The man Elton John called his “Piano Idol”

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Elton John, a celebrated figure in rock and roll, discovered his musical passion not in his classical music background, but in the rising tide of blues and R&B in mid-1960s Britain. Despite his tutelage at the Royal Academy of Music with a focus on Bach and Handel, John was more captivated by the fiery performances of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. His pursuit of a singing career took him from the intricate harmonies of psychedelic rock and baroque influences to the soulful keys of roots rock.

A pivotal moment in John’s musical journey came during a trip to America, where he encountered the roots rock legend, Leon Russell. Initially spotted performing with Delaney and Bonnie, and then as part of Joe Cocker’s acclaimed Mad Dogs & Englishmen ensemble, Russell left a significant impact on John. His awe was not just at the sight of Russell’s distinctive silver mane at one of his own performances at the Troubadour, but more importantly, at his extraordinary piano-playing skills.

Reminiscing about this encounter on BBC’s ‘Tracks of My Years’ program, Elton John revealed, “He was my piano player idol at that time and probably still is.” And Russell, beginning to find fame before John, made a heartfelt gesture by inviting the younger artist to tour with him, a gesture that deeply touched John.

Years later, they reconnected while collaborating on The Union album, a project born from John’s desire to bring Russell back into the mainstream music scene. Elton John openly admitted his motivation behind this collaboration, saying, “I wanted to make an album with him because he’d been forgotten… I wanted him to get his recognition back.” The Union not only succeeded in reviving Russell’s fame but also earned him spots in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

Leon Russell responded to John’s efforts with the ultimate gift for a musician: a song. Crafting the album’s final track, “In the Hands of Angels,” Russell expressed his gratitude to Elton John, his savior who brought him back to the limelight. In an interview with The New York Times, Russell shared his intention behind the song, saying, “I wanted to give Elton something. But what do you give a guy who has six fully stocked houses? So I thought the only thing I could give him is a song.” The song encapsulated the journey of the album and Russell’s heartfelt gratitude towards John, who made him “feel the love down deep inside.”

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