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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Sunday 29th June 2008

It was a lovely sunny evening in Swansea but as I left the Liberty Stadium I must admit I wasn’t in the best of moods. If I’m honest the occasional outburst of honest sadness and disappointment even took me by surprise…and I was the one shouting at the skies.  It was probably not the best preparation for a concert to support the ‘Dinas Powys Summer Sunday Celebration’ but I had given my word and I was on my way…leaving behind one of the best concerts of my lifetime in Swansea.

For the past 18 months Johnny Tudor and I have recorded a weekly podcast imaginatively called, ‘The Mal & Johnny Show’.  What had started as a weekly chat on the BBC Radio Wales Late show turned into a YouTube broadcast and over the months we have chatted about everything from Pantomime to Summer Season, and welcomed guests like Max Boyce, Steve Balsamo, Mike Doyle and Ruth Madoc.

After 67 episodes you might have thought we’d have run out of things to talk about but what we generally find is that once we have a ‘topic’ we are off and running.  The trouble every week is always just finding that topic.

I gave Johnny a call earlier in the week as we prepared for Episode 68, what had he been up to?  Johnny had had an audition online this week…ah, we’ve done an episode on auditions.  Johnny is still swimming daily in the sea…we’ve done an episode on wild water swimming.  Then Johnny mentioned he’d been to see Barry Manilow in concert, and he had been brilliant. Great idea, lets do an episode on the ‘Greats’ we have seen performing in the flesh?

Johnny’s father had also been in showbusiness and loved Jazz.  In wanting to share that passion he had taken Johnny to see some of the greatest Jazz performers of the 20th Century. Johnny recalled going to the Capitol in Cardiff to hear Ella Fitzgerald in concert with Oscar Peterson on piano.  Johnny was 15 years old when he went to Duke Ellington.  He remembers the band being on stage dimly lit behind a flown, gauze screen. As the orchestra opened up with the ‘A’ Train the Duke walked out in a white suit and said to the audience ‘I love you madly’.

Johnny mentioned seeing Count Basie almost in passing.  The reason was he wanted to share stories about Sammy Davis Jr, who he had seen twice at the London Palladium.  On one of those occasions Sammy had been backed by the Buddy Rich Band. Johnny had a lot to thank his father for in opening the door to so many ‘Giants’.

So this week Johnny had gone to see Barry Manilow.  The Motorpoint Arena was packed with an audience that knew, but still hung onto every word from their idol.  Many of the audience had been fans of Barry all of their lives.  They had fallen in love to ‘Mandy’, wept tears at the sadness of ‘Weekend in New England’ and danced their lives away at the Copacabana.  The concert was a masterclass in knowing how to communicate with an audience and turn a cavernous hall into an intimate space where everyone believed Barry was singing only to them.

Then it was my turn.  I remembered going to a theatre in Victoria when I was 13 years old to see Joni Mitchell.  I knew it was the place to be when I saw George Harrison in the foyer.  I still remember her long red dress, that soaring voice and the songs that changed my life.

When I was 18 I signed a management contract with the rock promoter Harvey Goldsmith which opened up a world of VIP passes to concerts by the biggest rock and pop stars of the 80’s.  I remember being in a ‘box’ with Godley and Crème and Brian Ferry watching David Bowie command the ‘Serious Moonlight’ stage. Bleached blond hair, wearing an immaculate blue suit dancing with the microphone stand like he was Fred Astaire and the stand was Ginger Rodgers.

In contrast Bruce Springsteen walked out at Wembley wearing jeans and working man’s shirt and kicked off his concert with ‘Born to Run’ before taking the show to a different level for 2-3 hours.

All greats…but of course my favourite great is Elton John.

The first time I saw Elton in concert was Christmas 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon.  I had just signed to his record company and was in London recording on the day of the concert.  My big brother David was my chaperone and we got to the gig early.  We were given a programme and I was in it!!! The concert was Elton at his finest, the biggest star in the world having fun singing all the hits.  We left just as the encores were coming to an end because David wanted us to get to the taxi rank before the crowds because we had to get to Elton’s post show Party in Covent Garden.  Apart from Cat Stevens and Graham Chapman from Monty Python, who was working as a bar man, I think we were the first there.

After that I saw Elton in concert fairly regularly.  I remember going to see him at the Fairfield Hall performing a solo concert, I think, in aid of the National Youth Theatre.  There had been quite a famous story about Princess Margaret going backstage to one of Elton’s shows and walking into his dressing room as Elton stood there in his underpants.  Gill Brown, the wife of Steve Brown who ran the Rocket Record label was my date that night.  As we drove up from Kent in their Mercedes Convertible we laughed about that story.  We decided to pop back at the interval to say hello…there he was in his underpants again!!!

When I came back to work at the BBC in Wales Elton sent me tickets to see him at St David’s Hall. It was lovely to catch up with him and members of his band who had played on my records a couple of years earlier, but I had always wanted to see Elton perform in Swansea.

It was a week or so before his ‘Liberty Stadium’ concert in 2008 that I had an email from an old friend who worked with Elton.  Would I like to go to the concert and maybe pop in earlier to say hello to Elton?  To say I was excited would be a bit of an understatement.

I’m not sure when I realised that the date for the concert was the same date as the ‘Dinas Powys Summer Sunday Celebration’ service.  I rang the organiser and explained the situation.  The trouble was, I was told, people were expecting me now. It wouldn’t be the same without me…

On that Sunday in 2008 I still remember Elton saying he hoped I’d enjoy the concert.  I can still see the look on his face when I explained the reason why I wouldn’t be able to stay.  I still find it hard to express my feelings as the opening chords to ‘Funeral for a friend’ rang up and over the stadium roof as I walked to my car.

Next week, 14 years to the date of his last Swansea performance, Elton is back for the Farewell Tour.  It will be an emotional evening for us all…but especially for me!

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