Elton John & Leon Russell: The Union

Posted November 7, 2010 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

Unusual pairing of Leon Russell and Elton John grants interesting experience with sweet contrast of old American musical styles

To some, the pairing of Elton John and Leon Russell seems a bit odd and unconventional. But John, who easily cited Russell as “his idol” throughout his career, decided to unite with the singer-songwriter and versatile musician on The Union. On the surface, Russell’s Santa Claus resemblance is enough to challenge John’s Englishman look, but when you take away all the exteriors and only compare the brilliance of both men’s work, you will notice more similarities in terms of work history than opaque differences. Plus both men are light years away from their hey-day, when John donned glittery super-sized shades and outrageously flamboyant costumes and Russell played with the heaviest of rock and R&B stars like Joe Cocker, B.B. King, George Harrison and Eric Clapton. Russell’s last set of albums, sounding like bitter MIDI-sequenced offerings, never matched the brilliance and majesty of his work from the early to mid-‘70’s. So while some may try to question the conventions of such a odd-pairing union, both men are exercising their blooming wisdom with their respects for each of their styles and work history while carefully leaving all egos at the door.

The labor of love also stands as a show-and-tell for John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin and producer T Bone Burrett, whom leave their fingerprints heavily in the sand. The album also soars with its supporting staff including legendary Hammond B-3 man Booker T. Jones and the background support from Chicago singers Jason Scheff & Lou Pardini, gospel vet Tata Vega and Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Neil Young even makes a short stop on the Civil War-inspired “Gone To Shiloh.” The Union also feels like it picks up where John’s The Captain & the Kid, an ode to 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, left off.. At times, John’s singing could resemble Russell’s, but his English soul won’t allow it. Russell’s Oklahoma twangy drawl, with a Willie Nelson temperament and with a hint of weariness, settles well on some of these performances. With Burrett’s production, Russell comes out sounding as if he’s being primed for a revival album.

Leon Russell pens the opening track, the album’s first single, “If It Wasn’t For Bad.” It’s nothing entirely dissimilar from Bernie Tauplin’s kind of playful prose, but it conjoins bitter break-up lyrics with impudent jabs while using an antithesis of “A Song For You.” (“If it wasn’t for you I’d be happy/If it wasn’t for lies you’d be true/I know that you could be just like you should/If it wasn’t for bad you’d be good”). But all isn’t whimsical and predaceous here. The songs, at best, are reflective pieces; refreshingly warm lyrically and are spirited showcases of two grown men working deep in their muse. “Hey Ahab” marches like an Andrae’ Crouch gospel selection, tweaked with a Cissy Houston-sounding female singer showing off with her Sunday morning vibrato. “There’s No Tomorrow” treads on those same emotions, but bubbles up with a pedal steel guitar solo from Robert Randolph and with a heavier blues gusto. “A Dream Come True” plays like a juke-joint entry where Russell and John takes turns working on the hoedown-seasoned verses. Possibly the brightest of the brighter entries, John visits familiar territory on the midtempo gem “Monkey Suit” where he uses Jerry Lee Lewis piano to create a rock ‘n roll spectacle akin the work of his ‘70’s workouts.

Some of the offerings get comfy in traditional country rhythms, like “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,” which places John feels as if he’s performing in a small Nashville bar. But The Union is a wisely executed collection that mends all of their musical influences into one digestible mix.

Towards the back of the album after the mood has reached its creative peak by the tenth track , the album delivers a set of encores (“Hearts Should Have Turned to Stone,” “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)”) that gives listeners a little more to fumble with.

Certainly John’s decision to sew together a duet album with Russell brings a cloud of suspicion filled with interior motives. Perhaps it’s to secure Russell his place with the pantheon of rock gods or to get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…or to get him into better venues. The Union, with its unique swagger of country blues, hillbilly soul and gospel, will certainly allow those aspirations to take flight.





  • Release Date: 19 October 2010
  • Label: Decca Records
  • Producers: T Bone Burrett
  • Track Favs: I Should Have Sent Roses, Monkey Suit, Hey Ahab, If It Wasn’t For Bad, There’s No Tomorrow

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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