One Plus One Equals Magic

Genre-bending artist collaborations make for genre-defining creations
  • Photo: John Shearer/WireImage.com
    Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
  • Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images
    Run-D.M.C.
  • Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com
    Bono and Frank Sinatra
  • Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
    Leon Russell and Elton John
  • Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage.com
    Lou Reed and Metallica's James Hetfield
  • Photo: John Shearer/WireImage.com
    The Beach Boys and Maroon 5's Adam Levine
  • Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
    David Guetta and Chris Brown
March 08, 2012 -- 4:33 pm PST
By Matt Sycamore / GRAMMY.com

Crimson and clover; leather and lace — pairings that weren't necessarily born to be together, yet form a perfect union that sticks. Pairings such as these are plentiful in music, as are pairings of unlikely artists coming together to create beautiful music.

For years the annual GRAMMY Awards telecast has been doing just this — pairing artists who don't usually perform together to create moments that are forever ingrained in music history. Examples include the crowd-stirring performance of "Stan" by Eminem and Elton John at the 43rd Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2001; and, more recently, the Beach Boys' medley of "Surfer Girl," "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Good Vibrations" featuring Foster The People and Maroon 5 at the 54th GRAMMYs in February.

But what happens when convention is thrown out the window in the recording studio? Sometimes, it's magic. 

Take Raising Sand, the 2007 album by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss that spawned five awards at the 51st GRAMMY Awards, including Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year for "Please Read The Letter." The collaborative effort serves as just one example of what happens when risks are taken and the grand vision of a producer — in this case, GRAMMY winner T Bone Burnett — is put to the test.

Who could have thought of conjuring a musical marriage between the hard-rocking, mystical frontman of blues-rock legends Led Zeppelin and the fiddle-playing chanteuse most famous for her bluegrass with band Union Station? Plant and Krauss did after finding common ground during their first performance together at a Lead Belly tribute concert in 2004.

After handpicking Burnett to produce the album, mining the Americana songbook and taking it into the studio, the pair found out quickly that they may have been born to sing together.

"When we got 75 percent of the way down the line, I realized we'd created something that I could never have dreamt of," said Plant on the pair's Facebook page. Krauss shared that enthusiasm, saying the differences between the artists' backgrounds and career paths only served to enhance the collaboration.

"There's so much romance in contrast," she added. "It was a real life-changing experience."

These unexpected pairings often aren't just life-changing — they can be genre-defining.

Run-D.M.C. were a successful hip-hop group from Queens, N.Y., with a few minor hits before they decided to meld their style of rap with classic rock by dusting off Aerosmith's 1977 hit, "Walk This Way." The trio incorporated their own lyrics and style, and invited Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry to join the party on their 1986 breakthrough album, Raising Hell.

Not only did Run-D.M.C. score a No. 4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 (and their first GRAMMY nomination for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for the album), but rap became a mainstream radio fixture and Aerosmith was jolted back into relevance, launching into arguably the most successful decade of their career.

More recently, metal maestros Metallica joined with art-rock pioneer Lou Reed for 2011's Lulu, which, according to comments by Reed on the project's website, was "the best thing I ever did, with the best guys I could possibly find on the planet. I wouldn't change a hair on its head."

The burgeoning electronica/dance music genre has also been gaining mainstream presence on the strength collaborations featuring DJs and artists, such as David Guetta's performance of "I Can Only Imagine" featuring Chris Brown and Lil Wayne at the 54th GRAMMYs as part of the telecast's first-ever dance segment. Foo Fighters also collaborated with Deadmau5 for the GRAMMY-nominated remix of the rock band's "Rope."

Other pairings that will likely be ingrained in musical minds for decades to come include David Bowie and Bing Crosby's 1977 Christmas TV special performances of "Little Drummer Boy" and "Peace On Earth"; Frank Sinatra and Bono's 1993 duet of "I've Got You Under My Skin"; and William Shatner's entertaining 2004 album Has Been, featuring songs with Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, Brad Paisley, and Henry Rollins.

Arguably one of the more unexpected collaborations came with Elton John and Leon Russell's 2010 effort, The Union. The album was a smashing success, garnering a GRAMMY nomination for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals for "If It Wasn't For Bad" at the 53rd GRAMMYs, and earning the No. 3 spot on Rolling Stone's 30 Best Albums of 2010 list. The Union also marked the highest-charting release for both John and Russell since the '70s.

While John and Russell had been good friends and well-decorated contemporaries who respected each other's music, they hadn't spoken for 35 years until John picked up the phone one day and called Russell, one of his musical heroes. He had one goal in mind for the album.

"If Leon can get the accolades he deserves and be financially OK for the rest of his life, I will have done something decent with my music," John told The New York Times in October 2010. "His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, and it makes me so angry that he's been forgotten."

But John's gesture and the ensuing work the two did on The Union, which was also produced by Burnett, did more than revive Russell's music career — it helped him recover from brain surgery and heart failure.

"Leon was in somewhat a delicate state," Burnett told The New York Times about the recording sessions. "But the longer we went, the stronger he got. I was watching the music fuel him."

And that's the power of a strong pairing, even if it comes out of nowhere.

(Matt Sycamore is a Pacific Northwest-based freelance music writer.)

 

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