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23 Oct 2010

The Master Class Series About "The Union"

Poker Of Expertises!!!!

Hi Eltonites, this is a very special weekend for me. Yes, I know, I don’t use to tell about myself because here what’s really important is Elton (obviously!!!). But this time let me explain something about me, but, please, don’t go away, it will be short. ;-)

Everybody knows this is the week of the release of “The Union” in America, and the pre-release week in Europe and other parts of the world. I know there’s a lot of reviews out there:

“Rolling Stone” regarded the album from a mystical point of view, “John and Russell share the resurrection. Each goes back to what he first did best. Then they do it together”. Rated with 5*

“The Mirror” remarked that “The chemistry between the two piano-playing titans is energising. Also, the album's 'bringing it all back home' feel reflects the old America explored both in Russell's work and the early Elt/Taupin classics such as Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Chateau”. Rated with 4*

And more and more reviews. You may know that my comitee of experts are preparing a session analyzing the album, that will take place as soon as the europeans have the album.

So, here’s my story. I remember the pre-internet era, when finding news related to Elton was so difficult, specially in my country. I remember being on a fansites meeting in Barcelona, I was maybe 21 years old, more or less. When finally I thought I couldn’t find nothing about Elton, an “Hercules” issue came to my hands. Everything about Elton. God, could it be possible?

Another story, and the last one, I promise: I remember being on a cue in one concert, waiting my turn for buying the Tour Book of “The Big Picture Tour”. Oh, in one page it was info about “East End Lights”, a fansite related to Elton. God, “I have to be a member” I thought.

Since I became an Hercules and EEL member, Elton released “Aida”, “El Dorado”, “Songs From West Coast”, “Peachtree Road” and “Captain And The Kid”. I enjoyed every issue of both fanzines, every article, everyone of concerts’ reviews, but one thing, more than others, I absolutely adore, and I could read it time after time: the reviews of new albums. Fantastic!!! I couldn’t explain how plenty I was with that. Both fansites had good writers, most of them are continuing writting, and some made that a profession.

Five people, five reviewers, excelled from the rest, in my honestly opinion, for sure. And I remember how great Liz Rosenthal explains the meaning of every song; I remember how Jim Turano analyzed every album, every song (his “tete-by-tete” with Tom Stanton first, and then Mark Norris, discussing the new album to come, is the best I’ve ever read); I remember how George Matlock interviewed the artists and how easily he explained his feelings on the albums to come; and I remember how Claude Bernardin with his good sense of humour reviewed everyhting on Elton.

Now I have a confession to make: I absolutely adore those people. They are kind of idols for me. I read everything I could by them, always spending good time, and thinking: “How they could do it this way?”. God, I don’t know where I am, but these people are on a high level, impossible to reach (poor me!!!).

When “The Union” project came out, I thought inmediatily in doing a comitee of experts. As I told before, we will have the experts all together discussing the album. But this time, as a prelude, I thought about the possibility to reunite those idols, my reviewers idols, on my side, an objective quite difficult to reach, I supposed. So I mailed Claude, Jim, George, and Liz. Oh, I mailed another person but unfortunetely he couldn’t collaborate this time, but vey kindness agreed to do it other time.

And all four said yes. YES! Anyone could imagine what does it meant to me? Those one who I’ve always searched when I need some info or review about Elton, this time together with me. A dream come true. They kindly approached “The Union” to us.

So, I bring you this time their reviews of the album, their thoughts, in alphabetical order. But don’t think that’s another review on the way most of them are posted somewhere else. This four people are true eltonites, they are ones of us. So left on a side the typical magazine/newspaper review, let me suggest you, and take their reviews. Exquisité!!!!

I would like to thank publicly to Claude Bernardin, to George Matlock, to Jim Turano, to Liz Rosenthal for doing extra work (forgive me for that, please), for collaborating and for doing such useful and incredible articles.

Eltonites, hope you enjoy it as much as I am doing. Thanks for let me explain all of this. The “Week Of The Gov’nor and The Master” will continue a week on with other surprises. Thanks for being there!!!

Jack Rabbit

The Master Expertises (I): Claude Bernardin

You CAN Make History Young Again:

Back in 1970/71 some albums just demanded that you had to go out and buy them. “Four Way Street”, “Deja Vu”, “Tumbleweed Connection”, “Music For Bangladesh”, “Leon Russell”, “Mad Dog’s and Englishmen”, “Elton John”. You would hear of them, everyone was a buzz, and you just knew the music was going to be great.

Do you really need a review of this album before you get it? Two “Talking Old Soldiers” of Rock’n’Roll are back together again after 38 years! And the ivories are singing louder than “Romeo Angels in the roof above...” That’s not enough? Ok, well then, It’s an Extraordinary, Epic album. Easily In Elton’s top 15, “Without Question” ( pun intended! ).

The music on this selection is infused with vigor and a haunting organic spirit, reminiscent of John’s “Tumbleweed Connection” and “Honky Chateau” days of Old. Gospel-gritty snatches of God almighty, foot-thumping Rock’n’Roll. This album is in a class of its own, totally “unique”. This first-rate material will most certainly further burnish these Piano Legends gold star status. A fresh Southern cross-pollination of two musical Giants. Elton John, the lush-craftsman, and Leon Russell, the innovator. These Giants are now in a place where only a handful of songwriters dwell, and judging from the material on this new CD, it is with some justification.

If the last 40 years tells us anything, it tells us that these two very hard working musicians have not lost their passion for all things Rock. One only needs to get to track 3, “Hey Ahab”, and 23 seconds in, the song kicks in like the Furnace in my basement! As well, wordsmith Bernie Taupin cannot be easily ignored here. Taupin has handed John and Russell some of his best lyrical work since 1971. A perfect example of this is on the stand out cut, ”The Best Part Of The Day”...

There’s a Canyon where an echo hangs
Like the ancient bells of Notre Dame
It’s beyond the hills out of sight
Thought I heard’em ringing all last night
Hear the mating call of the morning Dove
Like Romeo Angels in the roof above
Rains will come sweet and clean
Let the tears of God keep the Mountains green

It is clear, Taupin’s brisk, Hollywoodesque storytelling has evolved way past the Mid-70’s, “She’s got electric boots and Mohair suits, you know I read it in a magazine...Oh, Oh, Benny and The Jetssssssssssssss!”.

Lyrically the album seems to sometimes hint at Leon’s declining health, “Roll back the covers, and raise the shades...” and “wheezing like a freight never drew a decent breath.” But Taupin and Elton obviously stood by him, as Bernie writes, “Don’t think you’ve gone out, Don’t flicker and fade...”

The material on this selection seems to suggest his health has since improved.

To me personally, we in America, have adopted this Poet, lyricist - Taupin...yes, he was born in England, but Bernie Taupin adopted America in 1970/71 when he began writing songs like “Burn Down The Mission” “Tiny Dancer”, “Indian Sunset” and “Talking Old Soldiers.” He does not let us down on this new Project, and in fact may deliver one of the best lyrics he’s written in nearly 40 years, with the Epic Ballad, “Gone To Shiloh”. This might be Taupin’s lyrical high spot of the album:

April’s come and the air smells fresh with rain
They watched his shadow fade around the bend
He’s headed for a different kind of thunder
Than the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men...

