Elton John – Jewel Box: All the Way to the Back Shelves of His Huge Vault

The climb to the toppermost of the poppermost includes compilations and collections, the most perilous and hence most intriguing of which contain odds ‘n sods and random obscurios.

With this eight CD doorstop of a collection, Elton is delightfully taking liberties with the concept. A couple years ago he trumped all his prior best of collections with the well-curated Diamonds, a comprehensive triple CD set of all the usual suspects.

But as Elton admits in the engaging liner notes of Jewel Box:

I never thought of myself as a singles artist. I wanted to make albums, and I never saw the albums I made as a few hit singles padded out with filler songs. They had hits on them, but they became hits almost by accident; they were filled with songs I loved just as much – and thought were just as good – as the songs I’m best known for.

As such, the first two discs in Jewel Box are deep album cuts from the many records he and lyricist Bernie Taupin have made over the last 52 years. The 31 non-chronological cuts are great to hear out of context, each familiar to fans who came to Elton during the glorious heyday of the album. Fully three tracks are duets with Leon Russell, the late great troubadour whom Elton idolized. It was likely Leon’s presence at The Troubadour that levitated Elton’s American debut in 1970 (go back and watch the sequence in the Rocketman biopic). Forty years later, upon hearing of Leon’s deteriorating career, Elton jumped in a decade ago with a collaboration album and tour.

I got the idea to make an album with Leon Russell when I was on holiday in South Africa in 2009 – sitting in the middle of nowhere, listening to his song “Back To The Island,” thinking what a huge influence he had been on me and feeling outraged that this incredible musician had been forgotten. But doing The Union wasn’t an act of charity. There’s a song on it called “A Dream Come True,” and that’s what that album was for me: Leon was my hero.

Elton’s descriptions of the songs are delightful, for instance pointing out the massive American influence of The Band, Joni Mitchell and Delaney and Bonnie on Tumbleweed Connection and how “Mellow” (the song of lying about all day in the sheets) is one of his favorite songs. His love of The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Little Richard, JJ Cale, Aretha Franklin and Laura Nyro are referenced (several of whom appear on the tracks selected). Elton has assembled previous lists of his favorite tracks (his “Life in Twenty Songs” is assembled here), and he promises to return to smaller venues to play these deep cuts (once his seemingly endless Farewell Yellow Brick Road goodbye tour ends).

The box set then goes into flashback mode for a couple hours, to the black and white early years of Reginald Dwight knocking about London trying to get traction in the music business. The fateful introduction to a poet from the north led to a dual-author British songbook rivaled only by those of Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. As Bernie and Reg toiled in the publishing side of the music business, they bumped into executives associated with The Beatles and The Stones. Eventually a record deal surfaced, and Elton released his first single “I’ve Been Loving You” on Philips on March 1, 1968. During that era, Elton freelanced and sang popular cover songs for budget labels. A couple of those gems would have landed well here.

None of the cover songs in this rare compilation are in Jewel Box, but hearing Elton belt out “Spirit in the Sky” or “Come and Get It” is hilarious.

All the tracks from this era have Elton’s voice in a higher register. From the extremely twee after-hours recordings (“A Dandelion Dies in the Wind”) to the early demo versions of familiar classics, the rarities from 1965 to 1971 are fascinating. Equally fascinating for those going down the rabbit hole is the list of artists who covered these early tracks (Aretha, Clapton, Willie), when the Bernie/Reggie songs were plugged by publishers.

As the momentum developed, Reggie became Elton. Although he could not follow in the footsteps of skinny lead singers standing center stage like David Bowie, Marc Bolan or Mick Jagger, Elton synthesized the best of Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace by getting the spotlight to focus on the keyboard player.

Capturing the spotlight at the keyboard: Elton John, Buffalo Ny, August 7, 1976 (photos by Brad Auerbach)

The next pair of discs unearth tracks only heard by scattered purists. Admittedly not a comprehensive gathering of all the Elton B-sides (we already have access to “Ho, Ho, Ho – Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas”) the 36 tracks chosen do a great job of opening the kimono to some eclectic ventures. “Cartier” lasts less than a minute, but delivers the message of retail therapy effectively.

If your life is dull and dreary
And you’re feeling rather weary
Of the mundane things that clutter up one’s life
Drive your roller up to Bond Street

Where royalty and Sheiks meet
Make your day
Here’s the thing to do
Spend a grand or two at Cartier

Francophiles will enjoy having the only three songs Elton sang in French; sacré bleu indeed. B-sides traditionally fulfilled an artist’s desire to maintain a coherent album’s worth of songs, while elsewhere releasing more experimental ventures. Hearing the broad array of styles Elton assayed across these three dozen tracks is fascinating.

The last of the eight discs leverages songs Elton discusses in his autobiography Me. In that the tracks stretch across his career, it is a nice summation of his oeuvre. Elton’s description of those early years is priceless:

There was a certain look that used to pass between Bernie and I a lot during the last months of 1970. It somehow managed to combine fear, confusion and the fact that we were trying desperately not to laugh at the absolute preposterousness of the situation we found ourselves in. It was a look that said: what the fuck is happening? The Band walked into our dressing room in Philadelphia unannounced and told us they’d flown by private plane from Massachusetts just to see the show: what the fuck is happening? We got invited to a party at Mama Cass Elliot’s house in LA, the place where Crosby, Stills And Nash had formed and David Crosby had shown off­ his new discovery, a singer-songwriter called Joni Mitchell. When we arrived, they were all there: what the fuck is happening? And we passed Bob Dylan on the stairs at the Fillmore East. He stopped, introduced himself, then told Bernie he loved the lyrics of a song from Tumbleweed Connection, “My Father’s Gun” – what the fuck is happening?

Elton’s voice comes through in he liner notes, all the tantrums and tiaras. The generous 100 page hard cover book collects great visual ephemera, and is laid out well. The luxurious package is housed in a slip case.

Indeed, the entire package is an elegy for the rapidly disappearing media of vinyl. Whether the showcasing non-album B-sides or the treasure trove of visual material seemingly unavailable in the age of streaming, fans of the album era (of which Elton is a prime example) will enjoy this lovingly assembled collection. Indeed, you won’t find every track in this box set online. Vive la difference!

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.