Simplicity in Preaching: The Most Vital Things

This is the final post on J.C. Ryle’s Simplicity in Preaching. It’s could be the most important because Ryle comes on so strong at the end about essentials that if not enacted render all he has said beside the point!  So, a quick review:

Four prefatory remarks the book opens with:

  • “To attain simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance to every minister who wishes to be useful to souls.”
  • “To attain simplicity in preaching is by no means an easy matter.”
  • “When I talk of simplicity in preaching, I would not have my readers suppose I mean childish preaching.”
  • “Finally let me observe, that it is not coarse or vulgar preaching that is needed.”

5 Hints for Simplicity in Preaching

  • “If you want to attain simplicity in preaching, you must have a clear knowledge of what you are going to preach.”
  • “If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must use simple words.”
  • “If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must seek to acquire a simple style of composition, with short sentences and as few colons and semicolons as possible.”
  • “If you would attain simplicity in preaching, aim at directness.”
  • “If you would attain simplicity in preaching, make abundant use of illustration and anecdote.”

Now, let’s look at how he concludes. First, he states flatly that this is not going to be easy. It will really take work.

“Let me add to all this one plain word of application. You will never attain simplicity in preaching without plenty of trouble. Pains and trouble, I say emphatically, pains and trouble….  I entreat my younger brethren to remember this. I beg them to make time for their composition of sermons, to take trouble and to exercise their brains by reading. Only mind that you read what is useful.”

Ryle lays a heavy emphasis on reading in a way that is productive. He urges us to read “good models” and “good specimens of simplicity in preaching.” For those in his day he directs them to use the English Bible because of the language used. (What would be recommended today? NLT? Message?) He goes on to stress reading the Puritans, especially “… John Bunyan’s immortal work, the Pilgrim’s Progress. Read it again and again, if you wish to attain  simplicity  in preaching.

” Do not be above reading the Puritans. Read such books as Baxter, and Watson, and Traill, and Flavel, and Charnock, and Hall, and Henry. They are, to my mind, models of the best simple English spoken in old times. Remember, however, that language alters with years. They spoke English, and so do we, but their style was different from ours.”

Bishop Ryle was all about relevancy in language while being uncompromising in truth!

Ryle expands his reading to include the “best models of modern English that you can get at.” He recommends such notables as William Cobbett (a political radical), Patrick Henry and Shakespeare.

But Ryle returns from the literary heights to remind preachers of those things most important. Five in particular:

1) Talk to your flock.

“On the other hand, do not be above talking to the poor, and visiting your people from house to house…  We must talk to our people when we are out of church, if we would understand how to preach to them in the church.”

2) Aim to change hearts.

“Let us beware of fireworks in our preaching. “Beautiful” sermons, “brilliant” sermons, “clever” sermons, “popular” sermons, are often sermons which have no effect on the congregation, and do not draw men to Jesus Christ. Let us aim so to preach, that what we say may really come home to men’s minds and consciences and hearts, and make them think and consider.”

3) Preach the Gospel!

“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not His rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do, YOUR PREACHING IS OF NO USE.” (His emphasis!)

4) Preach with Passion

“All the simplicity in the world, again, is useless without a good lively delivery. If you bury your head in your bosom, and mumble over your manuscript in a dull, monotonous, droning way, like a bee in a bottle, so that people cannot understand what you are speaking about, your preaching will be in vain.”

5) Pray!

“Above all, let us never forget that all the simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach. Be it ours to have an earnest desire for the souls of men, while we seek for simplicity in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, and let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Christ Has Acted On Your Behalf

“How then is the Gospel to be preached in a genuinely evangelical way? Surely in such a way that full and central place is given to the vicarious humanity of Jesus as the all­ sufficient human response to the saving love of God which he has freely and unconditionally provided for us. We preach and teach the Gospel evangelically, then, in such a way as this:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very Being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualized his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself.

Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your responses to God’s love, and even your acts of faith.

He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already impli­cated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted by him. Therefore, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.

To preach the Gospel of the unconditional grace of God in that unconditional way is to set before people the astonishingly good news of what God has freely provided for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus.