Hey, guys, I get it, I’m a fan, I’m supposed to like them....but seriously, anyone alive who has not heard Elton’s live solo version of this track in recent weeks, DO YOURSELF A FAVOR...NOW!” The song is one of Elton’s strongest melodies in 30 years.

The album version, holds together elegantly. No, it is not the dramatic reading a solo Elton John performance can garner, but I almost prefer this version already. It is slower. But there’s so much going on in it, from the Brass instruments, to the thundering drums, to Neil Young’s silvery, fragile vocal harmonies....the song soars! And come on! Having Young on this album singing those poetic words ? Are you kidding me? How cool is that?!!!!!!!!!!! Can you JUST imagine a Neil Young, Leon Russell, and Elton John album?

As I listen for the “fifth” time now, I begin to think of such Elton songs as “Border Song”, “Slave”, “Hercules”, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Indian Sunset” and suddenly I realize, we are perhaps in a whole new field here. We truly have an album of the caliber of 76’s “Blue Moves” or “Caribou”.

It has been a pleasure to listen to the music these two men have created for the last 40 years. I am a fan of the piano, and that’s exactly what you get on this CD. Beautiful, catchy Notes picked out of the atmosphere of T. Bone Burnetts, earthy roots oriented arrangements. This is good’Ol Boy, Blues and Gospel, with a touch of Texas and Oklahoma twang. But it’s music to make you smile, it’s music to lighten the burdens of the day. So you say, perhaps, you’ve heard it all before, a fan, telling the World this album or that one is another masterpiece.

Well then I challenge you to do as I did, give “When Love is Dying” five listens, and then let’s talk. My first listen of this track I wrote the following,” Ok, so I get it, it’s supposed to be the album’s Big Ballad, The Classic Elton ballad, so why am I not convinced?” I then wrote, “Everyone will love this song to death, why do I hate it?”

And then I listened again, and again, and again, and suddenly I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my head. Suddenly I was looking forward to it. And then it hit me, “Holy God, I can only think of 3 songs like it...”Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, “It’s Getting Dark In Here” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”. Was it possible it was that good? The answer after 6 listens now? YES!!!!!!!!!! It’s a classic! Best big love ballad from Elton John and Bernie Taupin since 1974’s, “Caribou” album. So what would you say if I also suggested this album just might also have the Best rocker since 1974’s “The Bitch Is Back”? Well it has two! “Monkey Suit” and “Hey Ahab”.

But Leon Russell is in no way to be lightly brushed aside here. Russell, suffering from a brain hemorrhage, and only days out of the Hospital, hands in one of his best piano and vocal performances in the last 30 years. I can get it down to one track, “Hearts Have Turned To Stone”. Here Leon gives his younger buddy Taupin a good swift lyrical kick in the behind, when Russell writes...

Now the sun is rising higher in the sky
The morning light is crawling
From the darkness of the night
The raindrops keep on falling
There is no light of day
The sadness deep inside me
Doesn’t seem to go away...

and we feel his pain and sorrow. It’s both Poetic as Wordsworth, and honest as the day is long. Elton’s sneaky, but amazing backing vocals, and Durio, Hill, Vega, and Witherspoon dominate this song with brilliant additional vocal elements. Which by the way, is there any other performance by backing vocalists in Elton’s recording History, that has the power these ladies emote on this album? The song chugs along like a freight train. And besides that, it’s “CLASSIC”, “VINTAGE” Leon Russell. Hey if you don’t get the title reference to 1971’s “Roll Away The Stone”, you need to go take a course in Rock Music History 101.

But seriously, the song is a perfect return to form for Leon. And God I missed this man in Rock Music. There was nothing like him then , or now. I love how everyone tries to figure his style out, but they never get it down to “Gospel”!!!!!! Thus the wonderful backup singers.

For me personally, it means more than I can express in words that Elton John, woke up to his roots, returned, and found Leon Russell, who was hopping from small Town America to small town America, and pulled him back into the ring. These two are Legends. And that they are now writing and recording together after all these years, it is my personal dream come true. It is more than Christmas Day for me. I am sure this album will always be in my top 15. as I write this I am reflecting on sitting fifth row the last six years at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pa. watching Leon perform “Roll Away The Stone” and “Hummingbird” and thinking to myself, “How, ? How do we get Elton to stop doing the Hits thing, and help out this guy? The music they could make! And Leon so needs a helping hand right now.”

And then the news broke! You can hear Elton’s passion, you can hear his enthusiasm and respect in every note. Russell is also in fine form through out this project, with such musical gems as “If It Wasn’t For Bad”, “I Should Have Sent Roses” and the gorgeous Hymn like tribute to Elton John and T. Bone, “Hands Of Angels”.

The pair blend almost effortlessly on the skiffle-inspired, “A Dream Come True”. This was the first song/piano jam that the two ever played on for these sessions, according to Leon Russell in an Interview for Yamaha Pianos. And when Leon sings ...”And the music’s sweet....” and Elton answers with....”Now I feel the beat of the dancing drums and now I know we’re gonna have some fun....” yes, just like the Chorus suggests...”It seems like “The both of you...” can chase the clouds away...” I can’t stop my foot from tapping, and I just smile! and to further quote the song -
“And all my blues are through....” . Amen, gentleman, Job well done!

Throughout this album, one can easily hear all the Love, Faith, compassion and stronger sense of Life’s values.
And perhaps Taupin delivers the album’s ultimate Motto:

I could bet on a horse
But I’m betting on you
You ( both ) still got what it takes
You’ve got nothing, nothing to prove.

I could go on and on about each song. I will let that for another. Suffice it to say, this “IS” the Music I grew up on in 1971, and it is simply lovely to hear again. I love this album, can’t stop playin’ it, and won’t for months.

I must also take the time to say that T. Bone Burnett did what NO other Producer, since Gus Dudgeon could do, he returned us to the “Sound” of Elton John. Yes others stepped up to the plate, and a few, managed some brilliance, but through and through, Burnett has hit the ball out of the Park! I bow to you, Sir, you ...are the man! Give him a Grammy now for this project!

I have only one final heartfelt plea....Elton, Leon, don’t let ten years go by without bringing everyone who made this album, back into a studio and do it all again. You guys got your feet wet with this one. I give it 9 out of 10 stars. I know you guys have even more to offer. But more importantly this friendship needs to grow, musically. Get back “Honky cats, Better get back to the studio!” :)

P.S. –

It’s 7 A.M. on Thursday, October 14th, the morning after I wrote that review....I’m driving down the freeway tapping the steering wheel to a new song. Elton and Leon dueling away on machine gun piano, and the sun’s still not out –
“But the music’s sweet makes me feel brand new...”

7:15 I’ve stopped at a local Mart, gassing up and I’m stirring a cup of warm coffee behind a counter as I hear this song playing on the ceiling speakers, “Roll Over Beethoven”, but it’s not The Beatles, It’s not Chuck Berry either.....and then I hear the piano and that twang...and I chuckle to myself, “ Ahhh, the World has suddenly learned there just might be a great album coming out to go we better play some songs by that guy...Ole’what’s his name.?..Oh, yeah Leon Russell!” LOL!

