Los Angeles: Talk to Elton John and it`s likely that, sooner rather than later, he will tell you that Leon Russell is his idol. Which isn`t an unexpected statement to make, considering that the next entry in John`s discography is `The Union`, a duet album with the 68-year-old Russell.
But John doesn`t have to swear on the family Bible that he`s not just blowing celebrity smoke. "Leon Russell is my idol" is like a mantra John recited unprompted during interviews throughout his career. In 1970 and 1971, from Rolling Stone to Melody Maker to Georgia Straight, a weekly in Vancouver, British Columbia, it was always "my idol."
From the late 1960s through 1972, piano player, songwriter, singer, performer, producer and bandleader Russell seemed to be everywhere: playing sessions with Delaney & Bonnie; writing classics like "A Song for You" and "Superstar"; putting together the large band, arrangements and songs for Joe Cocker`s famed Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. And on his own Shelter Records (formed with former partner Denny Cordell), Russell had a productive career as a solo artist, with hit singles ("Tight Rope") and albums ("Carney"), a deserving legend in his own time.
And then that time passed. Russell never stopped working, though in relative obscurity. And so John sees "The Union" -- produced by T Bone Burnett and scheduled for release October 19 by Decca -- as the first step in a long-term project with a purpose: to restore Russell to what he and many others believe is his rightful place in the rock pantheon, secure him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- and get him more comfortable travel accommodations.
"I want to make sure he has a great career ahead of him," John, 63, says in a phone interview from Europe. "I don`t want him driving around the country doing five shows a week in his bus any more. I just want him to be comfortable, have a new publishing deal, get him back into public consciousness and keep him there."
On the road
Russell certainly appreciates the efforts John has been making. "Between (him) and his manager, Johnny Barbis, they treat me like a king," Russell says in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. He jokes that at 68 he`s "too old to be on the road," then qualifies that.
"I`m happy to have a job," says Russell, whose touring schedule in September listed such gigs as Tavern on the Main in Wise, Virginia; Voodoo Lounge in St. Louis; and Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Missouri. That`s quite a contrast from New York`s Madison Square Garden in 1971, where he was a pivotal player and performer in George Harrison`s 1971 "Concert for Bangladesh," rock`s first all-star benefit extravaganza. Russell`s spotlight revival-style version of the Rolling Stones` "Jumpin` Jack Flash" just about stole the show from Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and all the others who were the piano player`s peers.
The road now is far less glamorous. "It would be better if we had a slightly better bus, but it`s what we do," Russell says. Yet he sounds like a man who`s comfortable in his own skin wherever he is. "I`m always home," he says. "It`s just that every day when I wake up I`m in a different location. I appreciate Elton trying to raise my (travel) class, though."
John`s dedication to improving the autumn years of his longtime idol is the result of an epiphany in January 2009 in South Africa, at a wildlife and game preserve where for the past seven or so years the singer-songwriter and his partner, David Furnish, and friends have started each new year on safari. "No, I do not shoot the animals, 100 percent no," John says, appalled at the thought. "That`s so barbaric ... I would kill someone who shot animals."
Furnish played a Russell recording and John began to weep, as the music transported him back to the outset of his career. "It was the most artistic and creative time you could ever imagine," John says. And he deemed it an injustice that Russell, who galvanized so much of the creativity of the late `60s and early `70s, was no longer getting the attention he deserved.
After calling Russell, John phoned Burnett. He`d never before spoken with him, but John knew Burnett was the person to produce the album.
"It`s hard to do a duets record that doesn`t sound forced," John says. "I wanted it to be like Robert Plant and Alison Krauss` `Raising Sand,`" which Burnett produced.
Burnett also won an Academy Award in March for his work as composer and producer of the music in the movie "Crazy Heart." The film featured Jeff Bridges as an aging country star who gets back on his feet with the help of a protege turned superstar.
"Leon`s career in recent years has been like `Crazy Heart` without the drugs and booze," John says. "Not bitter, not the slightest bit bitter, but maybe he lost his confidence."