Elton John’s last stop in Madison, 18 years ago, included a bombastic show at the Dane County Coliseum that featured a smoke-filled grand entrance.
But he also performed an intimate, impromptu “mini-concert” at the Edgewater Hotel.
Eleanor Pearson, 70, remembers it well.
The legendary pianist at the Edgewater from 1956 to the mid-’80s, Pearson said John stayed at the hotel for several days before opening his tour in the Coliseum.
“The first time he came into the dining room he had a battle formation. He was surrounded by his entourage like he thought everybody was going to mob him,” Pearson says.
But no one acknowledged John, and Pearson kept playing the piano.
The next night, she says, John arrived again in the dining room surrounded by an entourage.
“Someone was singing something from `Fiddler on the Roof’ and no one paid any attention to John,” Pearson says.
While John ate, he also listened to Pearson’s playing.
“Then a waiter comes in with a bottle of Dom Perignon that wasn’t cheap and gave everyone around the piano a glass. The waiter said it was from Elton John and that he was enjoying the music.”
Later that night, John, then 33, returned to the dining room and lounge where Pearson played.
“He gave me a nice kiss and asked if he could sit down,” Pearson says. “He started reminiscing about the pubs of England.”
With a handful of people there, John asked if he could play and proceeded to perform for a half-hour. His set included “Your Song” and “Daniel.”
“Oh, heavens, were the people there excited,” Pearson said. “I was so impressed by him. He was charming and not snobby.”
(Asked if any other famous patrons were snobby, she mentioned an actor from the 1953 film “Stalag 17” – she had forgotten his name – who “treated us like hicks.”)
When Pearson returned to work two days after John’s “mini-concert,” a large envelope waited for her at the front desk. John had left a personalized autograph picture.
“I still have it, but what he wrote on the picture is fading out,” Pearson says from her home in Leesburg, Fla., where she still performs at a club on occasion. “I have it hanging in my bedroom.”
She goes to get the photo.
“It says, `To Eleanor, with my best wishes, Elton John.’ It’s so faded, though. Someone told me to write over it, but I don’t want to do that.”
Told that John will be performing in Madison Friday night, Pearson brightens: “Wow, I wish I was there.”
She pauses, then adds, “I’d love to have him autograph another picture for me.”
One week later, she received a gift: Elton John signed a new photo to her.