Leon Russell (1942-2016)


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Leon Russell, a singer-songwriter and pianist who spent much of the early 1960s appearing on pop hits as a Los Angeles studio musician and who, in the years that followed, was a solo artist and composer of hits such as A Song for You, Tight Rope, This Masquerade and Superstar, died on Nov. 13. He was 74.

Back in March 2014, I spent several hours with Leon at his home outside of Nashville. The house was loaded with eclectic furnishings reflecting the artist's eccentric personality. While Leon's long snow-white hair and beard and aviator sunglasses created the persona of an aging Hell's Angel's biker, he was a country boy at heart—hewing close to his earthy vision of life.

Today, I'm going to provide you with my profile in its entirety for The Wall Street Journal, followed by my favorite clips:

Nashville/March 31, 2014

Leon Russell's ankles hurt. Seated in a red easy chair in the living room of his Tudor-style home—his legs extended and a white foam square tucked behind his head—Mr. Russell was dressed in a black sports jacket, a blue dress shirt, green chinos and black loafers. When he stands, Mr. Russell must support himself with a cane, but he uses a motorized wheelchair when traveling more than 50 feet.

“Bones in my feet reach too far and have pulled my Achilles tendon flat, so it's hard to stand or walk for very long," said the 71-year-old pianist and singer-songwriter. “I also have a slight paralysis on the entire right side of my body. The doctor who pulled me out at birth damaged my second and third vertebrae. But without those tugs, I probably would have been a regular guy selling insurance in Texas or something."

Neither disability seems to have slowed Mr. Russell. On Tuesday, he will release his 37th studio album—"Life Journey" (Universal)—a mix of originals and standards ranging from Robert Johnson's “Come On in My Kitchen" to Billy Joel's “New York State of Mind." The new album follows “The Union," a hit duet CD in 2010 with Elton John that revived Mr. Russell's career.

While “Life Journey" shares qualities with Mr. Russell's 2002 songbook release, “Moonlight & Love Songs," it has more sass and grit thanks to the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and strings arranged by jazz pianist Alan Broadbent.

Mr. Russell is a study in contrasts. While his fierce eyes and long white hair and beard project the image of a Yukon prospector, his hushed twang and courtly manner are a throwback to a more genteel age. A self-described independent, the edgy artist is clearly eager for renewed mainstream acceptance—on his terms. And though Mr. Russell's backwoods vocals and honky-tonk piano sound untrained, few musicians can match his skill or feel-good touch.

Mr. Russell began his career in 1960, touring for two years as Jerry Lee Lewis's opening pianist. He then became a top Los Angeles studio musician—recording behind dozens of artists ranging from the Ronettes and Beach Boys to Sam Cooke and Frank Sinatra.

In 1970, Mr. Russell masterminded Joe Cocker's seminal “Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour and wrote “A Song for You," “Superstar," “This Masquerade" and other hits. He went on to record formidable soul, gospel, country, blues and bluegrass albums.

“My new CD has a lot of stuff I wanted to do for years, but never did," said Mr. Russell, stroking his beard. “Back then I didn't know anyone who could write Count Basie arrangements and I never had the money to commission them."

Elton John, who used to open for Mr. Russell in the early 1970s, helped in that regard—but insisted Mr. Russell use a producer. “So I called Tommy LiPuma," Mr. Russell said. “We go back to 1965, when he produced the O'Jays' first album and I played piano on it."

Born in Lawton, Okla., in 1942, Mr. Russell was introspective at an early age. Piano lessons began at 4, and by 14 he was playing at local clubs. “Whatever I heard I could remember and play. When I came home from jobs, I'd listen to my radio. The only station it picked up favored R&B and Pentecostal gospel."

Mr. Russell played piano in the local Methodist Church but soon found the music “starchy." “The Pentecostals had horns, drums, guitars, huge choirs and screaming and dancing and all kinds of stuff. That was for me." Mr. Russell also took up the baritone horn to play in the high-school marching band. “I needed a strap to keep it on, and I'd be limping down the road trying to carry it," he said. “But I got to go to the big football games."

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1959 to work in advertising, Mr. Russell soon left to tour with Mr. Lewis, returning in 1962. “I played some of my demos for [singer-songwriter] Jackie DeShannon, who introduced me to [arranger] Jack Nitzsche. Jack worked with [producer] Phil Spector, and I soon met studio musicians like Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell and others who did almost all the rock and pop recording in L.A."

