NEW YORK (Billboard) - Talk to Elton John and it’s likely that, sooner rather than later, he will tell you that Leon Russell is his idol. Which isn’t an unexpected statement to make, considering that the next entry in John’s discography is “The Union,” a duet album with the 68-year-old Russell.
But John doesn’t have to swear on the family Bible that he’s not just blowing celebrity smoke. “Leon Russell is my idol” is like a mantra John recited unprompted during interviews throughout his career. In 1970 and 1971, from Rolling Stone to Melody Maker to Georgia Straight, a weekly in Vancouver, British Columbia, it was always “my idol.”
From the late 1960s through 1972, piano player, songwriter, singer, performer, producer and bandleader Russell seemed to be everywhere: playing sessions with Delaney & Bonnie; writing classics like “A Song for You” and “Superstar”; putting together the large band, arrangements and songs for Joe Cocker’s famed Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. And on his own Shelter Records (formed with former partner Denny Cordell), Russell had a productive career as a solo artist, with hit singles (“Tight Rope”) and albums (“Carney”), a deserving legend in his own time.
And then that time passed. Russell never stopped working, though in relative obscurity. And so John sees “The Union” — produced by T Bone Burnett and scheduled for release October 19 by Decca — as the first step in a long-term project with a purpose: to restore Russell to what he and many others believe is his rightful place in the rock pantheon, secure him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and get him more comfortable travel accommodations.
“I want to make sure he has a great career ahead of him,” John, 63, says in a phone interview from Europe. “I don’t want him driving around the country doing five shows a week in his bus any more. I just want him to be comfortable, have a new publishing deal, get him back into public consciousness and keep him there.”
Russell certainly appreciates the efforts John has been making. “Between (him) and his manager, Johnny Barbis, they treat me like a king,” Russell says in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. He jokes that at 68 he’s “too old to be on the road,” then qualifies that.
“I’m happy to have a job,” says Russell, whose touring schedule in September listed such gigs as Tavern on the Main in Wise, Virginia; Voodoo Lounge in St. Louis; and Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Missouri. That’s quite a contrast from New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971, where he was a pivotal player and performer in George Harrison’s 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh,” rock’s first all-star benefit extravaganza. Russell’s spotlight revival-style version of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” just about stole the show from Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and all the others who were the piano player’s peers.
The road now is far less glamorous. “It would be better if we had a slightly better bus, but it’s what we do,” Russell says. Yet he sounds like a man who’s comfortable in his own skin wherever he is. “I’m always home,” he says. “It’s just that every day when I wake up I’m in a different location. I appreciate Elton trying to raise my (travel) class, though.”
John’s dedication to improving the autumn years of his longtime idol is the result of an epiphany in January 2009 in South Africa, at a wildlife and game preserve where for the past seven or so years the singer-songwriter and his partner, David Furnish, and friends have started each new year on safari. “No, I do not shoot the animals, 100 percent no,” John says, appalled at the thought. “That’s so barbaric ... I would kill someone who shot animals.”
Furnish played a Russell recording and John began to weep, as the music transported him back to the outset of his career. “It was the most artistic and creative time you could ever imagine,” John says. And he deemed it an injustice that Russell, who galvanized so much of the creativity of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, was no longer getting the attention he deserved.
After calling Russell, John phoned Burnett. He’d never before spoken with him, but John knew Burnett was the person to produce the album.
“It’s hard to do a duets record that doesn’t sound forced,” John says. “I wanted it to be like Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ ‘Raising Sand,’” which Burnett produced.
Burnett also won an Academy Award in March for his work as composer and producer of the music in the movie “Crazy Heart.” The film featured Jeff Bridges as an aging country star who gets back on his feet with the help of a protege turned superstar.
“Leon’s career in recent years has been like ‘Crazy Heart’ without the drugs and booze,” John says. “Not bitter, not the slightest bit bitter, but maybe he lost his confidence.”
Russell reportedly was a little dazed when sessions for “The Union” began last winter. He had been out of the hospital for only about a week after brain surgery to correct a leak of spinal fluid from his nose, according to John. He and Russell appeared at the MusiCares tribute to Neil Young on January 30, and the next night Russell performed at the Grammy Awards with the Zac Brown Band.
