Various Artists

Elton John Songbook

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Elton John Songbook is one of the finest compliments to any artist in an era where "tributes" proliferate and their purity is sometimes questionable. While the "official" Elton John and Bernie Taupin trib, Two Rooms, had and served a purpose, it is this British import that trumps the major-label release in its listenability, accuracy, and historical importance. Tim Joseph did the research, and dated his liner notes September 1993; they really help put things into perspective. Opening with one of John's namesakes, Long John Baldry, gives wonderful insight for true Elton fans. The 1967 collaboration "Hey Lord, You Make the Night Too Long" sounds more like Tom Jones than one would expect, and it is great. The 1969 instrumental by Bread & Beer Band, "Breakdown Blues," is another early co-written composition by the then Reginald Dwight, and in the liners it is called "one of his rarest recordings." The next track is by Plastic Penny, one of four artists in 1969 who covered John and Taupin. Things kick into high gear with Rod Stewart's "Country Comforts," Aretha Franklin's "Border Song," and the Three Degrees' "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." Two titles written by John and Taupin specifically for other artists, Rod Stewart's "Let Me Be Your Car" from his Smiler album, and the magnificent "Planes" for Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, are absolute gems here. But so much of the work is extraordinary, including Billy Paul's wonderful reinterpretation of "Your Song," a Top 40 hit in the U.K. in 1977, and something the liner notes point out was a rarity -- having chart action with a previously established John hit (prior to the release of the Two Rooms compilation). Esther Phillips does a too-faithful reading of "Philadelphia Freedom," changing the line to "knee high to a woman," and the Eagles' Randy Meisner is actually not too hard to take with "Strangers" (a duet with Ann Wilson from Heart), while the inclusion of Judy Collins' 1984 "Sweet Heart on Parade" and the title track from Olivia Newton-John's 1988 album, The Rumor, shows the wide reach of the songwriting pair and the respect they garnered from other major artists -- these versions of the songs are done so lovingly. Sandy Denny breathes another kind of life into "Candle in the Wind" -- a song that should have hit when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road dominated the charts, but got its revenge with John's versions climbing the charts two separate times. The overexposure a great title like that can endure makes the precision of Denny's 1977 cover all the more remarkable. The meticulous chronological order actually helps this exquisite listening experience; it flows so perfectly, concluding with Tom Robinson's cover of the song he wrote with John, "Elton's Song," recorded specifically for this release. Though it seems they could not get Ringo Starr's 1974 performance of "Snookeroo," and refused to release Lulu's "I Can't Go Loving Without You," which came in sixth place in the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest, it doesn't diminish the importance of this collection, the depth of the information almost as good as the music it describes. An incredible project that all fans of Elton John and Bernie Taupin simply have to track down and own.

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