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 without end is “The Union,” a duet album with the 68-year-old Russell, produced by T Bone Burnett, to be released Oct. 19 by Decca.
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.
The album is a natural blend of John’s and Russell’s styles, which weren’t so dissimilar to start with. Each of them helped reinvigorate and redefine the place of piano in the rock and pop of the guitar-dominated early ’70s.
Russell, from Tulsa, Okla., was a teenager when he moved to Los Angeles and became a studio musician, a brick in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and frequent participant in early Beach Boys sessions. He was a slim, lanky Mr. Everything with shoulder-length silver hair and onstage, at times, a top hat. His breakout was as a piano player on Delaney & Bonnie’s “Accept No Substitute,” the 1969 album that helped create the Southern rock explosion of the ’70s.
“It seemed the core of that time for me,” Burnett says. (When Delaney & Bonnie went on tour with Blind Faith, Eric Clapton so preferred their music to his own that he quit Blind Faith and signed on for 1970’s “Delaney & Bonnie and Friends On Tour With Eric Clapton.”)
John became a star almost instantaneously in 1970, thanks to the rarest of combinations: relentless hype by his American label, Universal/MCA, and talent that could match (and at times surpass) the expectations raised by the hardball promotion.
In one of rock’s great upstart-meets-idol moments, Russell was one of many members of Los Angeles’ rock royalty who thronged the 300-seat Troubadour for John’s career-rocketing U.S. debut in August 1970.
“We had tried to get Elton for Shelter Records, but we missed him by a couple of weeks,” Russell says. They did some shows together, John opening for Russell, at New York’s Fillmore East in 1971. “I went out to watch one of them and said, ‘My career’s over. This guy is so much better than me,’ ” Russell recalls.
Russell’s career wasn’t over. But the music culture that had universally embraced both John and Russell was becoming sliced and diced by tightly formatted radio stations. Indulging his musical curiosity, Russell released a pure honky-tonk country album introducing an alter ego on “Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. I” in 1973: a fine record that may have diluted what would now be called his “brand” and sowed more confusion the following year when he released the self-explanatory “Stop All That Jazz.”
In fact, it’s a reasonable question to ask Decca GM Paul Foley: How will his label-Universal’s adult and classical imprint-sell this classy collaboration by two artists whose sales heyday was decades ago?
“What we do is adult music,” Foley says, “whether it’s a PBS show, Broadway cast album or Sting’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night’ [on Universal’s Deutsche Grammophon]. We’re experienced marketing to people without a hit single or MTV.”
Media coverage will focus on mainstream outlets including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, “CBS Sunday Morning” and “The View.”
Decca has already had events with key retailers in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Austin and Amarillo, Texas, Foley says, with listening sessions and viewings of an electronic press kit excerpted from footage by Cameron Crowe. The former Rolling Stone wunderkind turned film director (“Almost Famous,” “Jerry Maguire”) had his cameras rolling through the recording sessions for “The Union” and plans to screen his documentary about the event in February 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival.
Foley says the album will be in Best Buy and Target circulars during street week and will be sold at Starbucks, but there aren’t any retail exclusives. But there will be a deluxe edition with two bonus tracks and a longer DVD version of Crowe’s press kit.
At retail, Russell can count on the enthusiasm and good will of record store owners like Terry Currier of Music Millennium in Portland, Ore. Currier regards the first rock concert he ever saw-a Russell show in 1973 at Portland Memorial Coliseum-as a life-changing event. Currier was a high school senior. When a guidance counselor asked where his college applications were, Currier told him, “I’m 17 years old, an assistant manager of a record store making $2.25 an hour . . . It doesn’t get any better than this.”
With Russell and John such longtime personal favorites, Currier will pull out the stops for the album in the alt-rock magnet of Portland. “We will be putting up displays, giving it good in-store play, telling our customers through our e-mail newsletter and Facebook and just talking it up to those who shop our store.”
There will also be a John/Russell tour beginning Oct. 19 at New York’s Beacon Theatre. After a stop in London to play the Roundhouse on Oct. 28, Russell and John will hit select American cities again from Nov. 3 (Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles) through Nov. 21 at the Lakeland (Fla.) Center.
But John says he isn’t through with Russell, not by a long shot: They expect to do more North American dates in 2011 and plan to do more recording as well.
“I want to make a record of 1950s songs, recording live with an orchestra, having Leon play piano and me just sing,” John says. “I should have gotten in touch with him, maybe years before, but I’m a great believer that everything happens at the time it’s supposed to. This is just such a joyous thing. I want to see his smile when he sees his name on the charts again.”