35 years ago in another time and place, everyone knew that version of “Beethoven”. And this morning, as I laugh to myself, it’s good to know, the Music Industries wheels are still in spin.

A Few Personal Stand Out Cuts For Me:

800 Dollar Shoes” –

I am now in love with this song. Just classic John/Taupin. The Chorus is gorgeous!
The song reminds me of only three others, “I’ve Seen That Movie Too”, “Roy Rogers” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, not bad company huh? - 5 Stars

The Best Part Of The Day

Classic John/Taupin. The opening Leon vocally inspired line is brilliant...”I hear you singin’ I Shall Be Released” like a chainsaw running through a masterpiece...” The Chorus is a melody I can’t stop singing, can’t get the melody out of my head. Leon’s vocals are brilliant. The words, sweet, prose. Lovely. I love the bridge, the words the melody, the shift....It is one of my favorite Elton John songs in 25 years. Maybe it’s not “Empty Garden” but God it’s damn close! – 5 Stars

Your My Kind Of Hell

First listen, immediate “Classic” Elton, “Wake Up Wendy” Part 2! Fun, and the lyrics are some of the best on the album. Fun stuff! This is the sound that I did not want to admit was missing from the album up to now, do yourself a favor and go get the deluxe disc it’s worth it JUST for this great track, and the dueling piano battle in the center, which reminds me of Daffy Duck and Donald in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

After more than several listens there is a melody line and a sound that has been seeping into my consciousness and it finally hit me! The melody..."No I can't say i ever liked you much....but you're my kind of hell" then there's the ask yourself what IF ....we slightly slowed down "Elderberry Wine" - "No I can't help thinikin about the time....You were a wife of mine...." :) hmmmm. LOL!!!!!!!!! Is this a bow to a fan favorite after all these years? It has a great hook. Prefer it over “A Little Peace” from Peach Tree Road sessions. – 5 stars

Mandalay Again

“Back when we could throw a rope around the moon....” Has that great line, has a catchy melody. Very Pretty song.
Great lyrics. It reminds me of only one album session, “Blue Moves”. And so, I love it! It is “OLD” Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Simply Lovely. Touching lyrics. What “Return To Paradise” should always have been! – 5 stars

Jimmie Rodger’s Dream” –

I am not a fan of this style. “The Trails We Blaze”, “Captain and The Kid”, “The Drover” haven’t we had enough of it? Is it truly “Old” Elton or just country/folk? But I have to say after 10 listens, it has grown on me. I dunno, the song seems to be garnering its fans. It has my attention now, just maybe it’s not the strongest track on the album. – 3 1/2 stars.

There’s No Tomorrow” –

I absolutely love this song, if “ONLY” for the chorus. If only for the fact that Elton’s background vocals have guts and darkness. His voice works well here. I love the back and forth bluesy vocals of the chorus, the dark melody. Just Lovely! And Ms. Stone and Witherspoon and all are brilliant on backing vocals! Then there’s that tremendous guitar solo. It’s a deep but very interesting album cut. And could have easily been on “Madman Across The Water” right after “Rotten Peaches”. Sticks in my mind daily. – 5 stars

Oh, I give up, this album is a 5 star album! Just deeply rich, wonderfully produced, wonderfully written, perfectly recorded, and Leon and Elton together, I am not worthy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Outstanding guys! And thank you both for still caring and finding that passion still after 40 years!


Claude W. Bernardin

Claude Bernardin attended Great Valley High School and learned his most serious profession there, studying as a young artist under Chester County Watercolorist Lawrence H. Kuzmin. His first major Professional Painting exhibition in 1986, was in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, NY at the Salmagundi Art Club, upon invitation after receiving the President’s Award for his watercolor, “Work Bench”. Claude has had a successful painting career ever since. And has been a High School Art Instructor, on the High School level in the Philadelphian Archdiocese. He teaches Painting, drawing, graphics, photography, film, Pop Culture, The History Of Pop Music, Art History and much more.

The Master Expertises (II): George Matlock

When I was approached to write a review, I was honoured by the invitation. But I was also a tad apprehensive that my first Elton album review in nearly 10 years might not sound too loyal. Well, to make matters "worse" I now run a radio station,, and I get a lot of music to review for the playlist. Am I still an Elton fan? Yes. But am I going to let Elton have an easy review? No. I hope you will appreciate my honest appraisal of the new album and I thank you for reading it:

The Union
Elton John & Leon Russell

The inaugural track starts off a bit self-indulgent, as the concept of a hero-linked album might. But within 10 seconds, you realise the boys have done well to choose this as the first single from the album, which we hope is indeed the first of many.

If It Wasn't for Bad is a superb lively track which endorses the piano heavily and brings the best Elton and Leon into one song.

The second song, Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes, is a country ballad like many from Elton. Here the twist is that Elton might not have it all his own way, as Leon has something to say. Alas not nearly enough. Elton fans may extoll the virtues of this track and others but I feel it is rather disappointing that Leon's vocals are not even second fiddle. They are buried behind Elton's dominating voice. Elton, give the man a chance to sing too!

The third track Hey Ahab is a nice, well-paced track. It does not veer from the "feel" and vibe of the album. But this time introducing some fine belting female vocals too. The ending is, however, a bit someone crashed in on the gig.

Gone to Shiloh. Nope, I would rather go to the shops and buy this album! The fourth song has that title however, so here goes. It is a beautiful ballad which allows Leon to introduce and lead. The man still has a fine bluesy voice. And he sings in harmony "pretty good company" with Elton.

By this point, a third of the way into the album, I get the impression there is still something self-indulgent about the project. Elton has enjoyed duets over the years, more recently with the legendary French (Armenian actually) crooner Charles Aznavour. What is nice as I travel through the audio channels of this album is that Elton has not succumbed to that "let's do a jazz swing album" the way Robbie Williams, Rod Stewart or more recently Sir Cliff Richard have. This is a good gritty album so far, and I can imagine Americana-inspired lyricist Bernie Taupin must be seriously pleased with this.

Jimmie Rodgers' Dream. It has a touch of Latitude, for those who remember Made In England from 1995. For those who don't this is just a hum drum if rythmic track.

The next track is a bit heavy melodically at first. Elton has always had a panache for writing sad songs which "say so much". He is the Melancholic Master and few artists can compete with him on that. Remember the almost-tortuously sad "American Triangle"? There's No Tomorrow is a strident weeper. Lots of wailing and reflection from both Elton and Leon. Lovely guitar makes this a nice track. But would this make radio play? Nope. And not because it doesn't have the happy-go-lucky feel that much of radio requires. It simply is too heavy for a radio airplay.

Monkey Suit. When I saw this, I dreaded what it will be. First through my mind went the account I remember Clive Franks gave me about the time in 1972 he had to wear a Crocodile suit on stage during a U.S. gig for "Crocodile Rock". But once the track starts playing, I think more the 1960s hit (not from Elton) of The Monster Mash. This a nice rocker, and I think it could work on radio nicely even if the title of the fun song is a bit absurd. Well, it's more Strongest Suit for me than Big Man in a Small Suit. Well done Elton and Leon!

