October 22, 2016| « back

Blue Moves Celebrates an Anniversary


Blue MovesOn October 22, 1976, Elton released Blue Moves, his second album of the year (the live Here And There having come out six months before), and his third album in 12 months.

Recorded at Eastern Sound studios in Toronto, Canada during March 1976, the double album contains 18 songs, at least two of which were written well before the sessions began – rare for an Elton project at this point in his career. One of these was Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, Elton’s second-to-last US Top 10 single of the 1970s.

Recently, spoke with bassist Kenny Passarelli about the making of the album.

Kenny Passarelli: Blue Moves, which got panned when it was released, has really grown in stature…and a lot of it has to do with the fact that Elton has said it is one of his favorite Elton John records. That’s correct. But it’s not usually listed as one of “those” albums.

KP: Yeah, it’s not like a Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or the Elton John album. But in terms of material, I think it’s right up there. I’ve gotten so much feedback about that record over the years. The guitar player for Kenny Loggins, who is 10 to 15 years younger than I am, told me he grew up listening to that record and that it was a favorite. It’s really a spectacular record. It’s got everything: the orchestrations and emotion, and Elton’s incredible vocal performances.

We stayed in Toronto for about three weeks to a month. [Lyricist] Bernie Taupin wasn’t there; he was down in Barbados. He may have come in at the very end. And Elton as usual had melodies and he had a concept in mind. But if you look at the publishing credits, there were a few more people involved than just Bernie and Elton. There were some ideas that [keyboardist] James Newton-Howard and [guitarist] Davey Johnstone put together. And [guitarist] Caleb Quaye wrote Your Starter For and co-wrote three other songs. So there was a lot going on, in terms of collaboration, on that record.

It all started in our hotel suite. I think we stayed at the Park Hyatt Toronto. We had mimosas in the morning and we’d gear up with some coffee and breakfast and we’d talk about what the day was going to be like in that center space that separated the bedrooms. Then we’d go to the studio every day and that was how we did it. The Brecker Brothers, who were in the middle of a tour, came in and listened to what we were doing and they worked on their horn parts there in our Toronto hotel, even though they cut them in LA.

We really had gelled as a band. We had toured in 1975 and were a cohesive unit by the point we got to Toronto. The band was really creative…and Elton was super-supportive of all of it. One example of this is that, for the first and pretty much only time on an Elton album, you had a band jam: Out Of The Blue. It’s almost like a Weather Report track.

KP: Yeah, it is. It’s all kinds of different stuff going on. That was a jam we put together in the studio, and we cut it live. Even Ray Cooper’s parts…he was right there on the vibraphone or congas (I forget which) with us. It was a big room, so [producer] Gus Dudgeon could get the separation he needed. Chameleon is also rather jazzy. Do you have a background in jazz?

KP: I was a classical trumpet player as a child, but before I worked with Elton I played with Tommy Bolin and he and I had gone to New York in 1971 and we were totally in the beginnings of the fusion stuff. I was listening to Weather Report and I had gone to New York thinking I was going to be a jazz player. But New York didn’t work out.

When we all first got together, in 1975, we went to the “Honky Chateau” (the studio outside of Paris) to work on a Davey solo record. That was the beginning of the new band…that is how Elton was going to test and see if this new group of people was going to work out. When we got there, there were problems with the studio. So we did a playback of Captain Fantastic and everybody got along and it seemed like it was going to work, so we never did the solo project with Davey. But I do recall Elton playing Chameleon, or Davey at that time saying he’d written it. It wasn’t recorded for Rock Of The Westies because it just would not have fit in that album’s style, so we did it in Toronto.

Blue Moves band

Elton and the band, with Kenny Passarelli at front left.

Chameleon is without a doubt one of my favorite tracks that I’ve ever played on. It’s an incredible song. It really shows everything that to me represents the bass. My approach, all my influences, whether it be Motown or R&B or whatever.

