"It's like Crazy Heart…only without the drink and the drugs," deadpans Sir Elton John when discussing the rise and fall of Leon Russell, his piano playing idol. Introducing The Union, his remarkable new album of duets with Russell, at the Electric Cinema in London's Notting Hill, Elton is in fine form, but is keen to emphasize Russell's impeccable musical credentials. "I don't know why he just fell off the radar," he says, explaining that in the Seventies Russell not only played on a huge variety of Phil Spector records but also wrote anthems such as "A Song For You". Here's what else we learnt from listening to Sir Elton explain this "real labour of love"...1. Elton has worshipped Russell for over three decades. He remembers seeing him sit in the front row of the audience on the second night he played the Troubadour in 1970. "He really is the most incredible looking man," says Elton. "You couldn't miss him!" The pair subsequently went on tour together - and although Elton tended to steal the show every night, there was never any animosity between them.
2. Their friendship was rekindled after 37 years with a phone call. While on safari in Africa, Elton heard a vintage Russell song on David Furnish's iPod and gave the 68 year old singer a call. At the time Russell was scraping a living playing down-at-heel venues and was physically fragile - just before they started recording, Russell needed a five and a half hour operation "because he had spinal fluid coming out of his nose". His confidence was shot as well, asking Elton at one point, "Can I still play and sing?"
3. On their first day in the studio, the pair were visibly uncomfortable and nervous around each other. Elton wasn't even sure the idea of recording twin pianos would work - only listening to Mahalia Jackson on youtube united them through their shared love of gospel.
4. The record's producer is T Bone Burnett, the man behind the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He was all set to record the followup to the hugely successful Alison Krauss/Robert Plant LP, but when recording stalled, he took up Elton's offer. For Elton, this was key to the success of the project: having self-produced his last two records he was keen to try something different.
5. Elton's US record company was also looking for something different. At one point they suggested a Motown covers album and a Christmas record. The succinct response was simply, "I'm never going to do a f***ing Christmas album ever."
6. The other advantage to making an unconventional album is that he's free of commercial constraints. "I can't make pop records any more," says Elton. "And I hate videos. I just watched VH1 and it makes me want to vomit."
7. The model for this LP is Bob Dylan's 2006 Modern Times. "It sounded like velvet," says Elton. There's a further link with Mr Zimmerman as well - the very first time Elton met Dylan it was when the latter came to see Russell backstage (he'd played on "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall").
8. The guestlist for The Union is incredibly impressive. Brian Wilson, Booker T, Don Was and Neil Young all contribute. "Neil and I have been friends since 1971," says Elton. "One night he came back to my flat on the Edgware Road and played the whole of Harvest on the piano." One of the most unlikely collaborations was a cameo by funk musician The Mighty Hannibal. When Elton contacted him about using a sample from "Hymn No. 5", he began discussions with the line "My name is Elton John. I play piano and sell records."
9. Elton knew he had to keep things interesting. "I've made 40 odd albums. People aren't screaming for another Elton John record - I'm not screaming to make another record". When talking about The Union he talks about the influence of Exile On Main Street. "It's one of the greatest records ever made and it's very loose. This album is rough around the edges, not everything is in perfect time."
10. Leon Russell has, according to Elton, a particular type of woman. "Leon loves black ladies," he says with a grin, describing him as "like a bee round a hive" when the gospel singers came in. Apparently the highlight was having Grace Jones sit on Russell's lap for half an hour.
11. As for Bernie Taupin, he was apparently unsure about the project "but then he's quite unsure anyway". Thankfully having met Russell at South by Southwest festival in Texas they realised it should be a truly collaborative effort. "It's a dream come true but it's going to rely on good word-of-mouth," says Elton. "It's not going to get a lot of radio play - not in this format."
12. Although Elton mentioned how proud he is of writing for Scissor Sisters, working on a Tupac record and re-releasing "Tiny Dancer" with Ironik, he knows "the singles chart isn't one I'm going to be in". He wants to make more sophisticated records: quite simply, "I don't think I'm going to be doing 'Crocodile Rock'."
14. Elton hasn't lasted for so long without being able to answer a dumb question. When a Belgian journalist asks what song they would play a six-year-old who knew nothing of the singer, John said simply "Just show him The Lion King."
15. There is a distinct Rolling Stone connection to The Union. Former staffer (and "Tiny Dancer" advocate) Cameron Crowe has recorded the whole experience on video, editor Jann Wenner loves the LP and photographer Annie Leibovitz shot the cover. For Elton, it exemplifies the aim to make a "Seventies record with a modern feel to it".
16. When asked about his greatest achievement, Elton said that it was managing to get sober and clean. "It's hard to give advice" he explains modestly, before explaining that it may be a matter of getting it out of your system at an early age: Jared Leto told Elton he "got sober by the time he was 17". One performer at the last White Tie and Tiara Ball confirmed this. "I was with [Lady] Gaga last week - she said "I got over my cocaine habit by the time I was 20. [laughs] I didn't get over mine till I was 43".
17. Elton's current listening includes Hot Chip, Robyn and Röyksopp. "But I wouldn't be true to myself if I made that kind of record. I'd need a great producer, like Stuart Price, to guide me."
18. At one point Elton was asked whether he ever worried that an artist might turn down a collaboration when he calls them. "It could still happen," says Elton, remembering how sometimes his advice has not been called for: George Michael wasn't best pleased when John gave him some tips in print. [it has to be noted that while Elton has just recorded a new album, Michael has just crashed his car yet again]
19. "It's a new chapter for me, a more mature, very exciting one," says Elton of his plans for the future. In terms of what he has planned next, a solo album with T-Bone is on the cards, hopefully of long forgotten songs of the Fifties and Sixties. He wants to record live with an orchestra over three days, citing Richard Hawley as the kind of template to follow.
20. He hopes that Russell will also do a solo record as well and they are also reissuing his archive. He offered a caution to those who sign away their publishing. "The money is great at the time - but you've got nothing to fall back on. Just look at Nina Simone". Elton hopes that in the future, Russell and he might record together again: he's just delighted to see Russell reborn. They make quite the pair - but the mutual respect is always there. "He calls me 'The Governor'," says Elton, "but I call him 'The Master.'"
The Union by Elton John and Leon Russell (Universal) is out Monday 25th October