Leon Russell, performing at The Orleans, gets career boost from Elton John


They sit side by side on the CD cover, and "The Union" of Elton John and Leon Russell gives the two troubadours equal billing.

But the coincidence of having them both in Las Vegas this weekend reveals the true balance of the team-up that yielded last year's acclaimed album.

John fills more than 4,000 seats at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, where choice tickets go for $250.

Russell, the white-maned and somewhat enigmatic singer-songwriter who influenced the British superstar's early sound, is playing the 800-seat theater at The Orleans; tickets top out at Elton's entry-level rate of $55.

In the album liner notes, John laments that "people have forgotten how wonderful this man's music was" and writes that Russell had been "lost in the consciousness of American music."

But before we get too carried away, let's ask Russell how much "The Union" has changed his life.

"I have to get up earlier, and I have to talk to the press. I didn't do that for years," he says. Now he's interviewed by "good people that are pleasant to talk to. Back in my time, I didn't have that. I got some real losers," he says with a chuckle.

And in this telephone chat a few weeks ago, Russell still hadn't gotten around to adding some of his fine songs for "The Union" -- "If It Wasn't for Bad," "I Should Have Sent Roses" -- into his live sets.

"I will, but the lyrics are on a different teleprompter," he says. "I have to add that stuff and talk to my band about it. I've been meaning to do that, but we haven't had a chance to do that yet."

In other words, life goes on as it has for much of the past 50 years. But the 69-year-old Oklahoman does not argue that "I was kind of forgotten" before John interrupted a soap opera with his surprise phone call, inspired by hearing Russell on his iPod during an African safari.

"I was definitely not high profile. ... I never stopped playing, but playing 500 seats a night is different than playing 20,000 seats a night," Russell notes. "He set out to help me out, and I have to say he's done a pretty damn good job of it. It's pretty amazing, really."

Russell's new career momentum is even more significant considering "The Union" sessions were delayed by a six-hour surgery for "a malformation in my brainpan ... a 2-inch split that was leaking spinal fluid out my nose." It was a life-threatening condition because there's "a constant threat of spinal meningitis when you have open access to your spinal column."

Russell was seeing his career peak just as John's was taking off in the early '70s. His distinctive nasal croon was heard on the radio in "Tight Rope," and his Tulsa-based Shelter Records, headquartered in a converted church, put the city on the musical map with albums by J.J. Cale and the Gap Band, and the likes of Eric Clapton dropping in.

(Russell stops short of going along with the often-used phrase "the Tulsa sound." "Some people like to believe in magic," he says. "I suppose it's harmless.")

But as the years went on, Russell's most famous songs were better known by others singing them: the George Benson version of "This Masquerade," The Carpenters' "Superstar" and everyone from Donny Hathaway to Christina Aguilera covering his certified classic, "A Song for You."

"At a certain time, I set out to write standards. I set out to write songs that everybody could sing," he explains. He wanted "Song" to be something both Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra could cover.

"That has to be a certain kind of song, (and) I managed to pull that off. I still try to write that way sometimes, try to write standards. And they're not always much to hear when you first hear them. But after so many people record them, they kind of get a life of their own.

"I never considered myself to be much of a singer," Russell says, but he is gearing up for a new album with big-league producer Tommy LiPuma, who had to remind Russell that he received some early career guidance from him.

"I keep running into these people that owe me," he says with a laugh. "It's kind of cool, really."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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