The Best Part of the Day is best part of the album. A superb ballad that gives both singers equal footing and brings the best out of their vocals. I would definitely place this on our playlist if it is released as a single, or even if it is not. There is a touch of “This Train Don't Stop There Anymore” so I am easily won over to this bluesy track. Contains a nice piano bridge which has Elton written all over it.

A Dream Come True. Does anyone else sense a touch of ELO's “Don't Being Me Down” in this track? It is a tub-thumping recital which we can dance to. But like many dance tunes unmemorable – if you excuse the ubiquitous “Lambada” from 1989!

When Love Is Dying. It's always a bit dangerous to compare a new song to someting you have heard, although every fan does it. This particular song is reminiscent of “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” and the latest recording seems, from the title, like the sequel. It's a fabulous broad ballad. We would have a song like that on late night airtime. Very satisfying track. It may not make a single, but fans should thank the boys for bringing this one to our ears. I can seriously see Elton doing this song as a solo in concert. Perfect.

I Should Have Sent Roses. We have all been there, when we regret we didn't handle a situation or a gesture better. But the song is flat. It does nothing for me, like a wilted Rose.

Hearts Have Turned To Stone. It is like I Should Have Sent Roses. It does nothing for me, alas.

Oh yes, Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)

The final track is The Hands of Angels. Rightly Leon is given the stage for this track and he appears to be enjoying this as Elton accompanies him on piano. But it is a filler song, something to close the album. Maybe with time it will grow

Elton is singing this album taking account of his years. He might enjoy producing Scissor Sisters but Elton is more at home now with this genre of music. In terms of album theme, the songs are cultivated from the same style. I would say that is perhaps the album's main drawback – nothing on the album is experimental. Nothing stands out as different. Even if some of the songs are indeed better than others and a few are already on my favourites list.

In terms of the production, it is difficult to tell because the sound was from a legal online vendor. I would rather reserve judgement on the sound of the album until I hear it on CD.

Favourite songs:

If It Wasn't for Bad
Gone to Shiloh
The Best Part of the Day
When Love Is Dying
Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)

George Matlock

George Matlock is the news editor of and he was Hercules UK manager and commercial affairs manager between 1993 and 2001. He mastermind many of the products which made Hercules a brand name, and which helped to accelerate the introduction of official website. He has been a professional journalist since 1990, and worked in public relations. In 2006 George launched his own anglo-polish radio station, Radio ORLA for the UK, Ireland and Poland (

The Master Expertises (III): Liz Rosenthal

Let’s get one thing straight. The Union is not a “comeback” album, a “swan song,” a last gasp, or a crass commercial exercise. It’s not a misguided effort at authenticity, or only 50% good (based on who you’re a fan of), or too ballad-heavy, or not piano-driven enough. It is what it is, and what it is, is a joyous collaboration between two giants of popular music, one who faded from the limelight but never lost his inspiration, and one who’s been in the limelight almost continuously for 40 years and, likewise, has not lost his inspiration.

How can you not love the premise behind The Union? What a great reason to make an album – to return a musical idol to public attention and appreciation, as well as solvency. And true to form, Elton didn’t try to dictate how the songwriting or the recording should turn out. He didn’t try to make Leon into something he isn’t. But dictating a creative outcome also would have been against Elton’s natural inclination to defer to the talent of others, to afford colleagues free rein to do what they do best. Were Elton so inclined to be a meddler, though, it would have been a curious exercise given the influence Leon has had on Elton’s melodic and pianistic styles. (Reflecting on the halcyon days of 1970-72, one realizes how much of Leon’s down-home, funky vocal phrasings Elton adapted to his own creative sensibilities. Elton’s singing on “Can I Put You On?,” “The Cage,” and even “Honky Cat” are tips of the hat to Leon’s inspiration.)

This project, then, works so well one is tempted to think that Leon might have written Elton’s songs and Elton Leon’s songs, although the first track, “If it wasn’t for Bad,” would have been one of the quirkier efforts Elton has ever pulled off. (Though he’s been known to be quirky. Think “Madman” or “Better Off Dead” or, yes, “Bennie and the Jets.”) The point is that our two heroes, who have been dubbed the “Master and the Rocket Man,” are among the most obvious of duos that have never happened until now. Looking back on some of Elton’s other collaborators, one is almost painfully reminded of what could have been, and been a lot sooner, if Elton hadn’t gotten sidetracked by certain other people. Eric Clapton? Too much wailing guitar. Billy Joel? Too New York schtick. George Michael? Too stuck on marijuana.

The thing is, even if Leon is known for southern rock, only the uninitiated (or perhaps willfully ignorant) assume that this sort of music is alien to Elton. Even if Leon leans toward country, we know that Elton has featured, more often than not, at least one country track on every album he’s released since the beginning. Even if Leon incorporates jazz riffs in his playing, anyone with at least one working ear drum knows that jazz forms are second nature to Elton. Even if Leon shows an affinity for secular gospel, Elton does, too, from “Border Song” to “Where’s the Shoorah?” to the latest live piano intro to “Take Me to the Pilot,” and beyond. Soul? Sure. Sad balladry? Certainly. Love songs? Ditto.

Today, in The Union, when Elton and Leon sing on each other’s songs (or just supply backing vocals on the other’s tunes), their voices complement each other. Leon sounds like a rough-edged, down-on-his-luck Willie Nelson. He can express the essence of a melody convincingly despite his lack of a conventional singing voice. Conversely, the power, richness, and tonal flexibility of Elton’s vocals have progressed so dramatically since Reg rendered a boyish, tinny sound to “Come Back Baby” that it’s hard to see how he can ever interpret a rocker or a ballad any better than he does now. Thus, Leon takes the vulnerable, weathered, uncertain side of a song, while Elton comforts or provides backbone, as the case may be.

The different voices of the Master and the Rocket Man blend to afford any given song an alternate perspective. But these two must have their significant differences, mustn’t they? Well, yes. Elton almost never writes his own words. Leon does. And Leon’s thick, lustrous, flowing hair demonstrates more follicular fortune than Elton has ever enjoyed. In fact, each musician’s dramatically different capacity for hair production could be said to symbolically illustrate the difference in their personas. Leon, generally media shy, seems hidden behind a mask; Elton is out there for everybody to see, all the time, bright as the noontime sun.

So what about those fabulous new songs? Here we go:

If It Wasn’t for Bad: Leon’s witty, weird, magnetic draw to the adventure that The Union is. Quizzical piano chords splash their way through the song. Simple yet clever, Leon’s lines are an entertaining collection of opposites, as he bitingly reflects on how he’s been snookered into entering into what he thought would be a promising relationship: “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.”

Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes: One of Elton’s typically melodic country waltzes featuring cinematic lyrics from Bernie: “You came like an invasion, all bells and whistles blowin’/Reaping the rewards of the fable you’d been sowing/…Oh you came to town in headlines/And eight hundred dollar shoes.”

Hey Ahab: Among the most addictive, visceral, in-your-face rockers of Elton’s career, with its basis in explosive boogie-woogie. Leon provides a sort of buzzy vocal undercurrent that gives the song an almost sinister edge. Elton is at his most vocally funky here, strategically inserting grunt-hums wherever the lyric’s syllables cut short.