To repent and believe in Jesus Christ and commit myself to him on that basis means that I do not need to look over my shoulder all the time to see whether I have really given myself to him, whether my faith is at all adequate, for in faith it is not upon my faith, my believing or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what Christ has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father.

That means that I am completely liberated from all ulterior motives in believing or following Jesus Christ, for on the ground of his vicarious human response for me, I am free for spontaneous joyful response and worship and service as I could not otherwise be.”

– TF Torrance

 

Simplicity in Preaching: Hint #5 – Illustrate!

Here is the last of the five hints that Ryle offers to preachers in his little booklet, Simplicity in Preaching:

“The fifth and last hint I wish to give you is this: If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations.”

Ryle wants those who preach to understand the value of  illustrations and anecdotes as windows that throw light on the message being delivered. He points to the Lord Jesus as the primary example of this kind of preaching.  Jesus spoke with unmatched authority and yet remained connected to his hearers not only by that authority but by his using everyday illustrations drawn from the common life of  those he spoke to.

“There was nothing under His eyes apparently from which He did not draw lessons. The birds of the air, and the fish in the sea, the sheep, the goats, the. cornfield, the vineyard, the plowman, the sower, the reaper, the fisherman, the shepherd, the vine dresser, the woman kneading meal, the flowers, the grass, the bank, the wedding feast, the sepulcher, all were made vehicles for conveying thoughts to the minds of hearers.What are such parables as the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the ten virgins, the king who made a marriage for his son, the rich man and Lazarus, the laborers of the vineyard, and others,–what are all these but stirring stories that our Lord tells in order to convey some great truth to the souls of His hearers? Try to walk in His footsteps and follow His example.”

Ryle reminds us that people enjoy stories and illustrations. Even those who might be nodding off during your discourse will revive when a story is told. He points us to several good examples of this type of preacher including D.L. Moody. He offers that one reason for Moody’s great popularity had to do with his expertise at weaving illustration into his messages. Ryle gives us example of his own illustrations – using a watch to talk about a creator or a set of keys to illustrate the deceitfulness of men’s hearts.

Many a preacher of sound doctrine may look down on illustrations, similes and metaphors as being unnecessary “fluff” in a message but Ryle insists that this is fundamental to effective communication. He urges preachers:

“Illustration, I confidently assert, is one of the best receipts for making a sermon simple, clear, perspicuous, and easily understood. Lay yourselves out for it. Pick up illustrations wherever you can. Keep your eyes open, and use them well. Happy is that preacher who has an eye for similitude, and a memory stored with well-chosen stories and illustrations. If he is a real man of God, and knows how to deliver a sermon, he will never preach to bare walls and empty benches.”

He does offer the caution that those who don’t do well at telling stories probably shouldn’t! In one of the more entertaining passages in the book he mentions a couple of preachers by name who go overboard in their use of  illustrations. However, that caution aside he again strongly urges the use of them.

“Put plenty of colour and picture into your sermon by all means. Draw sweetness and light from all sources and from all creatures, from the heavens and the earth, from history, from science. But after all there is a limit. You must be careful how you use color, lest you do as much harm as good. Do not put on colour by spoonfuls, but with a brush. This caution remembered, you will find colour an immense aid in the attainment of simplicity and perspicuousness in preaching.”

So preachers, let’s dust off those illustration books and start storing up gems to fill our messages with.

Simplicity in Preaching: Hint #4 – Be Direct and Be Yourself!

The fourth hint Ryle offers in his booklet Simplicity in Preaching is this:

“If you wish to preach simply, use a direct style.”

This might seem trivial to some but Ryle urges us to refrain from relying on the common use of “we” instead of “I.” For instance:

  • “Today we want to look at Galatians.” vs. “Today I want to bring a message from Galatians.”
  • “We now consider some of what Jesus said…” vs. “Today, I want to explain to you what Jesus said about…”
  • “If you have not put faith in Christ, we urge you…” vs. “I urge you today…”

Silly? No. Ryle’s point is that we simply have no right to speak for anyone other than ourselves.  When we use the term “we” it can be vague or even misleading. Who is the “we” you’re speaking for? You and your family? You and the leadership? You and your denomination? Or is it you and the people listening? In any event, who do you have the authority to speak for?

