Elton’s passion for helping Aussie artists
Legendary Australian promoter Michael Chugg remembers the night he was sitting backstage in Elton John's inner sanctum when their conversation was dramatically halted by the sound of the angelic, otherworldly voice of Gurrumul Yunupingu from the stage.
It was John's first-ever concert in Darwin in 2008, and Gurrumul had released his self-titled debut record that year in Australia to critical acclaim.
What happened next would help launch the unique indigenous artist on to the world stage.
Renowned for championing emerging talent behind the scenes and via his Beats 1 radio show, John knew he was hearing something very special that night in Australia's Top End.
"We were talking about young bands coming up and he heard Gurrumul and asked 'Who's that?'," Chugg recalls.
"That's Gurrumul, he's a young, blind Aboriginal artist from Yothu Yindi. Elton asked if I could get him 40 copies of his album … he was leaving Australia in about four hours."
Chugg quickly sought out Mark Grose, the head of Gurrumul's label Skinnyfish Music, who only had six copies of the record and would have to drive for 90 minutes to pick up more. Grose made the dash and returned with the requested box of CDs and they were loaded on to John's jet just before it was due to take off.
MORE MUSIC NEWS:
"Three or four weeks later, all these English producers and people start ringing to find out what's happening with Gurrumul. Then his record is put out in Europe and Gurrumul is playing with Sting in Paris," Chugg says.
"Elton went home and gave away those CDs because he believed in him. And that's just one example of what he does for artists."
PNAU, Catherine Britt, Ruel and now Tate Sheridan, who has won the coveted opening spot on John's three-month long leg of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, have all had first-hand experience of how John's passion for music can have a ripple effect on the careers of young artists.
As well as art, clothes, furnishing and one would imagine, children's toys, John's shopping obsession includes record stores.
He is renowned for perusing the new release sections to uncover emerging artists, buying up all the stock and then sharing it around Team Elton.
When I met John in Hong Kong back in 2004 for a chat about his Peachtree Road record, a buffet in his hotel suite was lined with hundreds of CDs ranging from Chinese gospel choirs to the unreleased album from an artist whose career he helped launch called James Blunt.
He discussed his love of Australian country music artists including Catherine Britt and Kasey Chambers.
John discovered Australian soul pop sensation Ruel in 2017 and gave his debut single Don't Tell Me a spin on his influential Beats 1 radio show on Apple Music, declaring he was so astonished by his talent "I give up".
"From Australia, this is a 14-year-old boy … with an amazing track," Sir Elton said.
"It's astonishing someone so young can write something so good. I give up.
"All I can say about that is, we'll be playing more of him, I hope."
The pair met in Sydney during John's tour of Australia. Since then, Ruel has amassed more than 300 million streams for his music and toured the world.
John's Crocodile Rock was the first song Ruel learned to play on the piano, so when the rock legend and champion of new artists requested a meeting, Ruel "freaked out" at his school locker.
"I was five when I learned that on the piano and I was so certain Elton John was Australian, he's talking about crocodiles. I was so upset when my parents said he wasn't," he said at the time.
"Just to think 10 years later after learning that first song that he wants to meet me is just so overwhelming."
John found his Australian opening act Tate Sheridan on that same trip in 2017, telling the ABC: "There's an artist in Australia called Tate Sheridan who I've been trying to help for a long time and his music is music from the past, like when I started, but it's great music.
"I try and encourage him as much as possible.
"And if I hear something from someone new and I like it, then I phone them up.
"And of course my radio show that I do for Apple keeps me in touch with new artists."
Chugg said John will be continuing his Rocket Man Hour show while in Australia for the tour, accompanied by his partner David Furnish and their children Zachary and Elijah.
More than 650,000 fans will witness the Farewell shows in Australia which range from "intimate" arenas to wineries and stadiums.
It's an exacting logistic exercise to transport and build the staging, lighting and instruments required to perform 40 concerts in cities and regional areas across Australia and New Zealand, with the production's mammoth video walls requiring military precision to assemble four puzzle parts into one-piece for each concert.
Chugg has promoted nine Elton John tours of Australia since 2006 and declares the Farewell concert to be "the greatest show" in the Rocket Man's 50 years of touring.
"He's absolutely driven; he won't compromise in any way. He walks on that stage and performs like he's still a kid in his 20s," Chugg says.
"In a way, yes, he is competing with the big pop stadium concerts we have seen in recent years in Australia but in another way he's raising the benchmark, because this is the never-ending three or four-year farewell tour and he wants it to be the greatest thing he's ever done."
Chugg estimates the tour, which kicks off in Perth on November 30 and will conclude in Sydney on March 7, will have generated employment for up to one million people.
"We have been on the tour for more than two years and the detail that goes into making it work, particularly in the regional areas where you are building a city in a stadium is mammoth," Chugg says.
"You've got local crew, everyone from people helping erect fences to putting in chairs. There's ushers and security and hospitality staff … there's 60 truck drivers for the 24 trucks, four or five travel agents, down to the guys who are putting up billboards on country roads.
"It's exacting but worth it to see the faces of 600,000 fans loving every minute of it."