Leon Russell (left) and Elton John.
Leon Russell (left) and Elton John. Larry Busacca
Elton John and Leon Russell's paths seemed fated to cross: Both grew up at the piano, learning to play as little boys. Both played piano in bars while in their teens, and both started their careers as piano players for hire. But, according to John, there's one important difference.
"He is a better piano player than I am," John says. "As far as gospel and stuff like that, that's why I wanted to make this album. He is my idol."
The album John mentions is called The Union. It's a collaboration John thought up to pay tribute to Russell, an artist he'd feared might be forgotten.
There was a time when Leon Russell was a sensation. Russell wrote songs recorded by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Rita Coolidge and Sonic Youth, to name a few. As a session player, he was much in demand. As Russell tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, some of the artists he worked with let only a select few through their doors — especially Frank Sinatra, who kept armed guards at the ready.
"At every door, too — at every door," he says. "I wondered if they're expecting a terrorist attack I didn't know."
Elton John and Leon Russell's history stretches back four decades, to the night they first met at a legendary club in West Hollywood: the Troubadour. That's where John gave his first-ever concert in the U.S. For an upstart 23-year-old with a soulful voice and piano skills, those performances were like being shot out of a cannon.
"I came over to play the Troubadour club in August 1970," John says. "That was 40 years ago. I wasn't sure if it was the right time to come to America to play. But my record company insisted. ... Neil Diamond on the first night at the Troubadour introduced me, which I could not believe, because he wanted to introduce me.
"The second night I was confident, because the first night was out of my way, and then halfway through 'Burn Down the Mission,' I'm playing the piano solo, and I glanced right — the Troubadour isn't very big, 250 people," John says. "And I see Leon, with the silver hair and the Ray-Ban glasses. I temporarily froze, I kind of semi-panicked because this was the man I really idolized. And I saw him afterward and he gave me a recipe — cider vinegar, et cetera — and I still to this day have that in my dressing room."
Older And Wiser
Soon after that night, John went on the road as the opening act for Russell, but their careers took them on different paths. They wouldn't meet again until John hatched the idea of a collaboration, at which point he reached out to another big name in music: producer T-Bone Burnett.
John says singing with Russell now is different from when they sang together years ago.
"We're older and wiser," John says. "If we're not wiser now, we damn well should be; both of us are in the last third of our lives. How many times do you get the chance to make a record with your idol? And someone who is your peer? And I just think it's kismet, it's fate, and I think the difference is now we can appreciate it much more than probably we would have done when we were younger, because we were moving at such high speed in those days. That's all I can say. It's just one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me personally, and definitely musically."
It's a gift that both artists seem to cherish. Russell wrote and sang the last song on the album, "The Hands of Angels," and dedicated it to Elton John.
"I wanted to give him something, for doing this for me," Russell says. "I've thought this was a pretty magnificent gift he was giving me. What do you give to a guy who's got six fully staffed houses and 10 of everything else in the world? I thought I could give him a song. And he liked it. I was very thankful for that."