Nigel Olsson

1 Nigel 1Nigel Olsson, the drummer with Elton John’s band, is unlikely to be looking for work in the near future but if he was, he would have a very impressive CV.

Amongst others, Nigel has drummed with Spencer Davis, Uriah Heep and Plastic Penny.

He has also had a distinguished career as a session drummer. Over the years he has worked with the likes of Rod Stewart, Neil Sedaka, Leo Sayer, Linda Ronstadt and Kiki Dee and many more.

In addition, Nigel has released several solo albums and has had hit singles, such as A Little Bit Of Soap and Dancing Shoes.

Nigel now lives in California, over 5,000 miles away from Sunderland in the UK where he served his musical apprenticeship.

I first met Nigel in 1964 when he was with a young band called the Fireflies that played at youth club dances at St Barnabus Church Hall in Hendon, Sunderland. I played sax in a rival band called the Conrads. Initially Nigel was the vocalist with the Fireflies but later he switched to drums. By the Spring of 1965 the Fireflies, with new personnel, had progressed from the youth club and were playing in clubs and dances around Sunderland.

The Fireflies in March 1965

In April 1965 Nigel left the Fireflies to join a band called the Fallout with his guitarist friend, Mick Grabham. The band, featuring organ and sax, played regularly at the popular El Cubana and Blue Note clubs in Sunderland. In July the Fallout changed their name to the Jazzboard.

Later that year I joined the Jazzboard, replacing their sax player, Ron Sweeney. Mick Grabham had left the band and moved to London by then but Nigel was still the drummer, occasionally swapping places with the vocalist, Bruce Lowes, who was also an accomplished drummer.

At the time, I don’t remember thinking that Nigel was an exceptional drummer but there was no doubt about his charismatic personality and his good looks. He always ended up with the best looking girls, got invited to the trendiest parties and mixed with people with wealthy connections.

When I first knew Nigel, he lived at his parents home just off Durham Road in the Otto Terrace area of Sunderland. At one time he worked on a pilot boat at the Port of Sunderland. I think his father had nautical connections – possibly he was a sea captain. The Jazzboard had a big following in the Sunderland area and in 1966 started playing regularly in the Teesside and Newcastle areas sharing the bill with the likes of the Who and the Small Faces.

Nigel (seated centre) with the Jazzboard

Nigel singing with the Jazzboard

record iconListen to Nigel Olsson singing Here Me Calling Your Name

Early in 1967 Nigel left the Jazzboard and formed a band called the Enterprise with Jazzboard’s bassist, Peter Watson and guitarist Mick Grabham. Later that year in September after the Jazzboard broke up, I started playing again with Nigel in a seven piece band called the James South Syndicate.

After three months of playing in James South, Nigel got his big break when he and his friend Mick Grabham were asked to join Plastic Penny. Plastic Penny had a hit in December 1967 with ‘Everything I Am’. The single was recorded by a vocalist named Brian Keith who at the time was performing in a cabaret band called Chris Lamb and the Originals. He had recorded ‘Everything I Am” as a solo singer with some help from some of the musicians from the Originals, including future Plastic Penny keyboard player, Paul Raymond. Plastic Penny was put together as a performing band after the single started climbing the charts. Nigel’s first appearance with Plastic Penny was in a Christmas holiday screening of Top of the Pops. The band was a bit of a one hit wonder and split up in August 1968.

Nigel and me in December 1967 just before he joined Plastic Penny
Nigel and me in December 1967 just before he joined Plastic Penny

Nigel then joined Mirage bassist Dee Murray and guitarist Ray Fenwick in a reformed version of the Spencer Davis Group (without Stevie Winwood) touring the United States with them in Autumn 1969. The band split up after the tour.

Elton John who knew Nigel through the Dick James Studios session circuit, pointed him in the direction of singer David Byron who was looking for a drummer for his band, Uriah Heep. Nigel joined the band, playing nine live dates with Uriah Heep and playing on the track “Dreammare” on their debut album “Very ‘eavy, Very ‘umble”.

While he was involved with Uriah Heep, Nigel had also been performing on Elton John’s studio demos. Nigel’s first performance on record with Elton came in 1969, playing on the song “Lady, What’s Tomorrow” on the “Empty Sky” album. Nigel became Elton’s tour drummer in the Spring of 1970 along with his Spencer Davis buddy Dee Murray. The trio debuted at the Roundhouse in London on 21 April 970. Nigel became Elton’s permanent session drummer in 1972 with the release of “Honky Chateau” and stayed on until May 1975, when Elton changed the line-up of his hugely successful band by replacing Nigel and Dee with Roger Pope and Kenny Passarelli.