“When a man takes up this style of preaching, he is often told he is conceited and egotistical. The result is that many preachers are never direct and always think it humble and modest and becoming to say ‘we’…. When He visits the sick, or teaches his school, or orders bread at the baker… he does not say ‘we’ but ‘I’. Why, then, I should like to know, can he not say ‘I’ in the pulpit? What right has he, as a modest man, to speak for anyone but himself?”

Now this is as issue that we in the post-modern west don’t deal with as much. We are fairly direct people. Many preachers would well to have a little less “I” in their messages! But there is a valuable reminder to be drawn here from Ryle. The particular issue he is addressing was one more peculiar to his time but the broader principle which certainly applies today can be found in the following sentence:

“In this particular do not imitate Chalmers, or Melville, or certain other living pulpit celebrities.”

Just as in Ryle’s day, we have our own group of pulpit celebrities! (Love that term.) Via books, podcasts, webcasts. mp3s, conferences, You Tube and a host of other mediums, our celebrities are available to us. Whether it’s John Piper, Steven Furtick, Tim Keller, Alistair Begg, or any of the many celebs of our day, we always run the risk of becoming imitators of men rather than authentic messengers working out of our own skin. God has given you a unique voice. Of course you should pray, study and work on improving your delivery. But let it be your delivery. Avoid copying the mannerisms, vocal inflections, or catch phrases of others. Be direct and be yourself.

Simplicity in Preaching: Hint #3 – Preacher… Take A Breath!

We’re working through J.C. Ryle’s little booklet Simplicity in Preaching

The third hint for obtaining simplicity in preaching according to Ryle is this:

“Take care to aim at a simple style of composition.”

Here Ryle is referring to the tendency of some to speak at great length with few pauses. Part of the problem here is that we are usually in writing mode when in it comes to sermon preparation and while it may sound good in our heads as we read it, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for our listeners when we speak it.  The mind needs a chance to process what it is hearing and if we speak with few pauses or full stops then we become difficult to follow. I experienced this at a recent conference where the speaker, though he had excellent material, was speaking so fast and with little pause rendering me almost helpless to remember anything he was saying!  The example Ryle gives is a preacher named Dr. Chalmers who offers “an enormous number of lines without coming to a period.” I had to chuckle when he said “this may suit Scotland, but it will never do for England.” He states it this way:

“If you would attain a simple style of composition, beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause, and so allowing the minds of your hearers to take breath. Beware of colons and semicolons. Stick to commas and full stops, and take care to write as if you were asthmatic or short of breath.”

Listening is different from reading. When I lose the train of thought in a book, I can go back and pick it up but when I lose the line of thinking in a sermon, I can be lost to the rest of the message. So Ryle’s hint here is simple – “avoid long, involved, complicated sentences.”

One technique that Ryle encourages is the use of what he calls proverbs and epigrammatic (a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying) sentences. He gives several examples:

  • Sin forsaken is one of the best evidences of sin forgiven.
  • The street is soon clean when everyone sweeps before his own door.
  • He that begins with prayer will end with praise.
  • It matters little how we die, but it matters much how we live.
  • One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair, and only one, that none should presume.
  • In the Bible there are shallows where a lamb can wade, and depths where an elephant must swim.

Ryle encourages the preacher to work hard at storing gems like these in their minds. Don’t go overboard in using them. At the end of paragraphs they can help seal the message to the hearer. Beware the complicated sentence!

Simplicity in Preaching: Hint #2 – Lose the Big Words!

 


I’m sharing a summary of  J.C. Ryle’s  book, Simplicity in Preaching
and this post focuses on his second hint for obtaining simplicity, “Try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words.”

By simple words Ryle isn’t suggesting a “See Jane run” kind of preaching. Rather, his emphasis here is that we use language that is common in everyday use. Remember, your goal is to be understood and useful to your congregation, not to impress them and wring compliments from them. Ryle urges preachers to avoid what “the poor shrewdly call ‘dictionary’ words.'” In Ryle’s day the rates of illiteracy were much higher than our own and being able to communicate with those whose language skills were limited was a real challenge. So Ryle suggests staying away from words that are:

He states:

“They (the words above) may seem very fine, and sound very grand, but they are rarely of any use. The most powerful and forcible words, as a rule, are very short.”

