“The top hat on my head is all you see
And the wire seems to be
The only place for me
A comedy of errors
And I’m falling.” — Leon Russell from “Tightrope”
While on safari in South Africa in January of 2009, Elton John heard Leon Russell’s Retrospective and realized, “It’s not fair that people have forgotten about how wonderful this man’s music was and that makes me angry.” After the trip and a few phone calls to Grammy winning producer T. Bone Burnett, John called up Leon Russell and asked, “Would you like to do a record?” And thus the way was paved for a legendary singer/songwriter/ performer who had been lost in the consciousness of American music to return to the spotlight.
Some remember Leon Russell only for his 1972 hit, “Tightrope”. His legacy goes much deeper. The “B” side of “Tightrope” was a crossover hit by George Benson — “This Masquerade”. It’s the first (and maybe only) song to hold the number one spot on three charts simultaneously; pop, jazz, and R & B. The Lawton, OK, native has made a name for himself not only as a singer/songwriter, but a much sought after session man. He has worked with a diverse and impressive list of music icons including the Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others.
So Elton, Leon, and T. Bone got together with Bernie Taupin and James T. Shaw and wrote the fourteen songs on The Union. The songs have a variety of authors from one such as “If It Wasn’t For Bad You’d Be Good” by Leon Russell to “There’s No Tomorrow” written by a collection of four (John, Russell, Shaw, and Burnett).
When you’re recording a project like this one with someone like Leon Russell (who has a long list of collaborations from Joe Cocker to the Beach Boys and the Concert for Bangladesh) it’s no surprise to gain the support of other big names. Joining the group in the studio on organ was Booker T. Jones (of the MG’s), Robert Randolph on guitar, and additional vocals from Neil Young and Brian Wilson. Russell’s repertoire has been described as “gospel-infused boogie piano rock, blues and country music” and sure enough, we hear a ten piece gospel choir on The Union.
My favorite track is the opening number, one of two written by Russell alone, a number that exemplifies his niche in “boogie piano rock” and lyrics that can easily be attributed to him. It also includes a brief homage to his protégé with a few bars of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” at the 2:30 minute mark.
“Gone to Shiloh” is an emotion packed ballad featuring guest Neil Young. It would be great to experience this number in concert. “A Dream Come True” is an up-tempo good-time song written and performed by John and Russell. It’s easy to see them dueling at the keyboards, smiling, and having a foot-stomping time playing together; mentor and protégé, two legends forging new memories. (Watch for a documentary by Cameron Crowe of the recording sessions.)
With The Union (available now), Elton John has succeeded in reviving widespread interest in his idol and putting him back up on the tight wire…
“flanked by life and the funeral pyre
Putting on a show for you to see.”