In the studio, I was always standing to the left of the piano watching Elton’s left hand. I’d learn the structure from his left hand and then I’d go from there…and maybe do some off-set rhythmic things which were implied by either [drummer] Roger Pope or Ray. A lot of times on that record I asked myself, “Is there anything else I can do here?” And then I thought, “No. I can’t. This is what it requires. Anything else will take it away from what it is…and it’s me trying to show off.” Once I realized that’s all that all it needed I just put myself into that part and it was 100% commitment. My whole thing with bass has always been: unless the composer has an idea about what they want me to play, I will probably stay as simple as possible in terms of the bottom end of the song. The bass is a supportive instrument. I’m a pocket/groove player. And you had as your rhythm section partner, the late Roger Pope.

KP: Oh man. Roger is one of the most unrecognized great drummers of pop, or rock, music…without a doubt. And I’ve worked with a lot of them, from Jeff Porcaro to Jim Keltner to Russ Kunkel. But Roger was a phenomenon. His timing and feel – the guy never rushed or slowed down. He had impeccable time.

Sometimes we didn’t even have to look at each other on stage during all those shows we did. Roger just laid it down. Between him and Ray Cooper, oh my God. It was a phenomenal rhythm section. Roger and I really were one, and then you add Ray’s nuances to it – he would punctuate or accent what we were doing…or sometimes he would counter it.

Roger had such a great ear, between the two of us we would subconsciously hear something Elton would do. Like on Boogie Pilgrim: if you listen real closely to Elton’s piano part on that, he just does one phrase [mimics lick] and I immediately followed it and so did Roger. And then on the next recording pass we were right with it. It wasn’t overdubbed; it was a spontaneous thing because we were listening so closely to it. We would do off-set stuff like that all the time, all of us were listening to each other. I think that’s one of the big secrets of how great the band was. It really was more of a live record, less overdubs in terms of rhythm section stuff. Gus has said that one of his favorite Elton songs that he worked on was Crazy Water.

KP: Really? That’s so cool. That makes me feel good. That track is special. The lyrics…everything about it. And it brings back a lot of memories. I think Bernie wrote those lyrics in Barbados. When I first heard the song, the only thing I saw myself playing was that main lick [the opening piano riff] and I thought, “It can’t get any simpler than that.” If you listen to what I was doing, I’d accent things a little differently once in a while, but there was no place else to go melodically. Did you know you were working on a special song during Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word?

KP: That song is just magic. For the basic track it was just Elton and myself; the accordion and strings and Ray came on later. It was very sensitive…very heavy. It was a really special performance when we cut that live. And Elton sang it live, although I imagine he went back and re-cut the vocal. The piano was covered, just like at Caribou. Gus had a shell over the piano so if Elton wanted to sing, the vocal wouldn’t bleed into the piano track.

Blue Moves The song Idol also stands out.

KP: I remember us cutting that. Like a handful of the songs on that record, it was just the three of us [Elton, Kenny and Roger]. As Elton was composing it and playing it we all just went into a ‘50s state of mind. My approach was as if I was playing an upright bass (although I was playing my electric Alembic) in a jazz trio in some smoky club. And Roger put those brushes on. Idol was done in one or two takes at the most. That whole album was done in very few takes, really.

If you look at Blue Moves as if it were a watercolor painting – it has so many colors and nothing washes anything else out. Lots of things were ending. It was the culmination of years of work and a lot of stress. And the album’s sonic textures really reinforced some very, very heavy lyrics and a very personal time in the lives of everybody that was in the room – most importantly the composers.

Elton is one of the greatest artists and the best, most consistent performer I have ever worked with in my life…as a total musician. The 83 concerts I’ve done with him were flawless. The guy was just incredible every single night. And in the studio it was the same way. He never really had to tell us what to do – we all just got it. Those records really were everybody being themselves and Elton being happy with who everybody was. It was an artist who surrounded himself with people who would do subconsciously what he wanted them to do, and even more, by allowing them to be who they were.