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Elton John and Leon Russell: A Union of Piano Heroes

There’s a long-standing axiom dating seemingly to the birth of the blues that a fundamental difference in the nature of guitarists and pianists can be traced to the nature of their instruments. Nomadic guitarists could pick up at any moment and move on to the next street corner or house party. Piano players, on the other hand, were anchored by instruments that weighed hundreds of pounds. You didn’t see Baldwins being pushed up and down Highway 61. As a rule, those who mastered the 88s tended to stick around awhile, developing roots and a higher level of musical sophistication.

Maybe that’s why rock ‘n’ roll has tended to produce guitar heroes rather than piano virtuosos. Rock lore centers on stage-roaming six-stringers, not their seated counterparts. But, of course, there have been a relative handful of keyboardists who’ve turned that old blues adage on its head.

Two of them team up on the The Union, an inspired pairing of Elton John and Leon Russell – a couple of the most influential pianists of their time. Elton, of course, has been one of the monumental artists of the last half-century. What more is there to say about the guy at this stage?

Leon, on the other hand, isn’t as celebrated now as he was in his heyday, but he’s Elton’s hero, which says a lot. An acquaintance of the Beatles, the Oklahoman played with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones before most people had heard the name Elton John. An in-demand session pro in the ‘60s, he raised his profile in the ‘70s as the bandleader on Joe Cocker’s storied Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, followed by a series of raucously grandiose records that have aged nicely. His compositions include the standards “This Masquerade,” “Superstar” and “Tight Rope.”

The twosome first crossed paths in 1970, when Russell came away from an Elton club performance awed by the upstart’s talent. Elton later opened for Leon in the days before “Rocket Man,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Candle in the Wind” made his a household name. I guess you could describe The Union as kind of a payback from a guy who’s never shed the spotlight to another who stepped away and found it difficult to regain momentum. But the T Bone Burnett–produced The Union doesn’t feel that way at all. There’s a balance throughout that doesn’t feel strained – a healthy mutual respect that energizes each man without getting bogged down in awkward “No, you go first” deference. They’re pianists, but they’re world-class showmen, too. Call ‘em rock ‘n’ roll’s first genuine piano heroes.

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