I am always suspicious of duet albums by major artists. Many times they are acts of desperation for careers that are slipping away. Elton John did not fall into that category, however, as his career was in fine shape when Duets was released in November of 1993. In fact, it was a bold and creative choice on his part. It was a moderate success in the United States but became a huge seller in his native country, containing three top ten hits including a number one.
His choice of vocal partners was eclectic and unusual to say the least. Little Richard, Don Henley, Kiki Dee, Tammy Wynette, Bonnie Raitt, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and of course RuPaul among others brought their varied vocal styles to this album with varying degrees of success. The album is cohesive but the performances are inconsistent. It does, however, keep your attention.
The whole idea may have originated from his duet on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” with George Michael at an AIDS benefit concert in early 1991. It was recorded and released as a single with the profits going to charity, becoming a huge worldwide hit that topped the charts in both the U.S. and Great Britain. It was fairly different from the original version contained on 1974’s Caribou. With his return to the top of the charts and again squarely in the public eye you can almost hear him thinking why not more of the same. It turned out that this live performance was magical as it is one of the strongest tracks on the album.
The album, though, is a hit and miss affair. “True Love” with old partner Kiki Dee works well and reached number two in England. This tune, which was originally a hit for Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, fit the vocal style of John and Dee well. His duet with Paul Young on the old James & Bobby Purify hit “I’m Your Puppet” is soulful and their voices blend well together. “If You Were Me” with Chris Rea is one of the smoothest tracks on the album. “Shakey Ground” with Don Henley also comes across well. Henley sounds happy and relaxed, which was quite an achievement for Elton.
Two artists are particularly difficult to blend with vocally. Little Richard is an American original. “The Power,” the longest song at over six minutes, comes close to working. It is a mid-tempo affair but I wish they would have chosen an all out rocker for their collaboration. Elton’s duet with Leonard Cohen “Born To Lose” fares less well. Cohen is just such a unique artist that there is little chemistry between them.
His pairing with country legend Tammy Wynette on “A Woman’s Needs” comes off as odd at best. Elton was an admirer of hers — he would also sing on a tribute album after her death — and this choice is heart over reason. We then come to his duet with sex god/goddess RuPaul on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” which is campy with a capital C. It is one of those performances that was so bad it was mesmerizing. It was a failed single in the U.S. but went top ten in England, proving that at least for once American taste was superior.
Duets is not a great album but it was a brave one; plus it’s interesting for both good and bad reasons. It is one of those places in Elton John’s career where he took a chance and survived.