Leon Russell, Elton John and Appreciating the Giants

By Brian Ives

Elton John will never have to say, “I wish I reached out to him before it was too late,” when he thinks about Leon Russell.

The story of Elton and Leon’s collaboration has been told before, but it bears repeating: in the late 2000’s, Elton John wondered what had become of singer/songwriter/arranger/producer/multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell; Russell had been a huge influence on John in his early years.

Elton, of course, had been headlining stadiums and arenas for decades. But for Leon Russell — who had written classics like “Delta Lady,” “Superstar” and “A Song for You,” who had been the lynchpin in Joe Cocker’s legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen band, who had played on records by artists from the Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra — things hadn’t been going as well. As is the often the case with legacy artists, a few decades down the road, the big audiences and radio hits are in the rear view mirror and fading. He was touring “and making ends meet,” as Elton said in the documentary on the making of the album.

Elton John — a career solo artist, who had done one-off duets with other artists, but had never done a non-solo album — invited Russell to do a full project as a duo. The result was 2010’s highly acclaimed The Union, which went to #3 on the Billboard album charts (Russell’s highest charting album since 1972) and was lauded in the press (Rolling Stone said it was the third best album of the year). In 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, under the “Musical Excellence” category.

As Leon himself said at his induction into the Rock Hall, “Elton came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life. He took me up to the high stages with the big audiences, and treated me like a king. And the only thing I can say is, bless your heart.”

It may have been Russell’s karma catching up with him: decades earlier, when he founded Shelter Records, he signed blues legend Freddie King, releasing three of his albums and exposing him to a new audience; Russell also worked on the albums; during this era, King added at least one classic to his catalog: “Goin’ Down,” which was later covered by Jeff Beck.

Back then, to hear music that wasn’t on the radio, you generally had to buy it; an endorsement from a major artist like Russell made a big impact; it was the type of thing that could actually turn on new audiences to an artist who had been forgotten by the mainstream. These days, there’s a similar problem; almost all music is accessible at all times, so how do you know what to check out? Again, the endorsement of artists who have loyal fanbases is powerful.

Jack White is a great example of an artist who brings music’s past into its present: he (and his Third Man Records team) have won the GRAMMY for Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package for the past two years for The Rise & Fall Of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27) and The Rise & Fall Of Paramount Records, Volume Two (1928-32). But he’s also produced new music from living legends, including country singer Loretta Lynn and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, bringing younger audiences along with him.. There are other great examples of this over the past few years: Questlove producing Al Green, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys producing Dr. John.

Those artists weren’t “in a ditch by the side of the highway of life,” but it was great to see them getting more media attention and playing to newer audiences who were (hopefully) interested in their new music. That isn’t to say that the elder artists weren’t making great music on their own, but surely, working with a younger artist at the peak of their powers and popularity brings a new energy to a legendary artist. And in a year where we’ve lost so many legends, the last few years of Leon Russell’s career is a good reminder to appreciate giants while they still walk the earth.

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