John Lennon had the common touch. Elton John took note of it, recalling, “John was just the nicest man deep down, genuinely a great and quite humble person. John was the kind of man who would walk into a room full of people and, instead of going up to the biggest celeb, he would go around the room talking to everyone, one by one, a real man of the people.”
Lennon was known for chatting up clerks, waiters, technicians and other common folk. He was interested in what they did. Perhaps it took him back to his Liverpool roots. In those days, John Lennon had no idea he’d be John Lennon.
Elton John, born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, is Elton John and he’s fully embraced the role. On stage and on the street, he’s the showman and a fascinating one at that. In the early ’90s, he began hitting the streets of Atlanta, having established part-time residency in a penthouse condo at Buckhead’s Park Place. While it isn’t Knob Hill or Malibu, the living in Buckhead, particularly in Elton’s neighborhood, is most rarefied for Atlantans. Close by is Habersham Road, a street Tom Wolfe, in his novel of late 20th century Atlanta, A Man in Full, described as “the very best part of Buckhead,” where “the lawns rose up from the streets like big green breasts, and at the top of each breast was a house big enough to be called a mansion.”
Not too far from the mansions, though, are your average apartment buildings, some with dwellings renting for around $1,000.00 monthly. Members of America’s 1% may own the mansions on the big green breasts, or a splendid condo with breathtaking views, two or three floors down from Elton’s abode, yet the Buckhead community is also represented by Atlantans of the 99%. People who meet, greet and serve customers in the community’s stores, galleries and restaurants, places where Elton John became a familiar face.
“Atlantans really love celebrities,” Forrest Rogers, Marketing Manager for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, told a friend in the early ’90s. He should have known. Part of his work entailed staging contests allowing newspaper readers chances to meet pro athletes, pop singers, actors and rock stars. Spend an afternoon with Vince and Reba. Meet Rod backstage. Rogers, who passed away in ’98, knew that Atlantans’ captivation with the famous bordered on obsession. In his position, he was expected to accommodate the starry-eyed.
Joi Chestnut wasn’t starry-eyed. She was too grounded for that. As a cashier and clerk at Tower Records in Buckhead, Joi became familiar with the many famous and wanna-be famous recording acts who appeared to promote their latest albums. Meeting, greeting and signing autographs. The glamour and hubbub of all that was part of her job, just like helping the customers, even the distracted Mozart devotee who drops in during a metal band’s appearance. Joi loved everything about the work, just as she loved all kinds of music.
One customer Joi delighted in helping was Elton John. Whenever he was in Atlanta, he’d make arrangements to come by Tower Records early on Tuesday mornings, roughly an hour before the store opened. Tuesday, being new-release day, was when Elton roamed the aisles, picking up the latest CDs, two or three of each, so as to pass copies along to friends as well. Joi had a good time talking about her famous customer but she was just as happy to talk about business, something in the news or the Atlanta Braves, particularly their star pitcher, Greg Maddux.
Born in the London suburb of Pinner, Middlesex County, Elton John didn’t come to baseball naturally, but his early ’90s arrival in Atlanta coincided with the Braves’ emergence as one of the top teams in the Major Leagues. John quickly came under the Braves’ spell. He learned the nuances of the game, well enough to show up at the team’s batting practices and advise Manager Bobby Cox on who should hit in the lead-off position.
In the spring of 2000, I talked with Elton John at the Sunset Boulevard Tower Records. Amazing. In Atlanta, his condo is less than 4 miles from my home, but roughly a decade after he had moved to Atlanta, we meet up 2,000 miles away. To shield my balding pate from the California sun, I have on an Atlanta Braves cap as I walk in Tower Records. Elton John spots me and exclaims, “Now there’s a man who knows his baseball.” So we proceeded to talk about the Braves, still in the midst of what’d be nearly a decade and a half of making it to post-season play.
