On This Day in 1969: Elton John Released His Debut Album, ‘Empty Sky’

Many fans in the U.S. were introduced to Elton John with the release of his self-titled 1970 album, which featured his classic ballad “Your Song” and the gospel-inspired “Border Song.” The Elton John album actually was the pop-rock legend’s second studio effort.

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John’s debut album, Empty Sky, was released in the U.K. on June 6, 1969, although it received little initial commercial attention.

[RELATED: Remember When: Elton John Had a Top-10 Hit Despite It Being Banned by Some Radio Stations]

The album’s nine tracks were all co-written by John and lyricist Bernie Taupin. John and Taupin were still developing their songwriting style at the time. Empty Sky featured songs that included baroque pop, psychedelic, R&B, and soul influences.

Empty Sky’s last track was a medley that began with a melodramatic song about the death of a beloved family dog (“Gulliver”), was followed by a boisterous blues/jazz instrumental (“Hay Chewed”), and ended with a unique reprise section featuring snippets of each song on the album.

Production and Musicians

Steve Brown, a friend of John, produced Empty Sky, making it Elton’s only album not produced by Gus Dudgeon until A Single Man in 1978.

John played various keyboards on the album, including piano, organ and harpsichord. Other musicians who contributed to the record included Caleb Quaye on guitars, Tony Murray on bass, Roger Pope on drums, and Don Fay on sax and flute. Elton’s longtime drummer Nigel Olsson played on one track, “Lady What’s Tomorrow.”

About “Skyline Pigeon”

No singles were released from the album, although the song “Skyline Pigeon” received some early radio airplay. The tune features Elton on vocals and harpsichord.

In 1968, two British singers, Roger Cook and Guy Darell, released covers of “Skyline Pigeon,” although neither version was successful.

John recorded a new version of the song in 1972 during the sessions for his album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player. It featured John playing piano and a full arrangement that included strings and oboe, plus his full backing band. The track was released as the B-side of his hit single “Daniel.”

In 1990, John famously played “Skyline Pigeon” at the funeral of Ryan White, an American teenager whom Elton had befriended after White had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion.

Empty Sky’s U.S. Release

Empty Sky wasn’t released in the U.S. until January 1975, around the time that Elton was at his commercial peak. It wound up reaching No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in March of that year.

Album Art

The original U.K. version of Empty Sky featured a sketch of John singing and playing piano. The U.S. reissue featured a cartoonish blue painting of a sphinx with a man standing on top of its front paws.

Elton’s “Lost” First Album

John actually recorded an album before Empty Sky called Regimental Sgt. Zippo, but his publisher, Dick James, was unhappy with the project’s musical style and shelved it. Regimental Sgt. Zippo was finally released in 2021.

Empty Sky Track List:

Side One

  1. “Empty Sky”
  2. “Val-Hala”
  3. “Western Ford Gateway”
  4. “Hymn 2000”

Side Two

  1. “Lady What’s Tomorrow”
  2. “Sails”
  3. “The Scaffold”
  4. “Skyline Pigeon”
  5. “Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise”

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