Early Elton John Band

In 1971, Nigel produced and released the solo album “Nigel Olsson’s Drum Orchestra and Chorus” on Universal Records, featuring Dee Murray and early 70’s Elton John guitarist Caleb Quaye. In 1975, after his split with Elton John, Nigel released his second solo album on John’s Rocket Record label. This album featured a minor hit in a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Only One Woman”. The album, produced by Robert Appere, contained few rock numbers but mostly echoed the emerging mid 70’s “Philly” sound of Gamble and Huff.

7 Nigel cansNigel continued working as a studio musician, releasing another self-titled album that was produced by Paul Davis on Columbia in 1978. Although that album brought no Top 40 recognition, in 1979, he released the album “Nigel” and enjoyed some mild success as a solo artist, scoring a pair of Top 40 hits on the US Pop charts with “A Little Bit of Soap” and “Dancin’ Shoes,” the latter of which cracked the Top 20 at 18.

In 1980, he released the album “Changing Tides” on CBS’s Bang Records, but the album failed to achieve chart success. The same year, Nigel returned to Elton’s band to begin a four-year tenure, working with John for sessions on albums such as “21 at 33” and “The Fox”. He re-teamed with band mates Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone for the tour behind Elton’s 1982 album “Jump Up!”, and stayed with the reformed classic-era band through the next two albums and tours for “Too Low for Zero” (1983) and “Breaking Hearts” (1984).

Following a lineup change, the band mates would rejoin only once more in 1988 for backing vocals on “Reg Strikes Back” prior to Dee Murray’s death in January, 1992.

Later, in 1991, Olsson teamed up with former band mate Davey Johnstone to form Warpipes. Warpipes was fairly short-lived and disbanded soon after cutting its debut album. Nigel then spent the next few years relaxing in California with his wife Schanda and son Justin, and racing vintage cars for fun. He still lives in Los Angeles.

Nigel returned to Elton John’s band for good in 2000 as part of his touring band, alternating between drums and backing vocals on certain songs. (The songs he did not play drums on, typically the newer songs, were handled by Curt Bisquera.) Nigel took over the full-time touring drumming chores when Bisquera left the band.

In the studio, he played and sang backing vocals on several tracks on Elton’s “Songs From the West Coast” (2001). He then played all drums on “Peachtree Road” (2004) and “The Captain & The Kid” (2006), as well as continuing in the touring band along with Davey Johnstone, Bob Birch (bass), Guy Babylon (keyboards) and John Mahon (percussion).

8 nigel jubilee
Nigel performing with Elton John at the Jubilee Concert on 4th June 2012

For lot’s more information about Nigel, check out his excellent official web site and fan club.

40 thoughts on “Nigel Olsson

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    Heck, Master. N. Olsson, well I never!

    I met Nigel Olsson in maybe 1968 or 69. He was chasing a girl from up the road, a friend of one of my sisters ( I have three!) and somehow was dragged to our house on Sunderland Rd., Cleadon by that sister, maybe to meet up with the object of his desire, who did visit our place, who knows?

    Later of course he became famous and rich with Elton John but then he was, like most of us, a scrappy youth in an anorak and jeans with long, really long hair who then, he told me, was working on the River Wear in some capacity but mentioned something about doing ‘gigs’ and playing drums.

    Seemed like a nice kid a couple years younger than myself. Now I am sure he’s a nice old geezer and stll a couple years younger (and a lot richer) than myself!

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    Nigel went to our high school Bede in Sunderland during the early 60s along with the Airey Brothers and Dave Stewart. Not a bad school band eh? All still playing making great music and what a reunion they could put on at the SoL!

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    I went 2 thornhill school wiv nigels younger brother wayne they lived around thornholme road. Think one of there brothers was, a r. a. f pilot and another into acting. Remember wayne getting picked up from school in nigels black mini cooper when his music career took off with elton

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    I remember Nigel from Redhouse Comprehensive school 1963/5 He always went by Ollie which I could never understand, because Nigel is a lovely name (though he once told me his full name was Peter Nigel Paul Olsson (I’m not sure if it’s actually true)… He was always quiet and well spoken, and a charmer with the girls. When he was in the Fireflies they played the school Christmas dance. He’s certainly had a very long successful journey since then…. I’ve seen him live in Perth (Australia) with Elton John and I felt really chuffed for him.

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    I was the drummer in a band from Sunderland called Revolutionary Spirit. We knew Ollie and hung out at the “Biz Bar” a coffee bar in Sunderland. When I moved to Canada in 1966. Ollie filled in for a while playing my black Priemer kit.
    I’ve followed his career ever since.

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    I sat next to Nigel at Barnes school and we ended up knocking about with each other. We stayed at my house at posh Pennywell and his at poor Beechwood Crescent! He left to go to the Naval College at Red House Comp, then he worked on the Pilot Cutter at the South docks. We stayed mates with Micky Grabham who lived at Grindon. They both left to go onto better things in London.