(Joi Chestnut, a friend to Elton John and to all she met)
Then the subject changed. I told John, “We have a mutual friend, Elton: Joi Chestnut.” John beamed and stretched out his arms, asking, “You mean, Big Joi?” Perhaps embarrassed by describing her that way, he then paused and went on to describe what a wonderful friend Joi had been to him and how much he appreciated her kindness whenever he’d drop by Atlanta’s Tower Records. Back home, I recalled the conversation to Joi, who was pleased that we managed to talk about her as well as the Braves.
The next year, Elton John released Songs From the West Coast, arguably his best album in more than two decades. His adopted part-time city, Atlanta, was experiencing success as well. The boom that accelerated after the city hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games gave few signs of slowing. Considered by many as simply a town to construct a business deal, Atlanta had gained recognition as a place for fun. The city’s humid and often stale downtown area was especially transformed in summer ’96 when the old Baptist Tabernacle was turned into a House of Blues. For two weeks, Atlanta was the center of the universe, and to the musically-inclined it seemed the House of Blues was the reason. Hitting the HOB stage over the two weeks were Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown*, Al Green, Bobby Blue Bland, Keb Mo and Dr. John, with Bob Dylan appearing on the last two nights of the Atlanta Olympics. Had such an array of talent ever appeared in the city in such a short time before? What could the city do for an encore?
Such encores have been few and far between in what has become an exhausting century. One positive for Atlanta in the post-Olympics years, even as the House of Blues pulled up stakes, is that the old Baptist Tabernacle building is now a full-time a concert venue. That works for everyone. Atlanta and the rest of the metro area have what seems an endless supply of Baptists while great music halls are few and far between.
On November 4, 2004, with his Peachtree Road album due to be released in a few days, Elton John appeared at the old building, now known as the Tabernacle. John’s Tabernacle concert featured songs from the new album, named for the famous stretch of Peachtree, 40 stories below his Atlanta condo. The concert was well-received, especially by Joi Chestnut, the recipient of tickets from Elton, who during the show invited Joi to come up on stage. It was something that, according to her sister, Jodie Chestnut, Joi talked about for a long time.
The Atlanta Tower Records, along with other stores in the famous chain, closed in November 2006. The record business was in a staggering transition. Even the likes of a cheerful and gracious Joi Chestnut couldn’t save the retail record business. However, Joi did make the shopping experience at the Ansley Mall Publix grocery store a pleasant experience. She worked the service desk, ran the registers and treated all the customers with great care, as if they were, well, Elton John.
In mid- February 2010, a customer at the Publix noticed a few of the employees wearing big buttons on their shirts. The buttons had a nice smiling picture of Joi. The customer asked what that was all about. “You don’t know….Oh I’m sorry…,” a cashier responded, with the news of Joi’s recent passing. Not too long before, Joi had been diagnosed with ovarian cysts. Surgery was planned, but on February 2, she died from cardiac arrest.
Elton John was out of town when Joi’s funeral was held at the Shiloh Baptist Church in the West End of Atlanta. Having learned of her death, he sent representatives to the service as well as a beautiful spray of white roses. Jodie Chestnut said that after the funeral, while being pulled in this and pulled in that direction, she never got to thank them and have them convey thanks to Elton John. The friendship between Joi and Elton was, says Jodie, “truly a blessing.”
*James Brown did not want to perform in what had once been a church so he gave his HOB concert in a huge tent set up in the parking lot outside the building. Ironically, the tent was called the “Gospel Tent,” as it was where the weekend’s Gospel brunches were served.
The author wishes to thank Jodie Chestnut, Heidi Rizzi, and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, now President of the Buckhead Coalition, for their help with this story. The books, “Elton: The Biography” by David Buckley and “Lennon” by Tim Riley were both helpful in the research for this story and are highly recommended for those wishing to read more on the subjects.
(Photo of Joi Chestnut’s autographed poster of Elton John courtesy of Chestnut family.)