When I read online the other day (July 19, 2016) that Leon Russell, now 74, had a heart attack and will postpone his tour dates, I felt that a great career which has emerged in stages might finally have come to an end. [Update: Russell has indeed passed away on November 13, 2016.] I’m not sure how many Americans were really familiar with Russell’s best work at the time he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, but as Elton John made clear in his introductory speech, few if any musicians working within that genre have contributed as much to it as a vital and exciting art-form.
Art-form, you say? Rock music? Yes, I say, and in this case “art-form” doesn’t mean mooshy-gooshy backdrops of strings as in the case of the Moody Blues or dropping in quotes from Bach or Mussorgsky as did The Doors’ Ray Manzarek or Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They were fine musicians, no question about it, but they weren’t original and they weren’t transformative. Russell was.
One of the great ironies of Russell’s life and career is that he has spent so much of it in the shadows, partly by accident and partly by design. Let me explain. Born Claude Russell Bridges in April 1942, but known as Russell during his school years, he was a precocious child talent who began playing the piano at age four. Ten years later, thanks to the fact that Oklahoma was a “dry” state in the 1950s, he began his professional career at the tender age of 14. Rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis heard him play and hired him as opening act and intermission pianist for his tour until he discovered how young he was. Not all the states Lewis played in were dry!
In 1959, at age 17, Russell moved to California, changed his name and somehow got involved with the group of highly skilled professionals known as “The Wrecking Crew.” The Wrecking Crew were the first-call musicians in the union for all recording dates, regardless of musical genre; Glen Campbell and J.J. Cale were also part of this elite group. Thanks to his contacts, Russell played piano and guitar—which he learned from James Burton—on a bewildering array of recordings by Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, The Everly Brothers, Del Shannon, Duane Eddy, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Jan & Dean, Sandy Nelson (Let There Be Drums), Bobby “Boris” Pickett (Monster Mash) , Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Dean Martin, The Fleetwoods (Come Softly to Me), Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Gram Parsons, The Crystals, The Ronettes, every Phil Spector and Beach Boys record, Delaney Bramlett, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, the Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man), Barbra Streisand, the Ventures (Walk Don’t Run), Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Harry Nilsson, Frank Sinatra (Strangers in the Night), the Band, Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, B.B. King, Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Freddie King and the Rolling Stones. He can still be seen on YouTube in early clips from the T.A.M.I Show, playing and singing Roll Over Beethoven, and 1965’s Shindig performing Jambalaya with a young Glen Campbell on banjo.
But happily for us, Russell had bigger ambitions that included breaking out of his studio life. In 1968 he and guitarist-singer Marc Benno produced a studio album for Smash records titled Look Inside the Asylum Choir. This was no ordinary concept album. Russell, in an almost manic fit of creativity, wrote and arranged every track using a sped-up trumpet section overlaying the multi-tracked rhythm section of himself on piano, guitar and drums and Benno on vocals, guitar and bass guitar. The album went nowhere, none of the songs became a hit, yet it had a rabid following among young listeners who were paying attention to unusual trends in music.
Russell’s real breakthrough year, however, was in 1969 when he first worked with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, the highly gifted but personally divisive husband-and-wife team of “Gospel rockers.” Here is where Russell’s unusual style of piano playing first emerged in its mature state, a way of playing the instrument as if it were a set of tuned drums. His technique, though very solid, was not particularly flashy but it didn’t have to be. Russell combined the New Orleans-style beat of musicians like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair with a gospel sound. Listening to him play, one scarcely thought of him as a rock pianist because he played so differently from anyone else. That same year, Russell wrote the song Delta Lady, which reached #11 on the Billboard 200, for a Joe Cocker album. A year later, he accepted Cocker’s invitation to form a band and write arrangements for his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
I never liked Cocker’s singing, which struck me as a cross between hoarse screaming and regurgitation, but I went to see the Mad Dogs and Englishmen film twice because of Russell. He was all over the place, not only playing guitar and piano but also leading the outstanding band for which he wrote arrangements. Once again, Russell’s arrangements stood out as unusual and different from the usual norm of rock bands. He used a lean sound rather than a thick one and gave the trumpets swiftly flying figures to play, often in conjunction with an electric guitar. The saxes, not the brass, acted as rhythmic punctuation to each song, with Russell’s piano or guitar adding little flourishes at the ends of phrases. And in the midst of this tour, he recorded his first solo album, titled simply Leon Russell, for Shelter Records, the company he and Denny Cordell had founded in 1969. Originally the label was distributed by Blue Thumb, but by the time his 1970 album was recorded it was being distributed by Capitol-EMI. There are two ironies about that first album. One was the adoption of an inverted “Superman” S on an eggshell as their logo, which they were eventually sued for by DC Comics, and the other was his setting of Bob Dylan’s song Masters of War to the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner. The latter became so offensive to many people that after the first pressing, Shelter was persuaded to simply omit the track from all subsequent pressings on LP.
The Leon Russell album hit the musical world like a bombshell. Although none of the tracks became “singles” hits, both Delta Lady and A Song for You were established as classics, being covered by many other artists. I remember first hearing it while in college and being dumbfounded by the raw energy and vitality of the music. These were white musicians? They had the same kind of unlimited emotional power as listening to Ike and Tina Turner or Ray Charles at his best.
The energy that Russell expended in those years was indeed prodigious. In December 1970 he and his “Shelter People” did a TV recording session at Homewood, California that was broadcast live. In 1971 he began touring on his own, in 1972 recording a follow-up album, “Leon Russell and the Shelter People” that included further classics such as Crystal Closet Queen and Alcatraz in addition to his gospel-rock renditions of two Bob Dylan songs, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. The following year saw a three-LP live set that was dynamite in cardboard sleeves, and then his next studio recording, Carney. In 1973 he played two tunes for George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh. But with Carney came the first change: a quieter, more introspective Leon Russell. And then he recorded a country album—and a very good one—under the title Hank Wilson’s Back. Russell was returning to his country music roots. This was fine for him: it made him happy and he was able to start performing with such country giants as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Sheryl Crowe. But a country Leon Russell was an excellent but not exceptional singer-pianist. The edge had gone from his music. I learned many years later than part of the transformation was also due to his suddenly becoming nervous about playing for large audiences. I still admired Russell but could not get into his new incarnation.
Then along came Elton John, who had appeared in an article written in 1970 called “Don’t Shoot the Piano Player” along with Russell and Randy Newman as rising stars in rock music. In 2009 he recontacted Russell and did a tour with him, then an album. Russell was very ill even then, having had a five-hour brain operation. Some of their performances together recaptured some of the old energy, and some didn’t. And a lot of the music they played was country rock, which is not the same as gospel rock, although Hearts Should Have Turned to Stone tried to recapture some of the old magic.
My readers know that I normally detest rock music. I find it mostly contrived and shallow, lacking both creativity and real emotional connection. But Leon Russell, particularly the Russell of 1968-73, was a different animal. He was, indeed, “The master of space and time,” as he called himself, and for those few brief years he was one of the most vital and innovative American musicians who ever lived—an Oklahoma boy transplanted to the big city and plugged into DC current. There was no one like him then, and no one like him now. Look up those old records and check him out. Call me crazy, but there’s something magical about him singing such lyrics as “I’m gonna sing a song of love for you one more time” to his explosive Gospel beat, only to have a hyped-up female background chorus respond with “Tutti frutti, the cutie’s on duty!”
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley