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That Time Elton John Began His Las Vegas Residency

Chris Farina, Getty Images
Chris Farina, Getty Images

If there was ever a rock artist born to play Vegas, it’s Elton John. On Feb. 13, 2004, he began a long-term residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, with five-nights-a-week performances for adoring fans, vacationing tourists, and high rollers who dropped a couple hundred thou at the poker tables for the privilege of seeing the Rocket Man up close and personal.

The modern Vegas show has evolved into a true theatrical event; look no further than the Cirque du Soleil Beatles celebration Love or the intimate and improvisational Garth Brooks run for examples. John’s Vegas productions helped set the template for multi-platinum artist residencies on the Vegas Strip, with a level of production values far beyond just John and his seasoned touring band playing through his hits.

For his first Vegas show, The Red Piano, John teamed with director David LaChapelle to develop a full production that incorporated videos playing on a massive screen–120 feet wide, 40 feet high–behind the band. For “The Bitch Is Back,” Pamela Anderson performed a pole dance; a clip for “Rocket Man” starred Justin Timberlake as a young Elton John, relating the song’s otherworldly lyrics to John’s own stratospheric launch into super-stardom in the ’70s. The Red Piano show also toured Europe and was made into a concert film for home video; in Vegas alone, it’s believed to have grossed more than $160 million dollars.

“I wanted to do a production that really reflected my tastes in art and photography,” John said. “It was a chance to be reflective about my career, not in a sentimental way but a fun way […] It’s one of the biggest stages in the world, so if you don’t fill it up, you’re in trouble.”

In September 2011, John began his second Vegas show, The Million Dollar Piano, this time building more variety into the set list by featuring some deep album cuts and a duet interlude featuring his voice and piano along with percussionist Ray Cooper. The show’s production centerpiece is just as the title suggests, a Yamaha grand piano tricked out with 68 LED screens that play images as John plays the hits. In addition to Cooper, John has enlisted a Croatian cellist duo known as 2Cellos to accompany the band. They’ve also been known to open some of John’s live concerts with their cellos-only cover of AC/DC‘s “Highway to Hell.”

Today, artists as varied as Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, and Shania Twain have mounted their own long-term Vegas residencies, often departing for months at a time before returning for extended engagements. John remains one of the long-term denizens of the strip; with The Million Dollar Piano still going strong, the Rocket Man seems totally comfortable in Sin City.

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