Gone to Shiloh: A U.S. Civil War tale which, through its military march tempo, gentle percussion evoking distant cannon fire, foreboding melody, and perfect use of Neil Young’s eerie, high-pitched voice to share in the verses, is one of the most haunting of recordings ever found on an Elton John album.

Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream: Breezy homage to the Father of Country Music, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, who alternated between showbiz and railroad work (sometimes as a brakeman) before his untimely, Depression-era death. One may hear hints of “The Trail We Blaze” and “Wicked Dreams,” but also “Country Comfort,” “Look Ma No Hands,” and “Postcards from Richard Nixon.”

There’s No Tomorrow: This funeral dirge may be only a semi-original effort, given that it’s built around The Mighty Hannibal’s “Hymn No. 5,” but it offers the most dramatic combination on the album of all available studio voices. Elton, Leon, and a backing, gospel-style chorus belt out grim lines with such force that you might have hope for the future after a couple of listens, despite what the singers contend.

Monkey Suit: Another boogie woogie-based rocker with a dash of Chuck Berry thrown in, it’s a notch less gripping than “Hey Ahab” - but it would be hard to match “Ahab”’s vein-popping aggressiveness. Watch out, though, as this track may cause you to bellow “monkey suit!” incessantly, while driving in traffic, even if people are looking your way.

The Best Part of the Day: Is this really a reflection about best friends, or about lovers who fit each other like a pair of old gloves? I vote for the latter. “Grab the bottle and slide my way,” Bernie writes. “Roll back the covers and raise the shades.” Elton and Leon’s performance captures the dreamy, relaxed satisfaction of the song’s two soul mates who watch the morning unfold as they marvel at their blissful circumstances. An ideal sing-along song, it’s the most folksy of the album’s tracks.

A Dream Come True: The tune that grew out of a jam between Elton and Leon at the start of recording; perhaps the song presenting the greatest “toe-tapping” potential. This fast-paced Fats Domino-inspired string of staccato piano phrases makes you hope the track will go on for a while, and it does, until there’s nothing left but a couple of rolled piano chords and a stray tuba breath.

When Love is Dying: Some might accuse Elton here of re-working “The One,” which has been unfairly denigrated as an exercise in overblown pop balladry, but one need not insult “The One” nor “When Love is Dying” to praise one or the other. Instead, their significance can be recognized with an open mind and welcoming heart. “The One” is a celebration of new love – so why shouldn’t it sound like a celebration? – with a soaring melody harkening back to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which Elton has said was influenced by The Beach Boys. Coincidentally or not, Brian Wilson guests on “When Love is Dying,” providing back-up singing and vocal arrangements. By his very involvement, he anoints the track with his approbation, as well he should. Thematically, it’s the flip side of “The One,” once the new lovers have spent their passion and, before they know it, can’t get it back. What is more, Elton’s soaring melody oozes a desperation that makes the song an heir to some of the love laments of late 50s, early 60s doo-wop ensembles. Wow.

I Should Have Sent Roses: Speaking of dying love, here is Leon’s take on the phenomenon, as he assigns a moody, almost gut-wrenching, jazz-inflected melody to some of Taupin’s saddest lyrics. As with “When Love is Dying,” Elton and Leon trade tragic reflections, and their harmonizing on the chorus (“I never sent roses/I never did enough/I didn’t know how to love you/Though I loved you so much”) is spine-tingling. You feel rotten after listening, but in a good way.

Hearts Have Turned to Stone: Written and sung by Leon with Elton only providing a few choice backing vocal phrases, this is an infectious, snappy, blues number that is made more so by Leon’s arrangement for the back-up singers, who echo or punctuate bits of the lyric lines as he sings: “I’m out here in the darkness (yes!)/I hear the howling wind (wind!)/Sometimes I sit and wonder (yes!)/Will I ever see love again (‘gain!).”

Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody): Though written by John and Taupin, the sentiments apply equally to not only the songwriting pair of 43 years, but Leon, too. All have “been there and done that” and seen things they wish they hadn’t, bearing scars to show for all of it. Yet they are still entitled to pursue new goals and enjoy happy companionship in their later years. It is not just a young person’s world anymore. The Master and the Rocket Man sound at their most intimate here, Leon’s singing sounding appropriately weary, Elton’s reaching a new level of loveliness, as the backing chorus eventually chimes in for an anthemic build-up.

In the Hands of Angels: Just knowing the reason for Leon composing this song (music and lyrics) is enough to coax tears from the eyes. “Angels” tells the story of Leon’s resignation to Twilight Years of obscurity and ill fortune when, lo and behold, Elton reenters his life, and proposes getting together for an album. Referring to Elton’s U.S. manager, Johnny Barbis, and the Rocket Man himself, Leon sings: “Johnny and the Governor/Came and brought me to my senses/They made me feel just 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.” It’s a secular gospel number, despite the reference to “angels,” and is the only track on the album on which Elton neither sings nor plays. But his absence is only fitting, as “Angels” is Leon’s gift to him. What a way to close the album.

Fans of Elton and Leon can thank T-Bone Burnett for bringing out the best in both men and surrounding them with such capable, spirited musicians and singers.

Liz Rosenthal

Elizabeth J. Rosenthal's first book, His Song: the Musical Journey of Elton John, was published in fall 2001 by Billboard Books. It's the first Elton John biography to be sold in Russia. After graduating magna cum laude with a journalism degree in 1982, Liz attended Rutgers-Camden School of Law, from which she graduated With Honors in 1985. She has been a civil servant, writing regulations for New Jersey state government. In 2002, she became bewitched by birds, since then reading everything about them that she could get her hands on and going on field trips whenever possible. Her current book, Birdwatcher: the Life of Roger Tory Peterson, is publicized on her web site:

The Master Expertises (IV): Jim Turano

Views on “The Union”
By James Turano

Let’s get right to the point, for the second time in history, “The Union” prevails.

This time, it’s not about warring factions and battling ideologies, but rather a genuine melding of talents, respect, influences, and gratitude of two musical legends.

For many artists – no matter what the format or genre – their creative peak hits in their 20s and early 30s, and while they may continue to produce varied and important works – sometimes even profound and historic -- it’s usually their early works that are most remembered and lauded, and that come to define them.

It’s rare then, that an artist is able to conjure the creative renewal later in life to produce works that can rival and confidently stand among their most respected, and what can be considered their “best.”

An argument can be made that Elton John is one of these rarities. Twice now, in the last 10 years and long past his creative peak of 1970-1976, Elton has written and recorded albums that are of the highest caliber and can be mentioned among the best of his storied forty year career. For me, Elton John’s top five albums are: “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy,” (1975) “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” (1973) “Tumbleweed Connection,” (1970) “Madman Across The Water,” (1971) and “Songs From The West Coast” (2001).

Some might argue of the latter’s inclusion in this career-wide list, 2001’s revitalized, but “Song From The West Coast,” effortlessly re-imagined the vintage “Elton John sound” of his ‘70s zenith in terms of songwriting quality and production. Elton and Bernie Taupin’s commitment to their craft was evident and elevated, and Patrick Leonard’s production perfectly surrounded the songs with a feeling and sound that allowed them to breathe and take flight, much in the style of Gus Dudgeon’s incomparable work with Elton John.