It is interesting to read Ryle go on at length a bit about the superiority of strong pure Saxon words over French and Latin. The writing certainly reflects the day he lived in! He quotes a Dr. Gee from his work entitled “Our Sermons” in which the author speaks to this issue of complicated words:

“Talk of happiness rather than felicity, talk of almighty rather than omnipotent, lessen rather than diminish, forbidden rather than proscribed, hateful rather than noxious… call out and draw forth rather than evoke and educe, dude instead of homo sapiens…”

Okay, I made that last one up.

Come to think of it, our problem with a lot of our post-modern, conversational preaching may not be that we use words that are to complicated. Still, for those of us who want to demonstrate the breadth of our vocabulary, the pulpit is not the place to do it.

Simplicity in Preaching: Hint #1 – Know Your Stuff!

I’m blogging a summary of J.C. Ryle’s little booklet called Simplicity in Preaching. His prefatory remarks which are gems in themselves are covered here and .here Today we begin looking at what he calls his “hints” for attaining simplicity in preaching.

Hint #1 – “Have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach.”

In other words, “know your stuff.”  Ryle says this is the most important of the five hints. Do you really know:

  • What you want to prove?
  • What you want to teach?
  • What you want to establish?
  • What you want people to carry away?

Ryle insists that failure here is failure everywhere. He states, “if you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.” How often have I seen those blank stares on a Sunday and realized that if I don’t know clearly where I’m going, then how can my congregation? Ryle also warns against continually preaching on material that is generally hard to understand to begin with.

“If a man will continually preach to an ordinary congregation about the seals and vials and trumpets in Revelation, or about Ezekiel’s temple, or about predestination, free will, and the eternal purposes of God, it will not be at all surprising to any reasonable mind if he fails to attain simplicity.”

Ryle also warns of the dangers of using  what he calls “accommodated texts.” By that he means using a text and extracting from it some meaning it was not clearly intended to convey. People may think you are clever but they may also be led to think that the scriptures are to hard for them to really understand because they never “saw” what the preacher did.

Finally, an important note in our day of narrative preaching being emphasized, Ryle stresses the value of having divisions in the sermon that are clearly stated. While he encourages those who can effectively preach without divisions to do so if they wish, he calls for some order that helps people to follow the content. He points to Spurgeon as a great example of this!

“Now, when you read Mr. Spurgeon’s sermons, note how clearly and perspicuously he divides a sermon, and fills each division with beautiful and simple ideas. How easily you grasp his meaning!”

Ryle ends this section by offering this advice:

“…if you would be simple in your preaching, you must thoroughly understand your subject, and if you want to know whether you understand it, try to divide and arrange it. I can only say for myself, that I have done this ever since I have been a minister.”

Simplicity in Preaching by J.C. Ryle – Part 2

Yesterday, I began this summary of J.C. Ryle’s Simplicity in Preaching.  In his recommendation, Sinclair Ferguson writes:

“Ryle packs more experience and sanctified common sense into two dozen pages than many others manage in a lengthy treatise.  And, like all of his work, this one illustrates the very simplicity he commends to others.  Here indeed is a work whose value and usefulness is out of all proportion to its length.”

Ryle begins with 4 prefatory statements, the first two of which we covered yesterday. The first was that to attain simplicity should be the goal of every minister who desires to be useful to souls. The second was a warning that those who wish to preach with simplicity should not consider it an easy task. In other words, this is no shortcut to sermon prep! So now we come to the third and fourth prefatory comments.

3) “When I talk of simplicity in preaching, I would not have my readers suppose I mean childish preaching.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, knowledge puffs up. On many occasions I have witnessed preachers talk down to a congregation in a scolding or impatient manner. It was as if their thought was “how can you be so stupid? This is as plain as the nose on your face! What’s the matter with you?” No one likes being made to feel foolish or ignorant. Ryle points out that we sacrifice any possibility of being useful if people feel that they are being treated as inferiors and not as equals. Says Ryle:

“People do not like even the appearance of condescending preaching…. They will at once put up their backs, stop their ears, and take offense, and then we might as well preach to the winds.”