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    I remember Nigel from the early sixties he lived in a house in Beechwood Terrace, I lived in Beechwood Street, both in the Thornhill area of Sunderland. A group of us fooled about together for a while, Nigel was always popular with the girls that hung about with us!!!
    I have picked up on another name, whilst reading about Nigel, namely, Derek Turnbull who also drummed in Sunderland. We knew each other way back when we were very young, his Father had a greengrocers shop in Thorney Close, Sunderland. Amazing how his name has appeared out of the blue, wonder if he remembers me? I still live in the Sunderland area.

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    When I was in the Jazzboard with Nigel, he used to have all-night parties at his house on Beechwood Terrace. His parents always seemed to be away. I knew some of the girls that used to live in that area and were friends with Nigel. A couple of names that spring to mind are Kay Shanks and Katherine (or Kathleen) Johnson. After he left his parents home he went to live in a flat in Ward Street, Hendon.

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    Hi only knew Nigel for a shot time, l moved from the area and eventually joined RAF. The name Kay Shanks rings a bell two others I recall were Glynnis Stone and Rosalind Goldman??? Going back some time now.

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    Nigel had a good friend called Ian Stone throughout the period I knew him. Is he Glynnis’s brother perhaps?

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    Think you are right about that, I vaguely remember a brother of Glyinns called Ian, having to stretch my my memory cells a bit now. Can’t believe this nostalgia after all these years, decades even, happy days Michael.

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    Just read your piece on Nigel Olsson it took me straight back to my youth club days at St.BARNABUS. AAAHHHH fun days, and the journey of the boys and the bands through the years very interesting….. Sunderland boys did good !!!!!!

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    I remember nigel from redhouse comp in the 60s. He was in next year up from me and I also remember him in school group. I contacted him recently and got a reply. He said he didn’t remember much about his time at the comp. It was a lovely email. He wished myself and family and friends health and happiness. I was really chuffed that he replied.

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    I went to thornhill with Nigel’s brother carl and no one can tell me what happened to him

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    I remember Carl or was it Kai from Thornhill School a nice lad.
    I know after he left school he formed a group called Longdancer with another Thornhill lad Steven Sproxton, a certain Dave Stewart and another lad who’s name I can’t recall.
    They signed with Elton John’s Rocket label and I think big things were expected but it never quite happened.
    Don’t know where he is now but Mr Stewart did quite well!

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    Carl became a spy. I’m Nigel Olsson’s second cousin once removed.

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    @ PETER S Carl became a uni teacher unlike his triplet brothers Wayne and Kai.

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    Carl unfortunately was killed in a boating accident when he was visiting Nigel in America. This was when Carl was young aged about 22 I think. Very sad, he was always a really lovely lad.

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    Looking at the comments now it was definitely Kai I went to Thornhill school with.
    Is he still in the music game?
    Very sad news about Carl.

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    Yes very sad news, I read it online about a year ago, it happened in California if I remember rightly while Nigel was there recording. Unfortunately I can’t locate the post that I saw this thread on. Carl was in my year group 1972-1977 at Thornhill and was a really nice lad.

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    Carl died on 22/6/80 at Lake Lanier, Georgia a month after his 19th birthday.

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    Thanks for the correct information Roger, it seems a lot of people from school and the area were not aware of this. A missed lifetime which I’m sure would have been full of promise.

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    Anita
    I went to school with Carl through, primary school, Chester Road then senior Thornhill. I regularly knocked about with him. His best friend in primary was Simon and Freddie in senior, wish Freddie had seen this site to make a comment, he knew Carl very well. Carl was a brilliant musician, he was writing songs and music in primary school. He even performed in school when he got the chance. Can always remember him carrying his guitar around. In summer he would often spend holidays in America with his brother Nigel, he used to get so excited and would tell me about his time in Americia with Nigel, Elton and I remember he mentioned one year spending time with Paul McCartney. It all seems so far away now. I lost touch with him after he left school, he was a great friend when I was very young but I knew he would if given the chance go far, his music ability and talent even then was really good. Tragic his life was cut short at such a young age. Rest in peace Carl, ? xx

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    Rich
    The other member of Longdancer was Brian Harrison. I remember seeing them in the early days at the George and Dragon pub opposite the Fire Station. They were the first band signed by Rocket Records and they supported Elton at the City Hall Newcastle in the early 70s.

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    I went to school with Wayne. Ian and Glynis Stone are my cousin’s.

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    Although he was a little older than me, I remember Carl from Thornhill. I can also remember, as if it was yesterday, the time he performed in the school talent contest when he absolutely dominated the stage with his guitar. I’ll never ever forget it, and think of that moment whenever I see Nigel performing.