Amazingly, at age 63 and 40 years after his American debut and the release of his breakthrough second album, Elton John has recorded a new album that could nudge itself into the top 5 albums of his career – a rarity indeed.

“The Union” is that album.

Any Elton John fan worth his or her salt is aware of the influence that Leon Russell had on Elton’s early songwriting, piano playing, and live performing. In early interviews with the budding star, Elton regularly referenced Russell as rock’s piano-playing pinnacle, humbly bowing to his idol, and even touring with him four decades ago. By now, we all know the genesis of “The Union” project, Elton hearing Russell’s “Back To The Island” and breaking down. Driven to such a personal revelation, he contacted Russell to thank him for his crucial artistic influence, and suggesting an overdue collaboration. Though Elton’s sentiments for unearthing Russell and collaborating with him seemed commendable and earnest, the initial reaction to this teaming carried guarded optimism.

On paper, it was a natural bonding. But in reality, was it too late for this pairing? Were both artists too far past their primes to create the magic this alliance might have produced three decades ago? And most notably, did the reclusive Russell, in his late sixties and in ill health, still have the chops to play with the big boys on the big stage?

From the first notes of “The Union,” all the questions are answered and dispelled.

Despite recuperating from brain surgery during the recording, Russell does deliver. His cracked, graveled, weathered Southern drawl as enigmatic as ever. His flashy flourishes and inventive piano introductions accent most of the tracks, and his songwriting remains sharp. It may not vary from his trademarks – blues-infused gospel/rock, with lyrics melancholy and honest, acerbic and brimming with attitude – but that’s what we want from Leon Russell.

Elton and Taupin also raise the stakes and their game. They both bring an enthusiasm and focus to this project that makes it perhaps, their most personal album of their career. Their passion is palpable in every song, on every performance.

Elton is tapping into all his musical talents and instincts with an exuberant enthusiasm of a teenager, and it shows. His vocals are among his most expressive and playful, his piano playing adventurous and classic – obviously driven by playing with Russell, and trying to both impress and compete with his idol. And his melodies – though occasionally similar in spots to recent songs from both “Peachtree Road” and “The Captain And The Kid,” – comfortably caress and pointedly propel Taupin’s lyrics of love (“When Love Is Dying,” “I Should Have Sent Roses,” “Mandalay Again”), history (“Gone To Shiloh,” “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,”) frivolity (“Hey Ahab,” “Monkey Suit,”), and mortality (“Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody”).

These are some of Taupin’s best “batches” in many years. He returns to a more rustic, descriptive, cinematic writing style (“A big blue canvas painted by the Master’s hand/The shifting clouds above and endless miles of sand”), (“Let the tears of God keep the mountains green”) most evident on his impressive Farm Dogs projects of the ‘90s. His writing has a newfound depth and maturity, with a heightened introspection of life, love, and yes, death.

Though he wrote songs like “Sixty Years On” and “Talking Old Soldiers” while only about 20 years old, 40 years later, he’s now living in that skin, feeling “when every bone rattles,” – now life lessons of experience infuse his words. These days in Taupin’s world, Saturday night’s no longer alright for fighting – instead, as detailed in “The Best Part Of The Day,” – Saturday morning’s alright for appreciating a sunrise. It’s a natural progression that should give Elton and Bernie’s music a deeper perspective moving forward.

He also writes many songs that either refers to Elton, Leon, or both, or he slyly speaks to them -- while also allowing them to “speak to another” and carry on an elusive dialogue. For example, in “You’re Never Old,” Elton sings to Russell, “I can bet on a horse, but I’m betting on you/You still got what it takes, you got nothing to prove.” While Russell’s “You’re still sharp as a razor/And I like you like that,” can be his sentiment or Taupin’s. Whatever Taupin’s true intent, this lyrical dynamic also adds to the rekindled friendship between Elton and Leon that’s budding as the album moves forward. And there are many memorable and new finely- turned phrases, imaginative allusions, and heart-tugging sentiments that stir emotions like only Taupin can muster.

If only Elton and Taupin would have brought the same dedication to their last release, 2006’s “The Captain And the Kid,” which suffered from many half-hearted Taupin lyrics, and run-of-the-mill production. In fact, “The Union” is what “The Captain And The Kid” could have and should have been. This sequel to their autobiographical opus, “Captain Fantastic” would have benefited from the genuine energy, enthusiasm, and inspired songwriting “The Union” exudes from top to bottom. “The Captain And The Kid” should have been a expansive, revealing, introspective personal memoir of a storied past and hopeful present. Instead, aside from some genuine classic moments, it mostly was a limited, abridged, ironically indifferent recollection that lack true emotion. And a main, missing catalyst on that album is whom Elton chose to oversee this new project.

Under the careful and pure ear of production impresario T Bone Burnett, the album immediately embraces Elton and Leon’s legends and styles. For Elton and Leon, he has created a “nostalgic contemporary” sound, with the album bulging with a deep New Orleans groove and Louisiana bayou bass sound throughout, and incorporating a rootsy, gospel, Stax, Americana vibe complemented by well-placed horns, tasty guitar licks, a twanging pedal steel, thumping drums, exhilarating choirs, and most importantly, the piano prominently driving this train.

In fact, in an inspired move, to fully accentuate these two talented pianists, Burnett places Elton’s piano in the left speaker and Leon’s in the right, so one can literally hear what each tinkler is playing. Burnett’s tasty touches throughout demand the listener actually “listen.” If you play this album is simply background music, you’ll be missing a treasure trove of sounds and moods.

Using his own “wrecking crew” of top-notch studio musicians with some of the best pedigrees in the business, including Jim Keltner and Jay Bellerose on drums, Marc Ribot on guitar, Dennis Crouch on acoustic bass, Burnett clearly has the credibility and musical heft to creatively steer artists of Elton and Leon’s stature without being intimidated by their status or bowing to their whims.

Instead he assertively imprints his stamp, and Elton and Leon wisely put their trust in his vision, imagination, and distinctive ear. But he also creates a loose, at times rough edged sound and environment. Some songs quickly shift tempos, seem to end abruptly or just slowly end with errant instrument sounds taking their last breath. This “real feel” takes the listeners right in the studio with the musicians during the recording. It’s another quirky aspect to the album that Burnett lets happen and even celebrates.

Like producer Daniel Lanois revived Bob Dylan’s career with the Grammy-winning “Time Out Of Mind,” Burnett too has re-directed Elton’s musical sights as he enters a new phase of his career that must strive for his musical legacy rather than the pop charts.

Hopefully, “The Union” is just the first of many albums and projects together. With Gus Dudgeon gone, in T Bone Burnett, Elton may have finally found his long-sought after and worthy replacement.

The best aspect of “The Union” is its transcendent quality. For Elton, the album is life-affirming, for Leon, life-changing. And for them together, doing this project has opened Elton’s eyes to a new path down his musical yellow brick road, while it’s allowed Russell to roll away the stone and resurrect a long-stalled career.

