Writing in the liner notes of his new CD collaboration with Leon Russell, his musical hero, Elton John details his U.S. debut in 1970 with Russell in the audience, how the two of them struck up a kinship, toured together and enjoyed initial parallels of fame as rock 'n' roll pianomen. "Anyway," John writes, "then I lost touch with Leon and our paths kind of went different ways."
That's an understatement. By the mid-'70s, all the world knew of John's crocodile rock. His body of work, it was announced last week, has earned him an entire Elton John channel on Sirius XM satellite radio.
Russell, meanwhile, served as maestro of Joe Cocker's notorious Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, had a big hit with "Tightrope," knocked everyone out with a fiery performance at the Concert for Bangladesh -- and then almost all of us lost touch with Leon. He took a hard right and recorded a straight-up country album ("Hank Wilson's Back," 1973), then turned left for some avant-garde self-exploration ("Stop All That Jazz," 1974). He never stopped recording or touring, but while John eulogized princesses, became the belle of Broadway and sold out in Vegas, Russell was rolling his broken-down bus into tiny bars in small cities.
After a personal revelation last year about how deeply Russell influenced his music, John sought him out after 40 years. They reconnected, made plans to record. It could have been just another hokey duets album for John, 63, but to his credit "The Union" (out Tuesday) reunites the two piano-pounders under his stated and restated intention of injecting Russell, 68, back into at least a tributary of the mainstream.
"There's no point doing this record if it doesn't bring his work to light," John recently told Billboard. "I want him to be comfortable financially. I want his life to improve a little."
Fortunately, the resulting record amounts to something significantly greater than a charity project. It's a marriage of true love and admiration, much like "Road to Escondido," Eric Clapton's 2006 reunion with J.J. Cale. (Cale and Russell are both icons in their native Oklahoma as pioneers of the easygoing "Tulsa sound," which influenced performers from Tom Petty to Garth Brooks.) While "The Union" sags slightly under the weight of each performer's latter-day penchants, it ultimately succeeds because of the youthful energy they rediscover with each other's aid.
For this union to take place, John had to step back a bit from the obese, overwrought records he's made of late, which he seems to have done with relief and glee. "I don't have to make pop records any more," he told Billboard, indicating that "The Union" marks a new, less commercial chapter in his career. Huzzah!
Meanwhile, Russell -- frail and sometimes in ill health, including brain surgery just as recording sessions began in January -- had to step up his game, return to something resembling form. Russell's concerts the last decade or more have been static, lifeless affairs. He'd sit nearly motionless before a tinny little electric piano, a snow-white Cousin Itt with sunglasses, and mash out a rushed string of once beautifully arranged gems.
But he turns it around for these recordings. John, in his liner notes, celebrates the moment Russell "suddenly got his confidence again and started to play the grand piano instead of the electric piano, and all this great piano playing came flooding back and we made this incredible record."
The kick-back from real piano keys as opposed to the plastic of an electric keyboard -- that simple physical resistance, that subtle artistic challenge has been what Russell's needed for years. He faces it here and comes alive again, opening the album with "If It Wasn't for Bad," as classic a Leon track as we thought we'd never get again. Over a touch of gospel and that moseying Tulsa pace, he seems to address his own criticisms in the song's central pun: "I know that you could be just like you should / If it wasn't for bad you'd be good."
Eight of these songs were penned by John and his writing partner of 43 years, Bernie Taupin. The first, "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes" voices John's own perspective on his hero: "Your songs have all the hooks / You're seven wonders rolled into one." From then on, the pair play piano and sing side by side, volleying like two tennis players trained by the same coach. Russell's feline yowl adds grit and growl to John's "Monkey Suit" (as "honky" as this cat's been in decades), while John's creamier voice leavens the slow regret of Russell's "I Should Have Sent Roses." For Russell, the proceedings often return to gospel, especially near the end of "The Union" as he shuffles through "Hearts Have Turned to Stone" with four churchy backup singers, then closes the album with the personal, organ-driven hymn "In the Hands of Angels."
"The Union" is filled out by a mutual admiration society of musicians who couldn't help but drop by the studio once they heard Russell was in town. Neil Young sings on the Civil War ballad "Gone to Shiloh." Brian Wilson sings and arranges some of "When Love Is Dying." Jim Keltner (another Tulsan!) plays drums throughout, and producer T Bone Burnett expertly guides and reins in the whole asylum choir.
Look for John and Russell on the road together this fall, starting with Tuesday's show at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Bonus: Cameron Crowe filmed the recording of "The Union"; he plans to screen a documentary in February at the Sundance Film Festival.