Early last year, Leon Russell was at his home outside of Nashville when his telephone rang. It was Elton John, calling from a safari vacation somewhere in Africa. John proposed the idea of recording with Russell, who was one of his early influences but has largely been forgotten by pop history. That phone call resulted...
Early last year Leon Russell was at his home outside Nashville when his telephone rang. It was Elton John, calling from a safari vacation somewhere in Africa.
“I was laying in bed watching my TV, and I suspect he was laying on an elephant somewhere,” Russell said. “I hadn’t talked to Elton for 35 years, so it was quite a surprise.”
John proposed the idea of recording with Russell, who was one of his early influences but has largely been forgotten by pop history. That phone call resulted in a new album, “The Union” (Decca), which reaches stores on Tuesday, and a 10-date tour, beginning that evening at the Beacon Theater. (The concert will be broadcast live on the Fuse network; Russell and John will also perform at the Beacon on Wednesday as part of an all-star benefit show organized by their producer, T Bone Burnett.)
For John the primary motivation for “The Union” — which returns him to the acoustic-based, country-flavored sound of early recordings like “Tumbleweed Connection” — was to bring a renewed recognition to one of his idols. “If Leon can get the accolades he deserves and be financially OK for the rest of his life, I will have done something decent with my music,” he said in a call from his home in France.
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When they first met in 1970, John was a young unknown, while Russell, the Oklahoma-born pianist and songwriter, was already established as rock ‘n’ roll royalty. He was best known as a member of Phil Spector’s studio band and a session player who recorded with artists as varied as Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones. In that year alone Russell wrote two songs that would become standards: “Superstar” (written with Bonnie Bramlett) and “A Song for You.”
Russell and John went on to play a handful of shows together. Russell’s star remained bright for a few years — in 1971 he was one of the highlights of George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” and produced several songs for Bob Dylan — but he gradually retreated from the spotlight. John went on to become possibly the biggest rock star of the 1970s and to rack up more than 50 Top 40 hits and sell 250 million records.
Leaning back in a recliner on his tour bus and smoothing his snow-white beard, Russell said that he accepted responsibility for the direction his career took. “I haven’t done my part,” he said. “I’ve avoided the press and a lot of stuff that would have made me more visible, just because it’s not my style. And when I see all the stuff that Elton does, I can understand why I’m not doing that more.”
Even if his name has largely drifted into obscurity, Russell’s gospel infused, soul-country blend continues to echo through recent recordings by the likes of Sheryl Crow, Zac Brown and Kid Rock. Russell is also a guest on Elvis Costello’s forthcoming album, “National Ransom.”
“I first saw Leon Russell in 1971 or 1972,” Costello wrote in a recent e-mail. “Then, as now, Leon made everything happen when he took the stage. For heaven’s sake, his rock and roll credits could fill up a big inscribed monolith, if they still made such things.”
The genesis of “The Union” was actually during the premiere episode of Costello’s music talk show on the Sundance Channel, “Spectacle,” for which John is an executive producer. On that program, in 2008, John discussed the enormous impact that Russell had on his music, even improvising a Russell-style song. That prompted John’s partner, David Furnish, to load some of Russell’s recordings into his iPod in advance of the couple’s annual African safari.
When Russell’s “Greatest Hits” album came on one day during the trip, “I started to cry, it moved me so much,” John said. “His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, and it makes me so angry that he’s been forgotten.”
From Africa, John called his United States manager, Johnny Barbis, and asked for Russell’s telephone number. After contacting Russell, he got in touch with Burnett and raised the idea of an album of duets. “It seemed like an extraordinarily generous thing to do,” Burnett said, adding that he considers Russell “one of the best rock ‘n’ roll piano players in the world” — and he offered his services.
After meeting last year in Las Vegas, where John was concluding his “Red Piano” extravaganza at Caesars Palace, the two singers made plans to record in early 2010. When Billy Joel canceled some of the dates on his tour with John last November, however, John and Russell decided to try a few days in the studio.
While discussing ideas in the control room, Burnett called up a YouTube video of Mahalia Jackson. John began playing a gospel-inspired riff, and Russell quickly joined in. “We knew that the two pianos sounded so wonderful, we had something here,” John said. That preliminary jam became a song titled “A Dream Come True.”
Other compositions crystallized just as rapidly. The melody for “I Should Have Sent Roses,” with lyrics by John’s longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin, came together so quickly that Burnett had to record a first pass on his iPhone. In four days they had written 10 songs.
They scheduled the actual recording sessions for January, but that month Russell, 68, was hospitalized; he underwent more than five hours of surgery for a brain fluid leak, as well as treatment for heart failure and pneumonia. A week later, though, he went straight into the studio. “Leon was in a somewhat delicate state,” Burnett said, “but the longer we went, the stronger he got. I was watching the music fuel him.”
Guests including Brian Wilson and Neil Young (who adds a haunting verse to “Gone to Shiloh”) joined the sessions. As the recording was winding down, Russell decided that he needed to make one final addition.
“I wanted to give Elton something,” he said. “But what do you give a guy who has six fully stocked houses? So I thought the only thing I could give him is a song.” He quickly wrote the stately “In the Hands of Angels,” an abstract retelling of the story of the album, which thanks John (“the guv’ner” in the lyrics), who “knew all the places I needed to go” and made him “feel the love down deep inside.”
John said: “When he played that, we just lost it. No one has ever written me a song before. He said, ‘I want to thank you for saving my life,’ and I just burst into tears.”
Making “The Union” provided an unforeseen benefit for John, a new sonic direction that he said would set a path for all of his future work. “This is the most honest record I can do at this time,” he said. “I want to make music like this for the rest of my life.”
Russell seems to be enjoying his return to the world of major labels and big-name collaborators. “Elton was excited the whole time, and it was exciting for me to watch him be excited,” he said. “He endeavored to make me feel like a king, which he did successfully.”
It’s not clear, however, that he would choose to remain in the limelight. After the tour with John, Russell will be back on his bus, playing clubs as the mood and the need arise. “My hobby,” he said, “is silence.”