Elton graciously leaves his ego at the door, showcasing Leon at every chance – even choosing a Leon-led song, “If It wasn’t For Bad” to lead off the album. This gesture signals Elton’s personal gratitude and professional mission with this record – to re-establish Leon Russell’s standing in today’s music world and tomorrow’s music history.

Therefore, it’s not just an album for Elton John fans; it’s not just an album for Leon Russell fans; it’s an album for music fans. And that’s the kind of album an artist of Elton’s stature should be making at this point in his life. Leave the disposable pop to the Gagas, the Biebers, and the next Amercican Idols, Elton John needs to be making albums for the ages.

And with “The Union,” that’s what he does. It’s one of his best. And that’s saying something…namely, you’re never too old.

Song-By-Song Review

Let’s begin by stating the only version of “The Union” that should be listened to or discussed is the expanded, 16-song “deluxe CD” version. It includes two “bonus tracks” that both deserve to be on the “official” album (Spoiler alert – “Mandalay Again” is one of the best songs of the collection), the song sequencing gives it a better flow, and finally, when two legends like this come together, why edit?

So I will offer my view of this version of “The Union,” which in my mind is the album.

“If It Wasn’t For Bad” – The wailing choir, the urgent pounding piano and drums, and the jolt of Leon Russell’s commanding, quivering voice, give this an immediate power that sets the tone for the rest of the album. An ironic, twisted lyric of wordplay, Russell’s schizophrenic piano breaks combined with the subtle horns; it’s vintage Russell – a pop song with a dark underbelly. I wish Elton’s presence was more felt throughout, especially vocally, to establish the album’s collaboration, but again, Elton’s making a statement by kicking off the album with Leon in the driver’s seat and re-introducing him to the masses.

“Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” – One of my favorites. Elton’s piano is an appealing mix of Jim Reeves country and Allen Toussaint Cajun, with a melodic similarity to Elvis Costello’s “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror.” Lyrically, it could have fit perfectly on “The Captain And the Kid,” and with Taupin’s signature style, there seem to be references to Elton’s and Leon’s careers – past and present. Lines like “You came an invasion/All bells and whistles blowing,” and “Your songs have all the hooks,” all can have Elton connections, and “You came to town in headlines, and eight hundred dollar shoes” could refer to his 1970 Troubadour debut and his ‘70s, six-inch heeled glam rock persona. The line “I saw you cross the landing/And descending marble stairs…you seemed to walk on air” reminds me of Elton triumphantly walking down the stairs at the opening of his historic 1973 Hollywood Bowl concert. The song also has an underlying sadness -- “You shifted gears to cruise,” and “The marquee lights are flickering/Your poster’s fading fast” – which could refer to Russell and also make it a quasi-sequel to “Idol” from “Blue Moves.” And is it just me, or does the quiet, eerie, static drone that starts this sound like the beginning of the classic British TV show, “The Prisoner”?

“Hey Ahab” – By the third song, we finally get the two piano prodigies and pioneers rocking together. Elton is pounding and deliriously screaming out the lyrics to this nautical ditty, while Russell’s croaking background vocals and skipping triplets give the songs its rock and rudder. Here, the exalting backing choir is more like a lead instrument, pushing this song to a swirling gospel grope. It does seem to go on a bit long, but the length of the song showcases so much great piano playing, it’s a delightful indulgence. Just try to get the chorus out of your head, I dare you.

“Gone To Shiloh” -- Taupin’s return to the Civil War is a somber elegy of a young Union soldier going off to war. It begins with a distant piano intro that sounds like it’s playing on a century old record player, which immediately takes the listener back in time. Taupin brings this large war down to the small details of a family snapshot – loved ones waving goodbye and praying to see their loved one return. Leon and Elton both give stark, emotive vocal performances, but it’s Neil Young’s aching, haunting vocal on the second verse, and his straining, chilling background vocals that give this dire death march its drama. The constant pounding drum adds to the song’s grave tone. When Young quivers, “He’s heading for a different kind of thunder/And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men,” this song transforms into a mini scene of a movie. This one could contend with The Band’s “The Night They Drove ‘Ol Dixie Down” -- it’s that good.

“Hearts Have Turned To Stone” – A vintage Leon Russell big band rocker with charged backing vocals answering Russell’s every line. Some great piano, Elton yelping in the background – it’s a classic, gritty, edgy, Stax/Volt horn-driven soulful stunner they just don’t make anymore. A valuable history lesson. The most “Leon Russell” sounding song on the album.

“Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream” – It would be easy to categorize this as a simple throwaway. It’s a biographical study on the life of one of country music’s fabled founders, and at first blush is overtly country to sell its theme. But Taupin’s lyrics are beautifully descriptive and poetic, with a humble, hummable chorus. But what saves this from filler is Burnett inserting an infectious pedal steel to drive the melody and one of Taupin’s best lines is “Now I pop a top and stay up late with Gideon.”

“There’s No Tomorrow” – Based on the Mighty Hannibal (James Timothy Shaw) gospel spiritual, “Hymn No. 5,” T Bone Burnett’s thumps and moans inject the feel and pace of a grieving New Orleans funeral march (he shares a writing credit). Its simple lyrics of life, death, and the hereafter are meant to stir the soul and speak to the living. Burnett’s ability to re-create the sound of a time gone-by is his greatest gift, and his eerie version of Louisiana mojo and gris gris is on full display here. Given Russell’s frail health and serious brain surgery just before the album’s recording, his voice is filled with genuine emotion and pain as he drones the chorus of mortality. The highlight is Ribot’s screeching, piercing voodoo guitar licks, giving this song a sinister sway that anoints it with mystery and darkness. If the producers of HBO’s sexy vampire tale, “True Blood” don’t use this song next season to play over the closing credits, it’s their loss. The wary should listen with the lights on.

“Monkey Suit” – This Stax/Volt rocker chugs with the horns and the beat of a classic Sam And Dave single from the ‘60s, and recalls the similar influence of Bruce Springsteen’s bombastic B-side, “Pink Cadillac.” Taupin’s first verse seems to reference to famous bullet-riddled climax of the ground-breaking film, “Bonnie And Clyde.” Elton’s having a ball singing this one, letting it rip and channeling his sassy soul side, the female backing vocals add to the delirium with their “oohs” and “shoop-shoops,” and the high-end piano pounding flourishes by Elton and Leon make this a funky, fun throwback that echoes Russell’s roadhouse, rave-up rockers of the past.

“The Best Part Of The Day” – OK, so it does sound suspiciously like “Tinderbox” at times, and these Taupin lyrics celebrating the simple things of life do drip with a sappy sentimentality. But nonetheless, its tender theme and great lines, “Like Romeo angels in the roof above” and “I hear you singing “I Shall Be Released”/Like A chainsaw running through a masterpiece (another veiled reference to Russell?) make it endearing. The chorus grabs you like the some of the best vintage Elton-Taupin ballads, and both Elton and Leon’s vocals truly transform this into something special. Elton’s gritty delivery on the bridge “Thunder breaking in the east/I’m gonna love you ‘til it comes around” clinches it.

