Elton John Image Credit: Supplied

Elton John is as big as they come. Or so I thought.

The money, the fame, the public tantrums and outbursts, extravagant outfits, the titanium-tongued drama queen of tabloid stories and TV documentaries.

Having sold more than a quarter of a billion records over the past four decades, had more than 50 singles in the Billboard top 40, and recorded the biggest-selling single of all time, the 1997 remake of Candle in the Wind which sold 37 million copies, Sir John sits pretty at the top of many a star's wish list to collaborate with.

Yet as monumental as his name is, for John, the awe is saved for people he claims he'll never come close to.

"I had always wanted to sing with Ray Charles, and in 2004 I was asked to sing on his Genius Loves Company album," the 64-year-old told tabloid!. "We sang Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word together and, although it was apparent that his health was failing, his voice had lost none of the magic that I had loved for so long. He died later that year, so I was so glad I had the opportunity to sing with him."

Back in his early days, John had a smaller band and it worked very well. Now, he's back to his roots working with Ray Cooper, something he's looking forward to showcasing during the Abu Dhabi show on March 29.

"Ray first worked with me in the studio in August 1971, on the Madman Across the Water album, and first joined me onstage at the Royal Festival Hall show six months later. He was the percussionist in my band during the 1970s, and over the years we have toured the world with this Two Man Show. So we have been playing together for over 40 years."

His mind full of memories which had just been tapped, John didn't stop there, his momentum clear.

"I am so fortunate to have had that great live moment in November 1974 with John Lennon, when he joined us onstage at Madison Square Garden and sang Whatever Gets You Thru the Night, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and I Saw Her Standing There with us," he went on. It was sadly to be his last public performance.

"I've been incredibly lucky to have performed with many of the greatest artists, including some of my personal heroes. In recent years I have recorded and toured with my all-time hero, Leon Russell."

Russell, 69, is one of rock music's legendary figures and worked with John on his 30th studio album The Union. In the 1960s, as a session musician in Los Angeles, his distinctive piano style and merging of gospel, rhythm and blues and country was a major influence on John as a young musician.

After 38 years, John contacted Russell thanks to a chance playlist created by John's civil partner, David Furnish, who had never heard of Russell.

While on holiday in South Africa, John was reduced to tears when he heard a few of Russell's tracks, telling Furnish, "This takes me back to such a wonderful time in my life when there was so much great music around and this man was so special."

Russell reborn

On the spur of the moment, John instructed his office to find a telephone number for Russell, and called him at his home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Producer T-Bone Burnett, who won a Grammy in 2007 for the Alison Krauss and Robert Plant album Raising Sand, was called and Russell, a largely forgotten figure, was reborn.

"There isn't really a set procedure for deciding who to join forces with," said John. "I'm always excited about new talent that comes through too, and sometimes I make contact and work with new people. For example, over the past year I've had the 2CELLOS on tour with me. This Croatian duo, Luca Sulik and Stjepan Hauser, shot to international acclaim with their version of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal. They add a fantastic new dimension to the Elton John band."

John is about to release his 31st studio album — The Diving Board, again produced by Burnett.

"I'm very excited about it," he said. "It's due for release in the autumn. It was produced by T-Bone Burnett, and we've revisited the piano-bass-drums format of my early albums."

John seems to have perfected the trick of never quite falling out of fashion while not remaining fully in it either. An ongoing verbal brawl which is still playing out publicly with superstar Madonna, a new baby and Disney film scores keep him in the tabloids. He "gives back" both financially and by supporting up-and-coming acts.

"I've been doing a remix project with Australian duo Pnau. I gave them free rein on all my master tapes and they have come up with some extraordinary new versions of our songs. The first single, Turn Around and Say Good Morning to the Night, which is a reworking of Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, is already getting a great reaction from radio."

But that's not all he's up to. John began his new show The Million Dollar Piano at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas at the end of September last year where he will perform for the next three years.

"Las Vegas just gets better and better and The Million Dollar Piano show has been very successful," he said. "My previous production, The Red Piano, was a groundbreaking show in Las Vegas, but I had to do something completely different this time. The Million Dollar Piano is more of a fan-based show; it's about the history of my music rather than just being a spectacle."

A new father to son Zachary, John says one of the benefits of having a constant show is staying in one place unlike touring. "For me, working for Caesars Palace has been a dream come true. I really love working in Vegas because I don't have to travel so much, even though I am doing four or five shows a week. I'm lucky, my audience likes a good time, they come to Las Vegas to see the show, but they also dine in the restaurants, they gamble and they spend money in the shops, so it's like a dream for the hotels.

"The Colosseum is probably the finest theatre in America, it seats 4,200 but it doesn't feel like that, it's very intimate. It's the best sound, the best view — there's nowhere else to play in Vegas as far as I am concerned.

"If you're going to be in Vegas you have to respect Vegas for what it stands for — Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Sammy David Junior, Siegfried and Roy — all the greats. You want to become part and parcel of Vegas folklore so you give them the best that you can possible give. I've had the best time there because I always thought of it as a challenge and wanted to put on the best show. So yes, that challenge keeps me young. Playing in Vegas is never repetitive, it's different every time."

Family matters

Having dated Furnish, a former advertising executive and now filmmaker, since 1993, the couple entered a civil partnership on 21 December 2005. Their son, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John, was born to a surrogate mother five years later and Lady Gaga, magazine editor Ingrid Sischy, and Sichy's partner Sandy Brant are his godmothers.

"As any parent knows, having a child completely changes your life in ways you could never have imagined," he said. "You find new depths of love, and experience pure joy, along with a huge sense of responsibility. Nothing can prepare you for it and nothing comes close to it."

John also has 10 known godchildren, including Sean Lennon, David and Victoria Beckham's sons Brooklyn and Romeo, Elizabeth Hurley's son Damian Charles, and the daughter of Seymour Stein.

Back to another "special" person in his life, Cooper, and a simple instruction from John.

"There is nobody else who does what Ray Cooper does. Not only is he a virtuoso percussionist, but he brings theatricality and drama to the show — people can't take their eyes off him. He helps bring the songs to life, and people are often surprised that the two of us can produce such a big and varied sound. But to really understand the special relationship between Ray and me, you have to come to our concert."

Elton John has spoken. You have been told.

Don't miss it

Elton John plays Yas Arena on Thursday, March 29. Tickets, priced Dh695, Dh525 and Dh295, are available at thinkflash.ae.