From 1962 to 1968, Mr. Russell appeared on hundreds of singles and albums by other artists as “Russell Bridges," his birth name, developing a reputation for inventive piano licks. “Arrangers just left my parts blank and told me to play jazz, blues or rock in those spots," he said. In 1965, Mr. Russell let his hair grow long. “I had to go to Memphis and didn't have time to get a trim before rushing back for a recording job.

“At the studio, guys I knew said nasty stuff about my hair, which ticked me off. So I let it really grow. One day Sinatra stared so long at my hair in the studio that he walked into a pole."

To compensate for the delayed reaction of his right hand, Mr. Russell had to think ahead. “I trained myself to imagine what I would play six or seven seconds later and figured out something else if I couldn't," he said. “When I started playing guitar in the '60s, it took me a year just to figure out how to hold the pick in my right hand."

Tiring of anonymous pop work, Mr. Russell built his first home studio in 1969 and started recording his own songs and albums. That year, he was asked to produce Joe Cocker's second album, which included Mr. Russell's hit “Delta Lady." Then he was asked to sign on as musical director for a seven-week tour planned by Mr. Cocker for early 1970. Mr. Russell took the job.

To prepare, Mr. Russell brought together more than 15 highly skilled musician and singer-friends. “In just four days we were fully rehearsed and ready to hit the road. What made that 'Mad Dogs' tour so successful was the tribal connection between the audience and Joe and my band. It was like the rock 'n' roll revues I saw as a kid in Oklahoma."

Mr. Russell also began writing songs without a collaborator. “I found the process difficult until I stopped trying to be the writer and performer at the same time," he said. Mr. Russell soon made a few adjustments. “I'd record myself playing piano off the top of my head. After about 20 minutes, I'd wind up with enough for 2½ songs. I'd listen back, edit, moan a melody and add syllables for the words."

Lyrics were a little trickier. “I used to write on pads with a pen but had trouble reading the words the next day. Years later, Bob Dylan taught me to just write and write on a laptop computer. Then I'd print that out. When it was time to write a song, I'd go through the pages and sing melodies to words that moved me."

Today, songs come faster. “At the risk of sounding immodest, I can write you one right now," he said. “Turns out Elton is the same way. I really thought my career was over, that I couldn't do this anymore. Elton changed that with our last album and by encouraging me on this one. Looks like I still have it."

As you probably sense, it was a marvelous afternoon—the two of us talking while facing his large flat-screen TV as a basketball game played out with the volume muted. His trademark sunglasses off, Leon had the demeanor of a frontier judge, the kind who would have a gold pocket watch and small fancy French pistols hidden in unsuspecting places. 

Leon's lifelong passion was music, and he was in his own skin singing, playing piano or both. He also could do it all—rock, R&B, soul, country and the American songbook. Only when he was singing and playing was he truly communicating. Born in Oklahoma, Leon was proud of his rural beginnings. But like fellow country boy and studio musician Glen Campbell, Leon loved making you think he was a hick lost in the fog of a big city. That gag lasted until he began to play piano, at which point Leon's peers typically stared in wonder as he stirred up a musical flavor none could match. A hick indeed.

Last night I was e-chatting with singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon about Leon: “Hi Marc, Leon was the best. I knew he was a genius the moment I heard him play. He will be missed. A one-of-a-kind musical painting. There won't be another like him. Love you, Leon."

JazzWax clips. Here are my favorite Leon Russell songs and recordings:

Here's Leon Russell in 1964 on TV's Shindig playing Roll Over Beethoven...

Here's Gary Lewis and the Playboys' Everybody Loves a Clown, a rather sophisticated pop song co-written by Leon Russell, who also is playing piano...

Here's Leon playing and singing A Song for You...

Here's Bonnie Bramlett singing Groupie (Superstar), the original name of the song she co-wrote with Leon Russell that the Carpenters covered in 1971...

Here's Leon playing and singing his 1972 composition This Masquerade (pay careful attention to his chord voiceings)...

Here's Leon signing and playing his Tight Rope, a #1 hit in 1972. Again, dig his rollicking piano and how sophisticated the chords become as the song progresses...

Here's Leon Russell on piano with Joe Cocker singing The Letter in 1970...

Here's Leon and then wife Mary singing Bobby Womack and Harold Payne's Daylight from The Wedding Album in 1976...

Here's J.J. Cale and Leon Russell at Leon's Paradise Studios in L.A. in 1979...

Here's Leon singing Angel Eyes from Moonlight and Love Songs in 2002...

And finally, here's Georgia on My Mind from Life Journey (2014), produced by Tommy LiPumma...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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