The concert, on November 28, 1984, was to celebrate Elton’s first wave of global success, riding high on his album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. During the show he brought out a surprise guest star. John was so nervous backstage he was physically ill but he had made a bet with Elton and could not get out of it. The full extraordinary story ended wth something neither of them expected. The clue was in the special flower John wore pinned to his jacket. That night was also the last time the former Beatle would ever perform live on stage. SCROLL DOWN WATCH EXTRAORDINARY FOOTAGE FROM THE CONCERT.
John and Elton had formed an intense friendship in 1973 – Elton called it “a dream come true” – after the former had left his wife Yoko Ono for music executive Mae Pang.
Elton played and sang on the Beatles legend’s fifth album Walls & Bridges. In a new interview with Sean to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday, Elton tells the whole fantastic story of what happened after they recorded the track Whatever Gets You Thru The Night in the studio.
Elton said: “I was very nervous, but it was great fun and it was a great track. And I said, ‘Listen, I said, this is a number one record.’
“And he (John) said, ‘No, no, we’re not going to put this out as a single first… and I said, ‘Listen, if it gets to number one, you’ve got to come on stage to me.’ And he never thought in a million years, it would get to number one, and it did.”
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John Lennon at Elton Madison Square Gardens concert 1974 with white gardenia
John Lennon and Sean in 1977
Fast forward to November 28, 1974 and John was regretting his promise.
Elton said: “I can absolutely tell you he was terrified and I can tell you that he was physically sick before the show, absolutely physically sick.
“We’d rehearsed. He was fine in rehearsal earlier, but I think when he came on stage he was fine, because the reception that he got at Thanksgiving at Madison Square Garden in 1974 was, I’ve never heard a noise or roar like it.
“And we all get goosebumps thinking about it. And a lot of us cried, and there were tears running down our faces because here was one of the four people that were the biggest band ever coming out and playing with us.”
Look at the pictures and footage and you will see John has a white gardenia pinned to his jacket. It would change the rest of his life.
Sean explains: “That show is so legendary for me personally, because I grew up with this photograph of my mom and dad backstage at your show. And they’re looking at each other with real love in their eyes and they had been separated for 18 months, apparently, and I know that’s when you guys had been hanging out, you and my dad.
“The story is that my mom hadn’t necessarily intended on going to the show, she did with a friend. She told me she sent a white gardenia backstage.”
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John Lennon and Elton John together on stage
This opened the door for John and Yoko to reunite after the show.
Elton said: “We went to the Pierre Hotel for a little after show thing and my manager, myself, John Reed, and myself sat at a table with your mom and your dad… The fact that he got back together with your mum and then they had you and that consequently that’s why you asked me to be your godfather, because it was happenstance and Kismet.”
Sean replied: “I was born nine months later, approximately, I mean, almost to the day. So in a way, if it wasn’t for you playing that show, I can honestly say I wouldn’t even exist probably.”
He also thanked Elton for his powerful musical tribute to John after his death
Sean said: “I think maybe the first concert I ever went to was yours actually, as well. And I remember it quite well. I was very young, I think I was five or six. It was right after dad had passed away and you let my mom and I come up on stage.
“It was really incredible because I hadn’t even been to a concert, let alone Madison Square Garden with you playing. I remember you wore this giant yellow duck costume which was just so great for me because it was really like my age group kind of audience. I love cartoons and I just loved it so much, but I never forgot that you had written a song called Empty Garden about Dad.”
Elton said: “I love the lyric and I love the song… (It reminds me) how much I loved your father… It’s very hard for me to sing it, I get quite emotional singing that song and it moves me so much because it reminds me of how, God if your dad was alive today can you imagine what he’d be doing!”
Sean replied: “I do, I try to imagine it all the time, to be honest. But I have to say that song really, really meant a lot to me at the time and I got to thank you for it because I listened to it a lot.
“I think it was really healing for me because I was very young, but I knew you were friends, knew you were my godfather, I knew he was singing about dad and it’s a real powerful tune. And not everyone remembers it, but I, I listen to it all the time. And I think it was sort of part of my mourning process. You know, I gotta thank you for that.”
John Lennon at 80 from 9-10pm, Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 October, on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Sounds.