November 19, 2018

The ‘Surrogate’ Elton John

Most teenagers have a musical hero: an artist they listen to again and again when they are happy, when they are sad, when they just want to chill. But few ever get to meet their hero. However, San Fernando Valley resident Adam Chester went one better. He actually gets to be his musical hero —  Elton John, or rather, he fills in for him at band rehearsals.

Chester, who also works as a sales manager at the Keyboard Concepts piano store in Sherman Oaks, and is the author of a humorous book titled “S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She’s Mailed Him,” said he has been playing piano since he was 3 years old. Neither of his parents was a musician, but musical talent does run in his family. His grandmother was a violinist. His uncle was a concert pianist. And his aunt was a sound engineer. So it’s not altogether surprising that Chester, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in New Jersey, showed early promise as a piano player. He remembers neighbors setting up lawn chairs outside his family’s garden apartment to listen to him play when he was 5. His electric keyboard was positioned by a ground floor window. 

Chester continued to play piano throughout his youth. “In high school is where I really got focused,” he said. By then, he was already a fan of Elton John. But when he heard John’s opus-like “Funeral for a Friend” on the radio, he was sold. 

“I just loved his piano playing, his voice, everything about it,” he said. Elton John posters lined the walls of his room. Chester even performed “Funeral for a Friend” as part of his high school rock ensemble, emerging from a dry-ice filled coffin onstage in a white tuxedo.

 He headed west for college at USC, where he studied music theory and composition. “I wanted to write and sing and be the next Elton John or Barry Manilow or whoever was hip back then,” he said.

Chester, who is married with two sons, had some early success. He worked with Barry White and producer Jimmie Haskell. Some of his music was used in television and film. But to pay the bills, he took a job at Music Plus in Hollywood. One day, one of his regular customers came in with her husband. Chester recognized him immediately. It was Davey Johnstone, Elton John’s longtime guitar player.

Chester and Johnstone became friends. They played a few gigs together around Los Angeles. Then in 2005, Johnstone approached Chester with a proposition.

Adam Chester (right) with
Elton John

“He asked if I would sit in as Elton for all the Elton John band rehearsals,” Chester recalled. “I would sing and play piano with the band so Elton would not have to be there.”

Someone else had been filling in for John but that person didn’t sing. Chester didn’t hesitate. He was in. Shortly thereafter, he met Elton John in Boston. John was about to begin his Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy anniversary tour. It had been 30 years since the release of the album featuring such songs as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” The band needed to rehearse the entire album until the musicians were tight. They did, with Chester on piano and vocals.

“I was in heaven,” Chester recalled.

“He asked if I would sit in as Elton for all the Elton John band rehearsals. I would sing and play piano with the band so Elton would not have to be there.”
— Adam Chester

Since then, Chester, who has a regular gig at Bar 1200 at Sunset Marquis, has been “Surrogate Elton John,” the title Johnstone gave him, on multiple occasions. 

“I became Sur Elton with an S.U.R. instead of Sir Elton,” Chester is fond of saying. (Elton John was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.)

Chester also had the opportunity to sit in for John at John’s 60th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden and a gala concert in London for the BRIT Awards. Earlier this year, the Recording Academy hosted a Grammy salute to Elton John that included some of the biggest names in contemporary pop, including Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus. Chester got to accompany all of them on piano while John, along with his husband David Furnish and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, sat in the audience. And just a few weeks ago, Chester headed to Pennsylvania to rehearse the band for John’s three-year farewell tour.

“I’m not trying to copy him,” Chester said. “I never want to do an Elton tribute band. I think that would diminish what I do … I definitely try to put a little bit of myself in there.”

It’s been a dream gig for the kid from New Jersey. “It’s never work,” he said. “I’m at the edge of my seat. I’m so excited to be with the band.”