Elton John's mission is accomplished. A year ago he set out to raise Leon Russell's profile, and in the last nine months they have released "The Union," toured together and performed with the Speaking Clock Revue project of the album's producer, T Bone Burnett. In March, Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. EMI released a "Best of" album this month, John and Russell appeared on "Saturday Night Live" and on April 20, Cameron Crowe's documentary on the making of "The Union" premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Russell is returning to his pre-"Union" world of constant touring April 21, heading Down Under and returning to the U.S. for a three-week tour of the West that starts April 29 in Santa Barbara, Calif. He will definitely be enjoying the spoils of songs on "The Union."
"I sold (the publishing) to buy a new tour bus," Russell tells Billboard.com. "I had to have it. The old one was pretty ragged."
Russell, 69, has been a road warrior for decades, and the return to smaller venues hardly phases him. While never conscious of the mix between covers and originals in his shows, he says he it's always about 30 percent comprised of songs he didn't write. In the early 1970s, his versions of Lieber & Stoller's "Youngblood," the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" were FM staples, while AM was playing other singers' hit versions of tunes he had written: "A Song for You," "Superstar" and "This Masquerade," to name three of the most popular.
"Some of the rock 'n' roll stuff, I started trying to do again and I didn't realize how much more energy I needed," Russell says. "I don't have the girl singers either. It just me and the guys in the band."
The Australia trip precludes Russell attending the Tribeca Film Festival, but he says he is fond of the way "The Union" documentary turned out. "It's nice to have a record of those events. It's an important moment in my life," he says.
While "The Union" will join "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "The Concert for Bangladesh" as filmed examples of Russell's greatness, a film of him the early 1970s will probably never see the light of day.
The documentarian Les Blank spent more than a year filming Russell in his studio when he and Denny Cordell were running Shelter Records out of Los Angeles and Tulsa in Russell's native Oklahoma. Blank's film "A Poem Is a Naked Person," which Russell financed, was never released commercially.
"I paid for it and I own it but I didn't care for it," Russell says. "I'm not sure what the purpose was - it's not my idea of a documentary. It's not supposed to be released, but one never knows."