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    Anita, if I see Freddie I’ll mention this site,I bump into him now and then as his son lives nearby.I can remember them being great friends, I always thought Carl was such a lovely lad, a tragedy what happened to him. I saw it posted a couple of years ago and like many others hadn’t know about it until then. Take care Anita B. X

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    Gof Thompson
    July 15th 2022
    I enjoyed reading the article and posts, brought back great memories. I’m a bit puzzled by some of the connections. One post refers to Carl, Wayne and Kai as triplets and Kathryn R points out that Carl was in her year group (72-77). Kai was most definitely in my year group (1966-71), we were 13 years old when we arrived at Thornhill beginning as year 3 in the September. Kai was very easy going and often had a few entertaining tales about Nigel and his ‘musical colleagues’. When I left Thornhill I would occasionally bump into him in the Rosedene. He did have a bit of a musical career himself in the 70s. On one album being backed by Nigel, Dee, Mick, et al. There are stories that he is working on a new album!

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    Carl was definitely in my year group at Thornhill School from 1972-1977.
    As far as I knew Carl had several brothers but none at our school at the same time as us as far as I know and there was never a mention of him being a triplet.
    He was very good friends with Freddie from my tutor group and they were in classes together so definitely the same age as me. Hope this helps.

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    Kai was in my year at Thornhill.
    I was there from 1966 to 1969

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    Tragically, Carl died by drowning in Georgia’s infamous Lake Lanier. It wasn’t a boating accident. He was in the process of negotiating his own record deal at the time. I don’t believe his body was ever recovered, which is often the case in Lake Lanier.
    Kai lives a happy life with his wife, Mary and a slew of kids, in Massachusetts. It seems many here are confusing Kai and Carl.

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    Yes Roger had said earlier that it was on 22/6/80, when Carl was 19, at Lake Larnier in Georgia, which is apparently a huge and very deep lake. Absolutely awful, Carl was a really nice lad and he obviously had so much promise. I’m glad you’ve updated the page with the correct information about Carl. Thank you.

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    It’s a small world, indeed.
    My parents moved from Canada to Sunderland in 1964 …. lived there for the next 5 years. My father was president of the paper mill at that time (formally The Edward Thompson Mill, then acquired by Domtar, Canada).
    I recall this young fair-haired lad, often toting a guitar case — who was forever claiming he would be a rock star, one day — well, as it happens, he did. David Stewart.
    Before my time at The Bede Grammar School for Boys (1964 – 1969), I came to discover, before my time there, how Nigel Olsson and Don Airey both attended — and they all played together in a local band in the 1962 (!)
    We lived just off Thornholme Road at 13 Beresford Park … so Nigel and would have been virtual neighbors, 1 minute away — Beechwood Terrace being literally 1 street west of Beresford Park. We probably both took the same bus along Thornholme to The Bede on Durham Road.
    Fast forward to 1973 … I ended up playing keyboards and recording 5 albums with a Toronto band, Ian Thomas Band (on the same label as Rush) … where I eventually was invited to “serve a life sentence” as Rush’s art director and album cover artist (among a few others in my 40+ year career). From those wonder years in my life in Mak’em central (spending every summer day at the shore in Roker — all during the British Invasion — listening to Radio Caroline) … I was honored when I could bring a few things full circle 40 years later.
    In the 60’s — being a huge Hollies fan — and, I eventually met and worked with Graham Nash in 2013, illustrating and designing his “Our House” book — based on the lyrics for his love song to Joni in the Laurel Canyon days. And, I was later asked in 2017 (by Rush’s preeminent producer, Terry Brown) to arrange strings, play piano and guitar on 3 tracks on a solo album for The Yardbird’s drummer, Jim McCarty.
    Being a small world, indeed — Nigel and I never met (yet)!

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    What a great story, thanks for that Hugh.

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    Ronald — Those were the Wonder Years, for sure. Are you a Sunderland native?

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    Does anyone know of any of Nigel’s cousins who lived in Sunderland and possibly went to Monkwearmouth School?

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    Hi David
    I only knew of Nigel’s two brothers who both went to Thornhill School.
    Kai who was in my year was one and the other off hand I can’t recall his name who unfortunately died in an accident many years ago.
    Nigel must be very highly respected as a drummer, you don’t hold that position for Elton John for 54 years if you can’t do the business.
    It was an epic performance from Elton and the group last night at Glastonbury.

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    I only knew Kai and Wayne who were at Thornhill and Chester Road School when I was there, they lived in Beechwood Terrace. I left School in 1971 so did not know Carl.

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    In 1966 I joined The Enterprise as drummer and Mick Grabham was guitarist, Billy Elliot was the singer and Dave ? was bassist. In 1967 I left the band to join the Army and Nigel took my place as drummer. A few months later Nigel and Mick joined Plastic Penny.

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