Elton John began a North American leg of a world tour in mid-September 1979 that included a 10-date stint at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.
But the residency was almost derailed the second night when, on Sept. 27, he collapsed during the show, shortly after playing the Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy deep track “Better Off Dead.”
A magazine article at the time reported that, before the show, he had complained about having the flu, and shortly after starting the song he “suddenly clutched his stomach and doubled over in pain on the piano.” An assistant ran out from the wings and John “collapsed into his arms and had to be carried offstage.” A security guard described him as being “out cold and white as a sheet”; his spokesman said John was “just exhausted.”
An ambulance was dispatched and a 15-minute intermission hastily announced, but after only 10 minutes, during which time John was revived and given oxygen, the singer returned to the stage and finished the show “in fine form.” The article noted that well-wishing fans placed flowers on the stage during the remaining nights at the Universal.
(It’s unknown if this incident is represented in the 2019 John biopic Rocketman. While he’s seen collapsing onstage at one point, his second suicide attempt and subsequent Dodger Stadium concerts, both from 1975, are shown onscreen shortly afterward.)
This was a different tour than usual for John. Rather than go on the road with his band, he played the shows with only percussionist Ray Cooper. They began in Europe in February and in May became the first Western pop act to play in Russia. After taking off the summer, they regrouped in Tempe, Ariz., for what they called the Back in the U.S.S.A. tour, with a show that ran three hours long. The tour ran through November.
“I made a conscious effort to do something different” on that tour, John told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, without mentioning the collapse. “The idea was to challenge yourself. It is so easy after a while to become too comfortable and secure onstage, so I needed to feel a little scared again.”
In 2005, the Universal Amphitheatre, which was built into the Universal Pictures complex in Los Angeles, was renamed when Gibson purchased the naming rights. It was demolished in 2013 to make way for a Harry Potter-themed world at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park.
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