“A Dream Come True” – Supposedly the first song written for this collaboration, with Elton and Leon just sitting down and pounding out some boogie rock on their pianos, searching for a melody and some inspiration. It is exactly that – a rollicking, finger frolicking piano exercise that bounces and bops (do you hear a little “Birds” in the melody?). Leon’s lyrics focus on a newfound optimism about life, his music, and the project ahead. The backing vocals in the middle give it a gleeful lift, and those pianos just keep bopping until they can’t bop anymore, and the song comes to a ragged ending sprinkled with the “oomphas” of tired tubas.

“I Should Have Sent Roses” – Love the jazzy production on this bittersweet song of regret. Perfectly placed horns and sorrowful guitar parts convey Taupin’s lament, and Russell’s graveled, creaking voice imparts the sadness of this damning declaration of taking love for granted and wallowing in its loss. This is another song in the classic Leon Russell tradition – at times similar to his signature, “A Song For You” in tone and introspection. Elton’s shared, remorseful vocal helps define the desperation, but this is Leon’s moment.

“When Love Is Dying” – From literally the first chord, every Elton John fan can instantly tell this is going to be one of those timeless Elton John-Bernie Taupin ballads. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s got the drama, the addictive, soaring chorus, the rising backing harmonies (thanks to Brian Wilson), an enticing bridge, and Elton singing his heart out. It’s impossible not to love this song, and if released 25 or 30 years ago, when radio airplay offered widespread exposure, this cry of withering love would be among Elton’s greatest hits, much like his anointed anthems, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” “The One” and “Sacrifice.” This song is where the combination of Elton and Leon sharing vocals works the best, as they each imbue their verses with emotion and power. And Leon’s mourning delivery of the line, “Somebody help me now,” followed by Elton’s commanding bellowing of the chorus is magical. Everyone gets out of the way and rightfully just lets Elton do his thing. Let’s hope this song receives the recognition it deserves as one of Elton and Bernie’s best, and when performed live, it should bring down the house.

“My Kind Of Hell” – One of the two “bonus tracks,” it shakes and shimmies to the beat of “Old ’67.” Another feisty retro rocker with the horns, pianos, and backing vocals adding spice to a catchy chorus. It’s all attitude that makes this more than just filler.

“Mandalay Again” – Why is it that some of Elton’s best songs have been relegated to B-side status, while less deserving songs get album placement? Yes, many times it’s a question of album pacing, but far too many great Elton songs (“Planes,” “Sick City,” “Conquer The Sun,” “Dreamboat,” “Love So Cold,” “Can’t Get Over Getting Over You,” “Take me Down To the Ocean,” “How’s Tomorrow?,” “The North Star,” “So Sad The Renegade”, to name a few) have be cast into oblivion (only known by the diehards) not because of merit, but due to sequencing. This song is the other “bonus track,” and yet, it may be the best song on the album. Even if the “official” album was ballad heavy, this song was NOT the one to cast aside. Like “When Love Is Dying,” it takes only a few chords to realize it’s a classic-in-the-making. This is Elton and Bernie’s clear tribute to Russell and his classic repenting, “Back To The Island” (the song credited with Elton contacting Russell in the first place). Taupin’s lyric of a past love never fully explored and Elton’s soothing, buoyant, tropical melody alludes to Russell’s original with its own magnetism. Elton and Leon sound great and it’s just a joyous, beautiful song. It’s the one I keep coming back to for repeated listens, and always will.

“Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” – This nostalgic love song is the centerpiece of “The Union,” with its outlook on life, personal attributes, and the power of inspiration and drive encapsulating what the album is all about. The song’s slow, lilting pace connotes its inner reflection of self and others, and again, Elton and Leon’s vocals express the exact amount of emotion for the past and hope for the future. Elton’s solo live rendition in concert earlier this year was a mere hint of the power and pathos that his recorded version carries and communicates. Elton and Leon are singing to one another, and for one another. It’s the album’s personal love letter to each from each, and their performance here proves the title.

“In The Hands Of Angels” -- Leon’s payback of appreciation for Elton’s generosity to create their new star-crossed collaboration, this angelic, heartfelt “thank you” traces Russell’s personal return from death’s door and creative complacency. There is a celestial contentment in his lyrics, elevated by a heavenly choir that transports the song and it sentiments to a higher plane and a higher power. You can hear Russell’s genuine gratitude for the amazing opportunity that Elton offered. Together, “The Master” and “The Governor,” “The Mad Dog” and “The Englishman” have formed an almost perfect “Union.”

"We must do." Leonardo DaVinci

James Turano is a graduate with honors from Elmhurst College, graduated from St. Bartholomew Grade School in Chicago, and is the creator and benefactor of an annual writing scholarship at the high school. Turano, a self-professed “entertainment junkie and pop culture guru” has worked in the Chicago media and arts as a newspaper and magazine writer, columnist, reporter and editor, radio talk show host, an executive with the international public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, and as an actor, with various theater groups in Chicago and its suburbs. He has interviewed many important players in Elton’s career including Bernie Taupin. He also wrote the liner notes for the award-winning 1998 album release, “Crop Circles,” by Johnstone and John Jorgenson, and contributed 40 album reviews to “The Elton John Scrapbook.” Known as "Elton" Jim as part of "The Garry Meier Show" radio program on WGN Radio AM 720 in Chicago, daily from 3-7 pm. Turano's Ron Santo impersonation is one of the best bits the show has going.

Leon Russell: The Albums Reachin' Charts


Leon Russell

United States
N. 60 (29 Weeks)



Leon Russell & The Shelter People

United States
N. 17 (29 Weeks)

N. 14 (25 Weeks)

United Kingdom
N. 29 (1 Week)



Asylum Choir II

United States
N. 70 (20 Weeks)


United States
N. 2 (35 Weeks)

N. 4 (30 Weeks)



Leon Live

United States
N. 9 (26 Weeks)

N. 9 (12 Weeks)

Hank Wilson's Back!

United States
N. 28 (15 Weeks)



Stop All That Jazz

United States
N. 34 (16 Weeks)

N. 43 (14 Weeks)



Will O' the Wisp

United States
N. 30 (40 Weeks)

N. 72 (5 Weeks)



The Best of Leon Russell

United States
N. 110 (16 Weeks)

Wedding Album

United States
N. 34 (28 Weeks)



Make Love to the Music

United States
N. 142 (5 Weeks)




United States
N. 115 (10 Weeks)



One for the Road

United States
N. 25 (18 Weeks)

N. 28 (18 Weeks)



The Live Album

United States
N. 187 (2 Weeks)

22 Oct 2010

Leon Russell: The Singles Music Charts


Tight Rope

United States
N. 11 (12 Weeks)

N. 5 (14 Weeks)



I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry

United States
N. 78 (5 Weeks)

Queen Of The Roller Derby

United States
N. 89 (2 Weeks)

Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms

United States
N. 78 (5 Weeks)



If I Were A Carpenter

United States
N. 73 (5 Weeks)

N. 87 (3 Weeks)



Lady Blue

United States
N. 14 (19 Weeks)

N. 44 (7 Weeks)



Back To The Island

United States
N. 53 (5 Weeks)

Rainbow In Your Eyes

United States
N. 52 (12 Weeks)