Alice in Chains thought it would take a miracle to get Elton John to play on the band's tribute record to their late lead singer, Layne Staley. But it only took a listen to the song to get the rock legend on board.
"He's a really warm person," said Alice in Chains co-founder Jerry Cantrell of John. "He got up and gave us a couple of hugs, and said, ‘Well Jerry, I just wanted to tell you that I think it's a beautiful song. ... I really dig the sentiment of what it's about and who it's for and I just want to tell you that I'm going to play on the song.'"
John plays piano on "Black Gives Way to Blue," a short but poignant ode to Staley, who died of a drug overdose in 2002. The song is the title track for their upcoming CD, the grunge rock band's first studio album in 14 years.
Cantrell, who wrote the tune, had already made a demo of the song when someone heard it and suggested John as the perfect person to play the piano part. Although the band knew people connected to the 62-year-old singer, they thought it was a long shot that he would even consider it.
"I didn't think that would happen. He's a pretty busy guy doing his own thing," Cantrell said.
But they sent the song to him, and as fate would have it, both acts were slated to record at a studio complex at the same time.
It wasn't until Alice in Chains left the studio for a break that they got word that John wanted to meet with them.
"We got a call from our studio manager saying that Elton wanted to talk to us," said Cantrell, laughing. "We jumped in the car, left our lunches on the table, and cruised back to the studio and walked into the studio where he was recording."
After John confirmed he would play on the song, the band flew to Las Vegas, where John was performing, to finish the recording.
"One of the most nerve-racking moments I had was actually making a suggestion to him. What do you say to Elton John?" he joked. "But he was really open to the process. ... He fit into the song, and he really brought something that was really necessary and took the song to another level."
The CD, set for release Sept. 29, is Alice in Chains' first with singer-guitarist William DuVall, who joined the band — which also includes drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez — a few years ago. While DuVall has a different sound than Staley, Cantrell says the music is still Alice in Chains.
"It never gets too far out that you can't figure out who it is after a couple of notes, and that's always one of my main goals," he said. "To find that musical fingerprint I think is the goal of every band and musician, and we're very grateful that we found ours pretty early, and it's still intact, although evolved."