Having played nearly 3,000 shows with Elton John since 1972, Davey Johnstone — the Rocket Man’s trusted musical director and guitarist — says it’s tough to pick favorites. Maybe Thursday’s or Friday’s stop at Madison Square Garden as part of Elton’s long farewell tour will end up on his list. But there is one 1974 concert at the Garden that stands out from all the rest they have done in New York.
That’s when John Lennon joined them onstage on Thanksgiving Day as part of a deal he’d made when Elton played piano on the Beatle legend’s single “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.”
“I was at the studio at the time,” says Johnstone, “and Elton said, ‘Well, I’ll play on it, but if it gets to No. 1, you have to come onstage with us at Madison Square Garden.’ And John went, ‘Yeah, OK’ because he never expected it to be a No. 1 hit, which it was. So John had to make good on his promise.”
And did he ever: John sat in for “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” plus two Beatles classics — “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There” — in what would be one of his last concert performances. “It was insane,” says Johnstone, 67, of the surprise appearance that is referenced in “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” Elton’s 1982 tribute to the slain John.