I first saw Leon Russell in 1971 or 1972. Then, as now, Leon made everything happen when he took the stage. For heaven’s sake, his rock and roll credits could fill up a big inscribed monolith, if they still made such things.
In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, Joe Cocker had begun to make a name for himself as a soulful interpreter of others’ songs. With his spastic movements and gritty singing, he made quite an impression at Woodstock. And having broken up his Grease band, he needed a new group for an already planned American tour.
For this he would need a bandleader and so he chose Leon Russell, the man who co-produced and arranged his eponymous 1969 debut. (He also sang Russell’s “Delta Lady” whose subject was singer Rita Coolidge, an Alpha Gamma Delta girl.) But Russell was more than a bandleader. He was also a singer/songwriter and a fine pianist.
Originally from Oklahoma, Russell made his way to Los Angeles in the ’50’s where he became a much sought after session musician. There is literally no one of any musical importance that this man has not played with from Doris Day to Frank Sinatra to The Band to George Harrison. “He was my keyboard player,” said Brian Wilson.
Russell was a member in good standing of The Wrecking Crew, a group of session musicians who played on just about every pop record known to mankind. As mentioned in my post on Delaney and Bonnie – of which he and Rita Coolidge were sometimes part – he was a member of the Shindogs, a house band for the musical variety TV show Shindig! (Which also included Delaney and Elvis/Ricky Nelson guitarist James Burton.)
Shindig! ran from 1964 to 1966 and featured just about everybody from that fervent time (Beatles, Jackie Wilson, Kinks, Yardbirds, Stones, etc.). And the videos still very much exist. Go to YouTube, type in Shindig and knock yourself out. (For international readers unfamiliar with American slang, I’m not suggesting you hurt yourself. “Knock yourself out” means, effectively, go for it.) 😀
In 1970, Russell released his first self-titled solo album. (It wasn’t his first album per se as he had already released a couple of albums with different ensembles.) And of course, by “solo” I mean including Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and the proverbial cast of thousands.
The kickoff tune on this album is “A Song For You,” featuring the distinctive voice of Mr. Russell. This song has gone on to become a standard in both popular and occasional jazz versions. Ray Charles’ version won a Grammy:
I’ve been so many places in my life and time
I’ve sung a lot of songs
I’ve made some bad rhymes
I’ve acted out my life on stages
With 10, 000 people watching
But we’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you
It was right around this time that Russell became the leader of Cocker’s rag-tag ensemble, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which in 1970 toured the US and recorded an album at the Fillmore East. (A movie and CD of this touring extravaganza exists. I recall seeing it at the theater and it being quite the party. There were about 5,000,000 people in this band.)
Russell is known as much for his songwriting skill as anything else. In 1969, he co-wrote the song “Superstar,” with Bonnie Bramlett. Since this post is also a tribute to his songwriting, I will use this as an excuse to feature one of my all-time favorite singers, Karen Carpenter.
I have always loved her voice and hers is the only version of this song that can make me feel like crying. Paul McCartney said at the time that she has “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.” Agreed. Backing instrumentation by none other than the Wrecking Crew:
I should mention that in 1969, Russell – a real renaissance man – formed Shelter Records with partner Denny Cordell. The label folded a number of years ago but not before signing artists as diverse as bluesman Freddie King, singer Phoebe Snow and some dude named Tom Petty whose first couple of albums were on Shelter.
Russell went on to write “This Masquerade,” which has become another standard and a notable hit for jazz guitarist George Benson. For the past forty years, he had been involved in producing and playing on other people’s records. However the ’60’s and ’70’s were clearly his heyday.
One of his best friends – and biggest fans – is Elton John. (I can remember seeing both of them together on a TV talk show a long time ago.) In 2010 they recorded their first (and only) collaboration, an album called The Union. Rolling Stone called it one of the best albums of the year.
I was going to feature a song from that album but I want to go back to his first record for a song I’ve always dug called “Roll Away the Stone.” If this sounds very much like Clapton from around that time, it’s no accident. Clapton was heavily influenced for years by the Tulsa sound and its players (Russell, J.J. Cale, Jamie Oldaker, Carl Radle, Elvin Bishop.) I’m pretty sure that’s him on guitar:
Roll away the stone
Don’t leave me here alone
Resurrect me and protect me
Don’t leave me laying here
What will they do in two thousand years?
For the record, I was in Tulsa on business last year and just missed Russell playing at a local venue. A damn shame.
Leon Russell was inducted (by Elton John who called Russell his idol and the master of space and time) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. In that same year he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
After a series of health issues, he died in his sleep at 74 years of age on November 13, 2016. Rock on, dude.