as Lennon’s last-ever major stage appearance (he did later appear on a televised set in 1975, but nothing to this scale).

With two of the most talented songwriters in music history on the most-well-known stage in rock and roll music, the stars aligned to allow me to witness that moment firsthand; a moment that I, nor any music fan, will ever forget.

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In the first half of the 1970s, Elton John was arguably the biggest rock star on the planet. He released a streak of classic albums, including Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, and his seminal work, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In 1974, Brick was in constant play on stereos, radios and eight-track players across the world.

Around that same time, in 1974, John Lennon was recording his Walls and Bridges album in New York City. Lennon gathered the best studio musicians of the day for the session: Jesse Ed Davis, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann (who is famous for designing the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver album), pianist Nicky Hopkins (who played with just about everyone, including The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and Jerry Garcia Band) and saxophone great Bobby Keys (The Rolling Stones). Lennon also recruited Elton John, to sing accompanying vocals on his tune “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.”

During the sessions, Elton predicted that the song would go to #1 on the charts. Lennon laughed it off, thinking the song was just okay, but Elton was confident. So confident, in fact, that he made a bet with Lennon. If “Whatever Gets You thru the Night” became a #1 single, Lennon would perform with Elton on Thanksgiving Day at MSG and sing the song. Lennon was the last remaining Beatle without a #1 hit, and, skeptically, Lennon agreed to the wager.

The single was released in September 1974. On November 16th, just as Elton predicted, the song hit the #1 spot on the Billboard 100 charts.  Reluctantly, Lennon held up his end of the bet, agreeing to perform on Thanksgiving.

At the time, rumors were rampant that John Lennon would join Elton John as a surprise guest and would perform together on Thanksgiving weeks before. It was on the radio, and all of my friends were trying to get tickets. At the time, the only way to get a ticket to an event was to go to the venue when the tickets were released to the box office. Fans would line up days before the box office opened to secure their place in line. Despite wanting to get a ticket, it was Thanksgiving. I had family obligations, and I was not going to wait in line for days, just for Elton John & the possibility of seeing Lennon.

But, good fortune was on my side. The week before the show, my Economics professor told the class that he had two extra tickets for the show. The first person who forked over the $15 ticket price would get the pair. I could not raise my hand fast enough.

The concert was magical. Emotions ran high as Elton kicked off the show with “Funeral For a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding,” playing straight into “Rocket Man,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” and “Bennie and the Jets.”  During “Burn Down the Mission,” an extended country rock infused jam, Elton went completely crazy, jumping off Marshall stacks and continually throwing his piano bench down the runway. A roadie would pick it up and place it by the piano, and Elton would hurl down the runway again.  All in great fun…but with the unbridled enthusiasm and energy. Elton changed his outlandish outfits many times adding to the festivities. The crowd was whipped into an ecstatic frenzy, as Elton was bringing it major big time. 

But one question was on everyone’s mind: “Would Lennon really show up?”

During a quiet moment of the show, Elton addressed the audience. “Seeing it’s Thanksgiving, we thought we’d make tonight a sort of joyous occasion by inviting someone up with us on the stage. And umm…I’m sure he’ll be no stranger to anyone in the audience. It’s our great privilege and your great privilege to see and hear MR. JOHN LENNON!!”

When Lennon was announced we stood and roared at the top of our lungs for minutes. It was deafening. Lennon looked sharp, wearing a back suit and long flowing hair. Unbeknownst to the audience, Lennon was extremely nervous, as this was his first on stage appearance in two years (and sadly his last). Just minutes before he was throwing up due to the jitters.

They kicked the three song set off with the new single, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” with Lennon on lead vocals, ably assisted by Elton and his band and the famed Muscle Shoals horns.

To introduce the 2nd song on the set, Elton spoke the following: “We are going to do a number now that was written by a certain gentleman on stage and Mr. Paul McCartney and it happens to be our new single. And I want to hear you that raise the roof.  Come on.  This one(s) is one of the best songs ever written.” Elton then sang a wonderful rendition of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” with Lennon on backing vocals. Forty years later, I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

To close the mini-set, Elton turned the microphone over to the ever-cheeky Lennon, who said, “I’d like to thank Elton and the boys for having me on tonight. We tried to think of a number to finish off with so I can get out of here and be sick, and we thought we’d do a number of an old, estranged fiancé of mine, called Paul. This is one I never sang, it’s an old Beatle number, and we just about know it.” The band launched into a rousing version of the early Beatles hit, “I Saw Her Standing There.”  The audience was dancing, jumping and singing along with feverish enthusiasm that charged the arena with pure joy.

It was such an emotional moment for everyone…we all had to catch our collective breaths. All of us were embracing each other with hugs, tears and saying and thinking…”Did we just see what we just saw…WOW!”

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In April of 2014, I attended an Elton John concert in Las Vegas. During the show, Elton reminisced fondly about the Thanksgiving Day concert, with some sadness regarding Lennon’s tragic death. It was a very special moment for Elton, and he takes great pride recounting the events leading up to the concert.

I feel very fortunate to witness that great, historic event. Forty years later, the moment still resonates on many levels. For a brief time, for all those in attendance, we were in the center of the universe.  The night that two of rock’s greatest legends united. It was a towering moment, never to be repeated.