"Have Mercy on The Criminal" is a song by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin. The album cover from which the song originates bears a picture of a small cinema with a couple standing beneath the marquee, which reads, "Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player starring Elton John."
For all intents and purposes, Elton's life, his fame and his fortune, were like a movie of his own making. Fresh off co-starring in Ringo Starr's doc on pal Marc Bolan, Born to Boogie, which featured sold-out Wembley Stadium concert footage and a hodgepodge of wannabe-Fellini-bits, but also John playing for Bolan in a piano rave-up worthy of Liberace and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Later that year, still riding high on his success of his smash "Rocket Man," "Have Mercy on the Criminal" was a slow-burn, thick with rolling waves of electric guitar a la Clapton’s riff in "Layla" and the less-is-more school of drummer Nigel Olsson (dig his sparse tom-tom strikes and tightly stretched snare-drum crack), all engineered by pro Ken Scott. As Elton sings Taupin’s earnest lyrics about an escaped convict "with a mother in his eyes," running from the warden and his devil dogs who are "out to kill." The yearning and distress in Elton’s voice and melody, from the time I first heard it in 7th grade to right now, to me, is testimony to his truest talent. And it's all bound by Paul Buckmaster’s fiery string arrangements.
The song becomes a weapon halfway through, as it runs just under six minutes, each of them filled with producer Gus Dodgson’s gigantic sound, made to break like waves into your living room.
The finale is a hunted, haunted thing against the manic drive of the band and the orchestra’s exclamation points: "Just take these chains from around my legs, sweet Jesus I’ll be your friend," and four more measures of Hollywood gangster circa 1935, slows and comes crashing to a brutal end.
The violin still reverberates several seconds after the song is done, killing off the singer-songwriter mode that Elton had made his own, thus becoming maybe the biggest pop-star of the early '70s.