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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now let's hear a tale of two musicians whose paths seem fated to cross: Elton John and Leon Russell. Both grew up at the piano, Elton John in England, Leon Russell in Oklahoma. Both played piano in bars, or pubs in Elton John's case, while still in their teens. Both started as session artists, piano players for hire. But there is one difference. When we sat down together at a rehearsal studio in Burbank, California, Elton John insisted this of Leon Russell.

Mr. ELTON JOHN (musician): He is a better piano player than I am. As far as, you know, gospel and stuff like that, that's why I wanted to make this record. He is my idol.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

MONTAGNE: This is from their new album called "The Union." It's a collaboration Elton John dreamt up to pay tribute to Leon Russell, an artist he feared might be forgotten.

(Soundbite of music, "A Song For You")

Mr. LEON RUSSELL (Musician): (Singing) I've been so many places in my life and time. I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes.

MONTAGNE: There was a time when Leon Russell was a sensation. We're hearing him in 1971, at his piano with his long hair and beard, and mirrored sunglasses, singing one of his classics, "A Song For You."

(Soundbite of music, "A Song For You")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) ...we were alone and I was singing this song for you.

MONTAGNE: Leon Russell wrote songs recorded by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Rita Coolidge, Sonic Youth; and as a session player he was much in demand.

There's something you said a long time ago, about playing with everyone, Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra - though you said something of Frank Sinatra, that he was one guy that, different from everybody else, because he had armed guards at the door.

Mr. RUSSELL: At every door, too at every door. I wondered if they were expecting a terrorist attack.

Mr. JOHN: I've got two outside, actually. I've got two here now.

MONTAGNE: Armed guards?

Mr. JOHN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Oh wow. But I think Frank Sinatra, he did.

Mr. RUSSELL: They had gun belts and they had sticks and all that stuff.

Mr. JOHN: That would have frightened the hell out of me.

MONTAGNE: As they tell the tale at this rehearsal studio, 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 Elton John gave his first ever concerts in the U.S., then just 23 years old with a soulful voice and piano skills to match. Those performances were like being shot out of a cannon.

(Soundbite of music, "Burn Down the Mission")

Mr. JOHN: (Singing) Burn down the mission, lord, if we're going to stay alive. Watch the black smoke fly to heaven, see the red flame light the sky.

MONTAGNE: Singing songs like this one, "Burn Down the Mission," Elton John was launched.

Mr. JOHN: I came over to play the Troubadour club in August 1970. I wasn't sure whether it was the right time to come to America to play. But my record company insisted. And it was the right decision to have made, like hell was it the right decision. I came on stage with top hats and, you know, flying boots and wings on them and doing, you know, handstands on the piano and I there's pictures of me flying horizontally in the air.

And then I'm halfway through "Burn Down the Mission" and Im playing the piano solo, and I glanced right, and I see Leon, with the silver hair and the Ray-Ban glasses. And I temporarily you would never know it, but I froze, I kind of semi-panicked because this was the man who I really did idolize, I mean...

And I met him afterwards and he actually gave me a recipe, because I had a my throat was beginning to cease up, I think more of excitement than anything else. But he gave me a recipe of one spoonful of cider vinegar, one spoonful of honey in the hottest water you can gargle with. Gargle with it for like a minute, and you'd be surprised what comes out of your throat. And I still to this day have that in my dressing room. Do you remember that?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, I do.

Mr. JOHN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: What did you think? This would have been the first time you would seen Elton John, right?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, we were trying to get him for Shelter Records. There wasn't a lot of white soul singers around at that time there wasn't any that I can think of, really. And, I don't know, I thought he was exciting. I mean what can I say.

Mr. JOHN: Listen, I was a kid in a candy store. I'm in America. I'm introduced by Neil Diamond, I'm seeing Leon Russell, I'm getting telegrams from George Harrison. I'm in a I am just delirious with happiness.

MONTAGNE: Soon after that night, Elton John went on the road as the opening act for Leon Russell. They didn't meet again until Elton John hatched the idea of this collaboration, and they kicked it off listening to an old gospel song by Mahalia Jackson.

(Soundbite of music, "Didn't It Rain")

Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON (Gospel singer): (Singing) It rained 40 days, 40 nights without stopping. Noah was glad when the rain stopped dropping. Knock at the window, knock at door crying Brother Noah can't you take no more.

Mr. JOHN: I think we were both so shy up to that point. And we were shooting the breeze, we were talking about music, but there has to come a point where you have to get off your backside and go in the studio and actually do something. And that Mahalia Jackson track inspired me to go out. He came out and we had a song.

MONTAGNE: And the song was?

Mr. JOHN: Yeah, and the song was "A Dream Come True."

(Soundbite of music, "A Dream Come True")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) Now I feel the beat of the dancing drums, and now I know we're going to have some fun. Now the time stands still and the blues are through, and now I know what I'm going to do. Oh yeah.

MONTAGNE: Singing together this time, after all these years, what was the difference?

Mr. JOHN: I think we're older and wiser. If we're not wiser now, then we damn well should be. And I just think it's kismet, it's fate. It's just one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me, personally, and definitely musically.

Mr. RUSSELL: Bless your heart.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: We are going to end the piece with the last song on the CD, which is Leon Russell written, Leon Russell sung. Tell me about this song.

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, I wanted to give him something for doing this for me. I mean I thought this was a pretty magnificent gift that he was giving me. What do you give a guy that's got six fully staffed houses and ten of everything else in the world? And I thought I could give him a song.

Mr. JOHN: Seven fully staffed houses.

Mr. RUSSELL: Sorry, sorry. But I was telling my wife, I said, you know, I could give him a song and it could go like this and that's the one that's on the record. And he liked it. I was very thankful for that.

(Soundbite of music, "The Hands of an Angel")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) Well I could have been sick, I could have died. I could have given up and not tried to make it to tomorrow like a broken hearted lover.

MONTAGNE: That's Leon Russell singing his song "In the Hands of Angels." We sat down with Leon Russell and Elton John at a rehearsal studio in Burbank. They're on tour now for their new album, "The Union," a collaboration after nearly four decades apart.

This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music, "The Hands of an Angel")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) I was in the hands of angel. Johnnie and the governor...

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