Sadly, many churches contain pastors who are already being shown the door and don’t yet know it. Their people quit listening some time ago. To preach with simplicity is not to speak in a childish manner but in a responsible one. Simplicity flows from a heart that has the highest respect for those it serves and longs to be useful to them.

4) “Finally let me observe, that it is not coarse or vulgar preaching that is needed.”

This pamphlet is part of a larger work published in 1888 but it certainly applies today! Let me start by addressing an issue of modern vulgarity and then get to what Ryle is speaking of.

Much has been said about crude language in the pulpit. You might remember the N.Y. Times saying of Mark Driscoll: “he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen” and that his “Mars Hill Church is the furthest thing from a Puritan meetinghouse.” It’s a means of communicating that has become more accepted over time.

Now, I’ll be honest, while I have never cussed in the pulpit, I still do on occasion in private conversation. Usually it’s in a counselling appointment with a brother who’s avoiding some issue and I’ll tell him that what he just said is a big pile of bulls**t. Frankly it’s purely for shock value. Shakes them up when the pastor does that! But the truth is, it’s not necessary and the idea that somehow I need to do that to relate to the culture around me is actually a good idea (relevant speech) pushed to far. There really is to be something different about the speech of the believer. We know the scriptures:
Ephesians 5:4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Colossians 3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

Think about it. Paul obviously wrote this knowing that his readers would would be familiar with what the contrasts of speech involved – what was filthy and foolish and what was thankful and grace-giving. So there is a cultural tide, when it comes to speaking, that needs to be resisted.

Now, all that being said, that is not what Ryle is talking about here.  In Ryle’s day many of the churches were filled with men and women who were uneducated and illiterate. Consequently their speech was not refined or “courteous.”  Ryle’s contention was that one could be simple while still being a “gentleman” and maintaining a high standard of dignified speech. He argues:

“It is an utter mistake to imagine that uneducated and illiterate men and women prefer to be spoken to in an illiterate way, and by an uneducated person.”

Ryle comes off sounding a bit snobbish here by declaring that if you have a choice between a lay reader or evangelist who only knows how to read and someone like an “Oxford man” who knows his Greek and Latin, then you should go with the more refined and educated gentleman. Now this is a fairly cultural thing to Ryle and his time but there is a point here that is important. When Ryle speaks of coarsness and vulgarity he is not talking about foul language (that was never even a consideration!) but rather speaking in ways more common to the uneducated. Our words should inspire, not just instruct. They should be worthy of the subject and invite people to think great thoughts. There should be prose and poetry, imagination and music in the words we use. The soul hungers for it. To quote Ryle:

“People only tolerate vulgarity and coarseness, as a rule, when they can get nothing else.”

Do we want our preaching to be something people have to settle for when in fact we could stimulate their minds and imaginations and not just their feelings and passions?

” My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.” – Psalm 47:1

 

Next, we’ll look at the first of Ryle’s 5 hints for better preaching.

 

Simplicity in Preaching by J.C. Ryle – Part 1

I love to preach. I really do. I can hardly think of anything more fulfilling outside of my personal time with God. Being able to speak the truth of God’s Word in love to His people is a priceless gift. That said, boy I could use some work.

I know that often I’m just too complicated. I try to stuff too much into a message and often make the mistake of thinking that everything I find fascinating in a text will be equally fascinating to everyone. If preaching were compared to firearms, I’d have to admit that I am often more like buckshot than a bullet.

Enter J.C. Ryle.

I picked up Ryle’s little booklet Simplicity in Preaching and it has been a great tool for reflecting on my own approach to preaching. A mere 22 pages in length, it is brimming with wise counsel. For the next few days I’ll share a summary of the book’s main points and hopefully some of you may find it as helpful as I did.

What Ryle offers here are what he refers to as “hints” for preaching. There are five of them and I’ll tackle one a day. For now let’s look at the four prefatory remarks the book opens with.

1) “To attain simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance to every minister who wishes to be useful to souls.”

