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How A WeHo Concert Launched Elton John To 'Rocketman' Fame

Taron Egerton as Elton John at The Troubadour in 1970 in new biopic Rocketman. (Paramount Pictures)
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Rocketman delivers a fantastical take on Elton John's life. But one scene remains (mostly) true to history.

In 1970, Elton John was about to make his U.S. debut at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. He wasn't a household name yet, but after his performance that night, his career exploded. The man who helped bring him into the national spotlight was Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn.

On Santa Monica Boulevard out in front of the Troubadour, Hilburn re-read the first paragraph of that influential concert review:

Rejoice. Rock music, which has been going through a rather uneventful period lately, has a new star. He's Elton John, a 23-year-old Englishman whose United States debut Tuesday night at the Troubadour was, in almost every way, magnificent.

What Hilburn left out of his 1970 review was that the performance actually started out a bit dull -- John was shy, staring down at the piano as he sang. One of Hilburn's colleagues even skipped out early.
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"I was sitting next to this guy from a record company. And he wrote, after about four songs, 'pass' on a note and showed it to me," Hilburn said.

Thankfully Hilburn stuck it out, because about halfway through the set, John finally warmed up.

"All of a sudden, he stood up. It was like a lightning strike," Hilburn said. "He kicks over the piano bench and starts playing 'Burn Down the Mission,' a really rock-and-roll type of song, looking like Jerry Lee Lewis. And I went, wow, he has got this flair. He can sell it -- he can be an entertainer as well as a great songwriter."

After his review posted, Hilburn said his phone was ringing off the hook from promoters, agents, and other artists.

"The next morning after the review ran, I got calls from promoters across the country. I don't know how they found out," Hilburn said of those pre-Internet days. "But I guess that people Xerox them stuff. I got called from other artists. People want to come down and see. He left the stage a star -- he came in unknown."

The review was roughly 250 words and landed on page 22, next to the adult film ads. But that was common for pop music criticism, Hilburn said.

"I was the first pop music critic t heTimes hired. When the Beatles came here, they had a teenager go review the show, because they thought only teenagers were interested in that music," Hilburn said.

Elton John wasn't the only songwriter who got a career boost from Hilburn's writing. Over his relatively short stint covering music at the Troubadour, Hilburn wrote about Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Gordon Lightfoot.

"Yeah, it's fun to find things," Hilburn said. "But it's also fun to hear great talent and to be able to tell somebody about it. Because what your whole role is, as a critic, is informing music fans about something you've seen and liked, so they'll trust your opinion."

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At the end of his 1970 Elton John review, Hilburn predicted, "He's going to be one of rock's biggest, most important stars." With the upcoming biopic as proof, that's an opinion you can trust.

Rocketman, starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, is in theaters now.

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