Though Russell has recorded prolifically through the years, it has been some time since he’s been surrounded by such first-class talent in the studio. Besides the two highly regarded piano players, Burnett brought most of his usual crew of musicians, including guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummers Jim Keltner and Jay Bellerose. Not only has Keltner worked with Burnett for 40 years, but he was the man with the sticks on many of the records and tours that Russell helped make famous.
The 14 songs on “The Union” were written by John, his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, Burnett and Russell, in different combinations. The seven new John/Taupin compositions, especially “Gone to Shiloh,” “Hey Ahab” and (with Burnett) “Jimmie Rodger’s Dream,” evoke the jaunts through early Americana they took on such ‘70s albums as “Tumbleweed Connection.”
Russell has co-writing credits with Taupin (“I Should Have Sent Roses”) and with John (“A Dream Come True”), and his solo compositions bookend the album. The bouncing, bluesy “If It Wasn’t for Bad” kicks off the record, and the delicate, spiritual “The Hands of Angels” closes it.
There’s one song on which all share credit, along with 71-year-old soul-gospel shouter from Atlanta the Mighty Hannibal (aka James Shaw). On the album, it’s called “There’s No Tomorrow,” which is a three-word chorus from the Mighty Hannibal’s best-known tune, “Hymn No. 5,” a chilling antiwar song released in 1966 as the fighting in Vietnam was accelerating.
“Leon started playing that song in the studio; he said, ‘Do you know that Mighty Hannibal song?’” Burnett recalls. “It’s got an incredible chorus, but the words were spoken about Vietnam, and it just wouldn’t work with Elton and Leon singing about Vietnam. So we called him up and asked if he would mind co-writing a song with us. Elton picked up the phone and said, ‘Hello, I’m Elton John. I’m a piano player and songwriter, and we’d like to write some new words for ‘Hymn No. 5.’”
Russell got a chuckle when he got on the phone with the Mighty Hannibal. “He said, ‘Leon, you’re my idol too. You came to Atlanta 20 years ago and went on the radio and said, ‘Welcome to Atlanta, home of the Mighty Hannibal.’”
The album is a natural blend of John’s and Russell’s styles, which weren’t so dissimilar to start with. Each of them helped reinvigorate and redefine the place of piano in the rock and pop of the guitar-dominated early ‘70s.
Russell, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a teenager when he moved to Los Angeles and became a studio musician, a brick in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and frequent participant in early Beach Boys sessions. He was a slim, lanky Mr. Everything with shoulder-length silver hair and onstage, at times, a top hat. His breakout was as a piano player on Delaney & Bonnie’s “Accept No Substitute,” the 1969 album that helped create the Southern rock explosion of the ‘70s.
“It seemed the core of that time for me,” Burnett says. (When Delaney & Bonnie went on tour with Blind Faith, Eric Clapton so preferred their music to his own that he quit Blind Faith and signed on for 1970’s “Delaney & Bonnie and Friends On Tour With Eric Clapton.”)
John became a star almost instantaneously in 1970, thanks to the rarest of combinations: relentless hype by his American label, Universal/MCA, and talent that could match (and at times surpass) the expectations raised by the hardball promotion.
In one of rock’s great upstart-meets-idol moments, Russell was one of many members of Los Angeles’ rock royalty who thronged the 300-seat Troubadour for John’s career-rocketing U.S. debut in August 1970.
“We had tried to get Elton for Shelter Records, but we missed him by a couple of weeks,” Russell says. They did some shows together, John opening for Russell, at New York’s Fillmore East in 1971. “I went out to watch one of them and said, ‘My career’s over. This guy is so much better than me,’” Russell recalls.
Russell’s career wasn’t over. But the music culture that had embraced both John and Russell was becoming sliced and diced by tightly formatted radio stations. Indulging his musical curiosity, Russell released a pure honky-tonk country album introducing an alter ego on “Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. I” in 1973: a fine record that may have diluted what would now be called his “brand” and sowed more confusion the following year when he released the self-explanatory “Stop All That Jazz.”
John and Russell will kick off their fall tour October 19 at New York’s Beacon Theater. They expect to do more North American dates in 2011 and plan to do more recording as well.
“I want to make a record of 1950s songs, recording live with an orchestra, having Leon play piano and me just sing,” John says. “I should have gotten in touch with him maybe years before, but I’m a great believer that everything happens at the time it’s supposed to. This is just such a joyous thing. I want to see his smile when he sees his name on the charts again.”