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“I copied Leon Russell, and that was it.”
——Elton John, 1971
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In the mid-’60s, when the teenaged piano player Reg Dwight was breaking into showbiz with his first band, Bluesology, Leon Russell, himself barely into his 20s, was building his rep behind the scenes as a top-flight L.A. session man. Among his myriad credits, Russell played numerous dates for Phil Spector as a key member of the Wrecking Crew, pounded the ivories on Jan & Dean’s “Surf City,” brought a professional presence to the historic session for the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and conducted the string section on his own arrangement for Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind.” The bearded one was also the ringleader of L.A.’s southern mafia, a talented, wild-living posse of working musicians that included Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, Dr. John and fellow Tulsa natives J.J. Cale, Jim Keltner and Chuck Blackwell, later infiltrated by honorary shitkickers George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. (I look back at this fascinating community in my notes for Rhino Handmade’s brand new four-disc box set of Delaney and Bonnie’s On Tour With Eric Clapton.)

One night in August 1970, Russell was among the curiousity seekers packed into the Troubadour on Santa Monica Blvd. to check out the much-hyped young Brit Elton John, as Reg Dwight now called himself. Just three months later, the two singer/pianists were onstage together at New York’s Fillmore East. It had been an eventful year for Russell, who’d pushed it to the max while leading the Joe Cocker-fronted, accurately named Mad Dogs & Englishmen big band and chorus. I say this with firsthand knowledge, having attempted to interview a wired, wisecracking Russell during the New York stop on the one-off supergroup’s now-legendary tour.

By the time he retreated from the front lines of rock & roll—and out of the public consciousness—later in the ’70s, Russell had deepened his imprint, penning a number of rock standards, including the Cocker-sung hit “Delta Lady” (celebrating his then-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge), his own “Tight Rope,” the Bonnie Bramlett co-write “Groupie (Superstar)” (a hit for the Carpenters, who cleverly dropped the “Groupie” part) and the exquisite love ballad “A Song for You.” Given John’s recently professed idolatry of Russell in the early days—“I copied Leon Russell, and that was it,” he admitted in 1971—it’s intriguing that Elton broke in America off the mirror-image “Your Song.” Russell’s influence is also readily apparent on rollicking uptempo songs like “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Amoreena” and “Honky Cat.”

All of the above makes The Union (Decca, Oct. 19), John’s heartfelt, T Bone Burnett-curated attempt to give Russell his due, a matter of payback as well as a tribute. “All I wanted for Leon,” John explained recently of his motive for teaming with Russell on The Union, “is to have, in his later life, the accolades that seem to have been missing for him in the last 35 years. I want his name written in stone. I want him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I want his name to be on everybody’s lips again, like it used to be. So we made this record.”

Not surprisingly, John and Bernie Taupin, with Russell frequently alongside them, chose to revisit the rustic terrain of Tumbleweed Connection, and their romantically imagined America locks in seamlessly with the 68-year-old Russell’s deep grounding in the real thing. A number of these freshly minted tunes, including the adrenalized “Hey Ahab” and “Monkey Suit,” would have fit comfortably onto any of John’s early LPs between 1970’s Elton John and 1973’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, or on Russell’s equally classic self-titled 1971 debut album, while the culminating “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” and “The Hand of Angels” reflect back on those days with a mix of “been there, done that” satisfaction and valedictory nostalgia. Russell sings with disarming poignancy and tenderness in his Hoagy Carmichael-like lazy drawl, his always-grainy voice now as rutted as a dirt road. And Neil Young practically steals the show during his brief appearance on the epic ballad “Gone to Shiloh.”…

My full review of The Union will appear in the November issue of the excellent U.K. magazine Uncut, out in mid-October. Send comments to [email protected], or post them on my Facebook page.

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