“Your Song” meets “A Song For You.” Sir Elton John (left) and Leon Russell take in a playback of a track from “The Union” at Los Angeles’ Village Recorders. (Photo:Courtesy Decca Records)
Old guys rule. It’s true. Just ask Elton John and Leon Russell. John, 63, and Russell, 68, recently landed their landmark duet album, “The Union,” in the Billboard Hot 100 Albums chart at #5. Not bad for two senior-citizen piano players who find themselves lumped in with contemporary hitmakers such as Lady Gaga, Train and Taylor Swift.
Russell first met John in 1970 when he attended the young Englishman’s first ever U.S. show at the famous Troubadour in Los Angeles in August 1970. The meeting was the beginning of a long friendship and a mutual admiration between the two artists. “In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the one piano player and vocalist who influenced me more than anybody else was Leon Russell,” John said in the album’s liner notes. “He was my idol.”
Russell’s career bio is both lengthy and diverse. He had many of his own hits, including “Tight Rope,” “Delta Lady” and “This Masquerade,” which also generated hit cover versions for The Carpenters and George Benson. He also helped make a smash hit out of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” produced tracks for Bob Dylan, stole the show at Madison Square Garden during George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, played bass on the Byrds’ hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and wrote the string arrangements for the Phil Spector-produced Ike & Tina Turner classic “River Deep, Mountain High.”
The pair went on to tour together shortly after that first meeting in 1970, but the passage of time was far kinder to John, who has dominated the record charts, and sold out arenas and stadiums for the better part of the last 40 years.
Meanwhile, Russell’s star began to fade about the time John’s began to catch fire. John, however, never forgot the man whom he cites as the biggest influence on his writing, singing and performing. Russell apparently never forgot his time with John as well.
After 30 years of being out of touch, John heard Russell’s music while on safari in Africa last summer and decided it was time to reconnect with Russell. “Elton called to ask if I would do a duet album with him,” Russell said. He needed no arm-twisting, and agreed to meet in L.A. with John and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin.
The 16 songs, which tap into a myriad of genres including R&B, soul, gospel, country, pop and roots rock were written in a matter of days. John and Russell, on dueling pianos, decided to record “The Union” live, employing a horn section, gospel choir and enlisting some help from a few of their friends, including Brian Wilson, Booker T, Don Was and Neil Young.
To helm the sessions, the two brought in Oscar-winning producer T-Bone Burnett, whose extensive credits include albums by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Counting Crows, and soundtracks such as “Crazy Heart” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?”
Burnett’s talent for organic sounding records is perfectly suited to the honky-tonk tinged, gospel-laced tunes. The songs are wonders … rockers “If It Wasn’t For Bad,” “My Kind Of Hell” (on the expanded edition) and “800 Dollar Shoes” mesh beautifully against warm, touching ballads such as “The Best Part Of The Day” and “In The Hands of Angels,” which Russell wrote as a tribute to John and Taupin, whose lyrics on songs such as “I Should Have Sent Roses” rank among his best ever.
Both sound almost young again, especially John who channels his 1970s youth and continues a back-to-basics trend begun earlier in the decade. The Civil War tale (and Band homage) “Gone to Shiloh” sounds like it came off of 1970’s “Tumbleweed Connection” and the rolicking “Monkey Suit” would fit right into 1972’s “Honky Château.”
This is by no means a comeback album, and if a hit single happens, it will be totally by accident. It’s simply an opportunity for great musicians to have fun writing songs, trade piano licks and lead vocals, and finally do what they should have done decades earlier. For John, it’s also a little bit personal, giving his idol a venue to rekindle his creativity and take his rightful place in the public eye that eluded him all those years ago.
Their glory days are behind them and both men, now into their sunset years, are long past trying to place hit records in the Top 40. That is a game for the young. What “The Union” goes a long way to show, however, is that Elton and Leon still have the chops and the fire. As long as they do, let them push the kids to one side and let the “old guys rule.”
John and Russell are again touring together, and are scheduled to appear as the musical guests on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in November.