While Gram Parsons is often considered the poster boy of Cosmic American Music, Leon Russell was the most prolific exponent of that synthesis of gospel, blues, rock, country and old-time storytelling that poured out of the US in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Indeed, as the latter decade dawned, Russell was a man at the very heart of modern music.
“Russell was a man at the very heart of modern music.”
Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1942, he began playing classical piano at an early age, overcoming a birth defect that slightly paralyzed the right hand side of his body and forced him to lead with his left hand. Inspired by R&B and the first generation of rock’n’roll stars, by the time he turned 14 he’d begun gigging around Tulsa’s clubs. After backing the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis with his band, The Starlighters, he moved to Los Angeles while still in his teens.
Now calling himself Leon Russell, his classical training stood him in good stead as he joined famed session outfit The Wrecking Crew, and worked on countless sessions by the likes of The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Byrds and Ike And Tina Turner with producers including Don Costa, Jack Nitzsche and Phil Spector.
He also joined the house band on TV show Shindig! – one particular performance of Roll Over Beethoven on November 18, 1964 typifying his ability to blend the odd neo-classical flourish with Chuck Berry’s 1956 classic.
Also in ’64, Russell opened a studio at his home on Skyhill Drive with the aim of cutting his own music. Teaming up with Texan songwriter, Marc Benno, he formed The Asylum Choir. Their debut, Look Inside The Asylum Choir, was released in 1968, by which time Russell’s studio had become the epicentre for an emerging breed of young American musicians – Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett among them, with whom he played and acted as an un-credited co-producer on their 1969 album, Accept No Substitute. The record came to the attention of George Harrison, and it was the Beatle who recommended Delaney, Bonnie and their gang to Eric Clapton, who famously enlisted them as his backing band, and then employed them on his first solo album.
By that time, Russell had already set up Shelter Records with English producer Denny Cordell, working with Joe Cocker on his debut album and supplying the Sheffield singer with a key tune: Delta Lady. A man ever on the move, Russell was also busy recording his own solo album with producer Glyn Johns, who corralled a star-heavy line-up that included Harrison, Clapton, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and Stevie Winwood. While Leon Russell peaked at Number 60 in the US charts, its lead track, A Song For You, confirmed Russell’s songwriting prowess. The track was subsequently covered by over 100 artists, ranging from Donny Hathaway to Willie Nelson.
In March 1970, just as his album was released, Russell headed out on the road as the musical director and all-round ringmaster for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour. It was his fearless, strong-willed co-ordination of that 40-strong travelling freak show that secured him the nickname of The Master Of Time And Space.
Despite the demands of that exhausting jaunt, his second solo set, Leon Russell And The Shelter People, followed in May ‘71. His first Top 20 album, combined with a chart-bound cover of Superstar (co-written by Russell with Delaney Bramlett) by The Carpenters saw his stock rise further.
His third album, 1972’s Carney, confirmed Russell’s own superstar status, peaking at Number 2 in the US, while its lead track, Tight Rope, broke into the Top 20. Ironically, it was also to mark his withdrawal from the spotlight, his patience tried by industry machinations. The album that followed, 1973’s Hank Wilson’s Back (Vol. 1), was a left turn into country music, the first of what seemed like a series of genre experiments, the second being 1974’s Stop All That Jazz where he was backed by Shelter funk signees, the Gap Band.
Whether Russell actively sought to escape from the limelight or whether it was simply a lack of a strong-handed manager, his career seemed in decline as the ’70s progressed and, by the ’80s, he described himself as being at the “bottom of the barrel”.
“The Black Crowes regularly played live in front of a huge photograph of Russell.”
His influence, however, remained evident in certain quarters. In the ’90s, Atlanta roots-rockers The Black Crowes regularly played live in front of a huge photograph of Russell, while a number of artists continued to record his material - including Luther Vandross (who cut his version of Superstar in 1984) and Amy Winehouse (A Song For You appears on her posthumous set, Lioness: Hidden Treasures).
Then, in 2009, came the call from an old admirer and friend, Elton John, who asked Russell to record an album with him. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, The Union was a satisfying set which served as a reminder of Russell’s unique contribution to music.
While sessions were interrupted by Russell’s poor health, they were otherwise productive, yielding 10 songs in four days. The album – which also featured appearances by Brian Wilson, Booker T Jones and Neil Young – hit Number 3 in the US, giving him his highest charting album since 1972. An accompanying documentary saw Elton John further eulogise Russell, describing him as his “greatest influence”.
When, on November 13, Russell died at his Nashville home at the age of 74, Elton was once again fulsome in his praise of his friend writing a simple, heartfelt note on social media that read:
“My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me. Thank God we caught up with each other and made The Union. He got his reputation back and felt fulfilled. I loved him and always will.”