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First listen: Elton John, Leon Russell and T Bone Burnett unveil 'The Union' in Santa Monica

July 22, 2010 |  3:19 pm

ELTON_6_ 
Elton John has always been passionate about his musical taste, always ready to throw his support behind new acts that capture his imagination, whether it’s the Scissor Sisters or Lady Gaga.

But in recent years he’s also been on a special mission to turn the spotlight on veteran artists who never got the attention he and other pop stars received, a key reason he dreamed up the Sundance Channel music interview and performance series “Spectacle,” and persuaded his friend Elvis Costello to take on the job as host.

That mission is front and center with “The Union,” his forthcoming duet album with fellow piano-pounding rocker Leon Russell, to whom John doffed his cap during the first episode of “Spectacle.”

John, Russell and the album’s producer, T Bone Burnett, invited a few friends, family members and journalists for a preview of the project in a playback session earlier this week at the West Los Angeles studio where they recorded it.

John didn’t waste a moment telling the audience of about two dozen people how much this one means to him. He prefaced the music with a touching story of how much he’d idolized Russell, the Oklahoma-born pianist, singer, songwriter and producer who had toiled for years as a highly regarded session player before coming into his own as a performer and bandleader in the late-’60s and early-'70s. That’s when Russell fronted Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen touring band and then the all-star conglomeration that George Harrison assembled for the Concert for Bangladesh.

“All I wanted for Leon,” John said, “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.”

At the playback, John took the lead, sitting in front of the 96-channel mixing board, energetically pounding air piano and drums along with the various tracks -- songs with touches of country, blues and gospel woven into some of the most mainstream-sounding rock that Burnett has shepherded.

Russell, who had undergone a 5½-hour brain surgery operation to relieve a chronic condition shortly before the recording sessions began, sat at the back of the control booth, his flowing white hair and beard cascading over a recliner chair he relaxed in while occasionally fingering left-hand piano runs. Burnett also attended, along with Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, KCRW music director Jason Bentley, keyboardist-composer James Newton Howard and some of the musicians who played on the album, including drummers Jim Keltner (who played in Russell’s band in the ’70s) and Burnett regular Jay Bellerose.

The album is slated for release Oct. 19, and features songs written by John, his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, Russell and Burnett. John also noted that the sessions were filmed by Cameron Crowe, but John’s spokeswoman said a decision hasn’t been made as to how that footage might be used.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Elton John and Leon Russell. Credit: Joseph Guay/Rogers & Cowan PR


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