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Diva forever


Elton with Leon Russell, with who Elton has collaborated on the country, blues and gospel-tinged The Union

Elton with Leon Russell, with who Elton has collaborated on the country, blues and gospel-tinged The Union


Elton with Leon Russell, with who Elton has collaborated on the country, blues and gospel-tinged The Union

The cavernous screening room of The Electric Cinema on London's Portobello Road might be hot and sticky on this late autumn afternoon, but a chill has just passed through the assembled crowd.

Everyone is here to listen to the first playback of Elton John's new album, The Union. The 63-year-old has a notorious aversion to the press and something of a reputation for being -- to put it politely -- difficult.

Shivers run down the spines of all those in attendance as fears grow that the Elton of the (in)famous fly-on-the-wall Tantrums and Tiaras documentary has turned up today.

"Elton requests no talking during the playback," a handler sternly instructs Day & Night on the way in. "No flash photography please -- it upsets Elton. He will not be sitting in for the playback and will answer questions afterwards for 30 minutes only." Well, that's us told.

However, when the artist formerly known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight finally ambles into the room, it immediately becomes clear that we were worried over nothing. Dressed in a simple black suit with a green T-shirt, tinted glasses disguising his eyes, the star seems shy, humble, and positively embarrassed to be there. Luckily, he's also affable and in a frank, open mood as he speaks well past the designated time slot.

"I stayed downstairs for the playback because I was so terrified," he says with a smile. "Even now, after how ever many records, playing something to people is so arse-paralysingly frightening."

It's hard to imagine Elton being intimidated by anyone or anything, especially when it comes to music: some 250 million albums sold over a four-decade career, the distinction of holding the best-selling single of all time (you know the one), and bagging an Oscar, a Tony, a Golden Globe and five Grammy awards along the way for writing and composing music for the screen, charts and stage.

But it turns out there are contemporaries that also make him cower, one of which is singer-songwriter and musician Leon Russell, and with whom Elton has collaborated on the country, blues and gospel-tinged The Union (which is produced by T Bone Burnett).

Back in the 60s, Leon was a major name in American music, becoming part of Phil Spector's studio group and playing back-up for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

However, due to personal and commercial problems, Leon's career collapsed in the late 70s, and the now 68-year-old was then relegated to a footnote in rock history, becoming a struggling hand-to-mouth musician playing small gigs to stay afloat.

Elton first met Leon in 1970 at a gig in the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. "Leon was my idol," Elton confesses today. "At that time, no other pianist and vocalist influenced me more than him. There was just something about the way he played. He was very encouraging and even gave me a recipe for when I lose my voice that I still use to this day."

The singer says he felt compelled to make The Union with Russell in order to help get the man back on his feet and also to introduce his work to a whole new generation.

"I was on safari in Africa with David [Furnish, Elton's civil partner] two years ago when I came across one of Leon's albums on David's iPod," Elton reveals. "It was like kismet. I rang Leon from Africa and spoke to him for the first time in 35 years and our conversation was about making a duet album.

"To me, he's someone who shouldn't be forgotten and should be recognised. To this day I don't really know what happened to his career. I asked him, 'What have you been doing since?' And he replied, 'I've just been driving around on the bus, doing some live shows, making a living'. His wife later told me that he'd more or less given up, and that this phone call brought him back to life."

Amazingly, just a week after undergoing surgery for a brain tumour, Leon was in an LA recording studio for three hours a day laying down tracks with Elton. In February of this year, he brought the house down at the Grammy awards and suddenly Leon was back on everyone's mind.

"People like Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks and Grace Jones all came to the studio just to pay tribute," Elton says. "Paul McCartney rang me saying how much he'd loved him back in the day.

"Now we're hoping to get his song catalogue back for him so he has some assets in the future and will be comfortable financially. Leon signed his rights away in the 60s and 70s, and he got ripped off, like happened to so many artists."

Elton admits that their two fates could have been switched at that pivotal moment in the 70s when their respective career paths so spectacularly diverged. "It's all a matter of luck and being in right place at right time," he says.

"I don't know how I kept my career considering my drug consumption at the time. I loved to work, so maybe that's the only reason I endured. If I hadn't the work when I was taking drugs, even though some of that work wasn't very good, I would probably be dead. I've always been very, very driven and ambitious, and I wanted to be part of something that I loved. Leon is more laid back. Maybe that's where we differed."

Indeed, Elton goes on to say that, in a long and illustrious career, his greatest achievement has been overcoming his substance abuse problems. "I was a real mess," he admits. "I got clean and sober in 1990. It was hard to do, but that's changed the way I live, the way I think, and it paved the way for me to have a relationship with a person that I love because I would never have been able to have a relationship in that state of mind.

"It's hard to give advice on drugs, but if you're going to do them, get rid of them by the time you're 20. Jared Leto told me that he got sober at the age of 17. Jack Osbourne, a friend of mine, is sober since 18. I spent time with Lady Gaga this summer and she said to me, 'I got cocaine over with by the time I was 20'. I didn't have it over with until I was 43. If you do it, try to get it over as quickly as possible, because it's a fucking waste of time."

It was while making The Union that Elton also discovered -- or rediscovered -- a way of recording that he plans to stick with from here on in.

"I wanted to make a record like Bob Dylan's Modern Times (2006)," he says. "I wanted to put tracks down with a live band on analogue instead of digital. Some of it isn't in perfect time, and some is a little rough around the edges, but that's good for me. I had to go back in order to go forward.

"I can't make pop records anymore. I hate making music videos -- I fucking hate them. I'm 63 years of age. I realise that I'm not going to be in the singles charts again, so I want to make records that I think fit what I want to do for my age.

"I still love doing things like writing for Scissor Sisters, and I listen to all sorts of music like Royksopp and Robyn, but I wouldn't be true to myself if I were to make records like theirs. I wouldn't know how."

It seems he's willing to break out his famed/feared inner diva in order to cling to this new artistic creed, too.

"My record label in America wanted me to do a Motown record and a Christmas record, and I just said, 'Fuck off, I will never do a fucking Christmas record ever'," he says with a laugh.

"So instead I think I'm going to a solo record with T Bone of cover versions of not very well-known songs from the 1950s and 60s. Not making records would be hard, but I know this is what I want to do, and how I want to do it, for the rest of my life."

The Union is released today on Mercury Records

Irish Independent