The Union of Elton John and Leon Russell Goes Public 10/19

Elton John and Leon Russell

The Union is the new album by Elton John and Leon Russell, a collaboration inspired during a conversation Elton had with Elvis Costello on the tv program Spectacle where he detailed the profound influence the Oklahoman had on his music in the early 70s. Today, the pair are also announcing two concert dates, starting October 19 at the Beacon Theater in New York.  The album comes out on October 25, and then there is another show at the Hollywood Palladium on November 3.   They’re probably the smallest venues Elton John has played in a long time, and I think the album and shows will start a new career renaissance, or as the man once said, “another burst” (after “Tiny Dancer” appeared in Almost Famous).

The album features 14 songs, and was produced by the red-hot T-Bone Burnett in collaboration with its principals.  While this is the first recording they have made together, the relationship goes back to the early 70s, when they met during Elton John’s legendary Troubadour stint.  Neil Young and Brian Wilson contribute background vocals, and musicians on the album include Booker T. Jones and Robert Randolph. Having heard the album, I can tell you it lives up to its heavy billing. Hear the first single after the jump!

Sir Elton John is one of the greatest artists I have been honored to be in the orbit of, and the same applies to the great Leon Russell. Each is one of the closest friends and collaborators of two of my mentors, John Barbis and Willie Nelson. Of course, Leon Russell and Willie Nelson’s talents are well-known, but Mr. Barbis, one of the most influential people in the music business, is a behind the scenes guy. I’ve never worked for a more supportive, cool, reliable person, with a leader’s economy of communication, taste in music, a great sense of humor, etc.

Johnny and I had a common friend in the legendary radio pd Thom O’Hair. He knew him from when O’Hair was helping to create fm rock radio in the sixties and seventies at KSAN, San Francisco, and I met him numerous times at various college radio conferences. As Mr. Barbis held a similar position in Bay Area music history, it seemed natural that they had been friends. After I brought this up to him, he was introducing me to people and saying “he knows O’Hair,” as if the man was a mentor in his eyes too.

To use his words, “he gets it.” He understands music, the business, the personalities and how things get done. The occupation of “record guy” has taken a beating in the past ten years, but the rare mix of skills and experience that enable artists and executives to navigate a confusing and ultra-competitive landscape are what define the profession.  Artists and managers can be shy about expressing their feelings for us sometimes, but I was blown away to hear The Hands of Angels, the song that concludes this exceptional album. In it, Leon Russell pays tribute to Johnny Barbis and Elton John.

“Johnny and the Governor
came and brought me to my senses
the made me feel like a King
made me lose all my bad defenses
and they knew all the places
I needed to go
All of the people
I needed to know
They knew who I needed
And who needed me
And who would come to help me
And who would just let me be”

I thought about other tributes over the years… ok Tommy Mottola lives on the run in “Cherchez LaFemme” (sic). Aretha’s song about Ahmet, probably a few others. “Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” by the Stones, David Geffen in Joni Mitchell and Sonic Youth’s songs. Maybe there are a lot of them (write in folks).

But I would put The Hands of Angels by Leon Russell from the Union album on par with Cezanne’s painting of his art dealer. Leon Russell’s life in music has been a series of historic, amazing songs and performances – this is a serious and vulnerable statement by the heaviest of artists. What hasn’t he done?

The Union, which includes various songwriting combinations between Elton and Leon, and the equally immortal Bernie Taupin, is a great album that only seems to just scratch the surface of what these two can do together. I’m pleased to include the first single “If It Wasn’t for Bad” here for your listening pleasure.

Elton John and Leon Russell “If it Wasn’t for Bad”

To buy tickets for the Beacon Theater show on October 19 or the Hollywood Palladium on November 3, click here.

Updated – forget about the tickets, they sold out in about two minutes!

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