This nailed me right out of the gate! Do I wish to be useful to God’s people? I know that we have first an obligation to the truth of God’s Word and our obligation is to preach that Word with integrity that compromises nothing and does not cater to the fear of man. But then the question must be asked: “Do I want to be understood?” The danger is that we often want to just be admired, to enjoy the process, to be entertained by our own verbosity. Ryle quotes Quintilian, “If you do not wish to be understood, you deserve to be neglected.” Great truth must be served in a manner that finds its mark in the hearts of those who listen. I need to be useful to my flock, not use my flock as an audience for my self.

2) To attain simplicity in preaching is by no means an easy matter.

It’s been said that it’s easy to prepare a message that lasts 2 hours. The hard thing is the message that lasts 20 minutes. Why? Again, it’s the difference between buckshot and a bullet. I can cover a ton of material to explain a concept but the abundance of material (and there is no end of that!) is not the measuring rod of success.  Effectiveness happens when truth finds its home in the heart and mind of the listener.  “To make hard things hard is in the reach of all but to make hard things seem easy and intelligible is a height attained by very few speakers. ” – Archbishop Usher

This takes hard work. Being simple is not about “dumbing down” the truth. It is about crafting your words to provide the clearest message possible. Ryle quotes an old Puritan as saying that “the greater part of preachers shoot over the heads of the people.”  I’ve seen that look on Sunday mornings! Have you? A couple of Ryle’s comments:

“It is an extremely difficult thing to write simple, clear, perspicuous, and forcible English.”

“In fact, to use very long words, to seem very learned, to make people go away after a sermon saying ‘How fine! how clever!, how grand!’ all this is very easy work. But to write what will strike and stick or to write that which at once pleases and is understood, and becomes assimilated with a hearer’s mind and a thing never forgotten – that, we may depend upon it, is a very difficult thing and a very rare attainment.”

Like I said. I need some work…

I’ll share the last two prefatory comments tomorrow and then jump into Ryle’s hints for preaching with simplicity.

Classic Repost: 11-17-70, Elton John Shines

Back before the costumes, the glasses and the notoriety, Reginald Kenneth Dwight (aka Elton John) released one the best recordings of a brilliant live performance ever, 11-17-70.  I will confess quickly that Elton lost me somewhere between Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Caribou. It was obvious that he had turned his talents in different directions and the culture that was “Elton John” was taking over. Still, his early works remain some of my favorites and 11-17-70 stands front and center.

In 1970, Elton had released two albums in the US; the self-titled debut with the hit “Your Song” and Tumbleweed Connection which included the outstanding “Burn Down the Mission.”  The film score for the movie “Friends” was also floating around though it’s official release wouldn’t be until ’71. On November 17th of 1970, Elton with bassist  Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson entered the recording studio of A&R in New York, for a live radio broadcast. There was a small, but very enthusiastic audience on hand for the 13 song performance.  It was never intended to be released as a LP but the circulation of poor quality bootlegs prompted an official release. Unfortunately, the entire concert didn’t make it onto vinyl. Of the 13 songs, only 6 would be released with a seventh, Amoreena, added to a ’96 reissue.

Elton himself has said that this is his best recorded live performance. I agree. It’s also the best opportunity to hear the amazing talents of  Murray and Olsson who just shine. This is also the only live recorded performance of the band as a three piece. A year later Davey Johnstone would join the band as a guitarist.

There are three covers on the LP, a full version of  Honky Tonk Women by the Stones and a nod to Get Back (Lennon-McCartney) and My Baby Left Me (Arthur Crudup) which appear as a medley in the extended (18:20) Burn Down the Mission.  The rest of the tracks are Elton and collaborator Bernie Taupin’s works: Take Me To the Pilot, Sixty Years On, Can I Put You On, Bad Side of the Moon and Burn Down the Mission.

Throughout the show the songs are performed with an energy and an urgency that highlights a band hitting its stride and full of promise. As the story goes, according to announcer Dave Herman who opens and closes the LP, Elton cut his hand at some point in his vigorous playing and by the concert’s end the keyboard was covered with blood. Appropriate. I can’t think of another live recording where the band so completely put all their cards on the table. No overdubs, no strings, no horns, nothing but a grand piano, bass and drums played with more gripping intensity than I have ever heard.