Elton John returning to Caesars with 'The Million Dollar Piano'


Elton John does the same thing all the time, yet never does the same thing twice.

Or so it seems with the busy 64-year-old legend, who makes himself easy to see in concert as legends go -- he's set to perform in Brazil today -- yet manages to keep himself and fans interested with new career twists.

Among them is "The Million Dollar Piano," the singer's return to Caesars Palace starting Wednesday. It's not to be confused with "The Red Piano," the 242 exclusive-to-Caesars shows he did from 2003 to 2009.

Fans considered that one a mixed blessing: frustratingly brief compared to his epic road shows, yet visually rich with provocative custom video and some kinky inflatables.

The new effort has been kept under wraps, save for an "all will be revealed" teaser campaign of brief piano-assembly videos suggesting the title is literal.

So it may or may not bear any resemblance to John's recent concerts, which have put a greater focus on his early-era rock and soul. He has expanded his five-piece band to include a pair of Croatian cellists and four female backup singers, among them Rose Stone of Sly & The Family Stone fame.

The one thing we do know, via John's official website, is "there will be a historical overview of Elton's many concerts in Las Vegas over the years." The site was seeking "visual souvenirs" such as ticket stubs or ads from his earliest concerts in the 1970s.

Here's a head start on that Las Vegas history, an overview that reminds us the star has been a generous corporate citizen as well as an artist who has remarkably sustained himself.

PRE-VEGAS

John made his Las Vegas debut at the bygone Convention Center on Sept. 15, 1971, a breathless year that included more than 100 concerts and both the "Tumbleweed Connection" and "Madman Across the Water" albums (not to mention the "Friends" movie soundtrack and co-producing John Baldry's "It Ain't Easy" with future Colosseum roommate Rod Stewart).

The Vegas show capped a finger-bleeding week's stand at the Greek Theatre and drew no attention at all from the Review-Journal. The reason why might be explained by an R-J editorial timed to his certified-superstar return, back to the Convention Center on Oct. 2, 1975 (touring the "Rock of the Westies" album). "The history of rock concerts in Las Vegas has been rocky to say the least and the upcoming Elton John concert has all the makings of another fiasco," this paper opined in the wake of ticket counterfeiting and scalping issues.

"Concerts (that) appeal to youth are an important form of entertainment for our young people," the editorial allowed, calling for regulation of "greedy promoters."

Oddly enough, Liberace was headlining the neighboring Las Vegas Hilton that week and attended a surprise birthday party for Siegfried & Roy's Roy Horn. Was Elton invited?

THE MODERN ERA

Las Vegas began to fall in sync with a more refined concert industry by the summer of 1982, when the "Jump Up" tour visited the Aladdin concert hall that was by then home to touring rock stars on the Strip. The singer entered in regal red Napoleon wear and played three hours before ending with Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

The city had a proper sports arena when John played the Thomas & Mack Center in August 1984.

But the 1990s and the MGM Grand Garden would closer brand him with Las Vegas.

The first MGM concert in 1994 was an acoustic date with percussionist Ray Cooper, mismatched to a sports arena. The next year, the first of what would be an ongoing series of twin-piano shows with Billy Joel, was more the expected crowd pleaser and helped brand the MGM with superstar names.

In 1995, John also helped Andre Agassi launch and brand his "Grand Slam for Charity" fundraiser. "Who I'm most proud of and appreciative of is Elton John, because he was my first phone call," Agassi said. "That gave the momentum to really believe in this evening," pulling other stars onboard.

In 1998, a benefit for the Elton John foundation offered a select VIP crowd the chance to see him christen the MGM's new Studio 54 nightclub, on a night that not coincidentally coincided with the Rolling Stones playing the Hard Rock Hotel (John and Keith Richards had been feuding).

"I'm real happy to be in the new Studio 54," he told the VIP crowd. "If I was in the old Studio 54 (closed in New York City in the '80s), I'd be in the bathroom with my head in a toilet, throwing up from all the cocaine I was taking."

THE COLOSSEUM ERA

"I can't bear showbiz people. I hate Vegas. People say to me, 'Oh, you'll probably be doing Vegas, won't you?' I say, 'You must be joking, I've got more pride,' " John told a British music publication in 1976. So much for that Liberace/Roy party the year before.

By 2003, however, John was an Agassi benefit regular and, with or without Joel, an annual attraction in the MGM arena. And so the years had changed his tune in a news conference to announce the commitment to Caesars Palace.

"It's always fantastic to play here," he said. "I remember seeing Elvis Presley here in the '70s, so this place has been synonymous with great entertainment throughout the years; never more so than it is now. With all the new facilities that have been coming up, it's become a really exciting place."

"The Red Piano" was his attempt to deliver a 95-minute hits collection on his own terms. "I want it to be special. I want people to go, 'Elton has made an effort here.' Not just take the money and run."

Still, much of the music came off as a background soundtrack for David LaChapelle's aggressive videos. And the momentum gradually drained as John juggled the Broadway productions "Lestat" and "Billy Elliott" with two studio albums during the run.

Will "The Million Dollar Piano" light the fire again? "All will be revealed" on Wednesday.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.