Elton John Reveals His “Piano Idol”

via @Elton John | Youtube

Elton John, the iconic rock and roller, found his musical calling in blues and R&B, despite his classical music upbringing. While studying at the Royal Academy of Music, he was captivated by the explosion of blues and R&B in Britain during the mid-1960s. As he navigated his own singing career, he discovered his piano idol in the form of roots rock pioneer Leon Russell. Elton John’s admiration for Russell remained unwavering, leading to a treasured collaboration and a heartfelt tribute through their collaborative album, The Union.

Discovering Leon Russell

Elton John’s passion for artists like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis led him to explore his own singing career in the 1960s. While initially experimenting with psychedelic rock and baroque influences, it was during a trip to America that he encountered the influential Leon Russell. John first noticed Russell performing with Delaney and Bonnie, and later in the renowned ensemble Mad Dogs & Englishmen, fronted by Joe Cocker. The sight of Russell in the audience during one of his own performances left John momentarily awestruck.

A Piano Player Idol

Impressed by Russell’s talent and distinctive silver hair, Elton John was in awe of his piano-playing abilities. In an interview on the BBC’s ‘Tracks of My Years’ program, John reminisced about his encounter with Russell, stating:

“He was my piano player idol at that time and probably still is.” The admiration was mutual, as Russell recognized John’s emerging fame and extended a heartfelt gesture by inviting him on tour.

The Union Album and Collaboration

After losing touch for some time, Elton John and Leon Russell reunited during the creation of The Union album. John’s intention was to reintroduce Russell to the mainstream music scene, ensuring his name was rightfully recognized. Expressing his motivation for collaborating, John openly admitted:

“I wanted to put his name back in the spotlight.”

The project succeeded in garnering renewed attention for Russell, even leading to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.

A Grateful Gesture in Song

As a token of gratitude to Elton John, Leon Russell crafted the final track of The Union, titled “In the Hands of Angels.” The song reflects the album’s journey and conveys Russell’s appreciation for John’s guidance and support. In an interview with The New York Times, Russell revealed his intent behind the song, stating:

“I thought the only thing I could give him is a song. ‘In the Hands of Angels’ retells the story of the album, thanking Mr. John, who knew all the places I needed to go and made me feel the love down deep inside.”