Leon Russell has been called a rock and roll Renaissance man, and indeed there is little that this Oklahoma-bred singer-pianist hasn’t done.
His quixotic half-century in music stretches from his teen years in Oklahoma in the late Fifties to his best-selling collaboration with Elton John from 2010, The Union. Between his solo work, contributions to high-profile albums by other artists, and screen exposure in the Bangla Desh and Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentaries, Russell became a veritable superstar in the Seventies.
For someone as celebrated as a solo artist and live performer as Russell, it might be surprising to learn that he spent his first decade working behind the scenes. As an in-demand session musician in Los Angeles during the Sixties, Russell played on countless records, including many of Phil Spector’s productions and hits by the Byrds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Gary Lewis & the Playboys. He also played piano in the house band for Shindig! ABC-TV’s weekly rock and roll show.
During his time as a sessionman and one of the “Shindogs,” he learned to play guitar from the legendary James Burton. He also befriended another Shindog, Delaney Bramlett, and would go on to arrange and play piano on Accept No Substitute – The Original Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Russell became a bandleader in the early Seventies, using musicians from Delaney & Bonnie’s ensemble in organizing Joe Cocker’s memorable “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” touring revue in 1970 and also anchoring the house band for George Harrison’s Bangla Desh benefit in 1971.
Mad Dogs & Englishmen was a new kind of rock tour, designed as a kind of moving commune of musicians, friends and family members “so that everyone could bring their own diversions with them, so they wouldn’t really be away from their normal lives,” Russell commented in 1970. Nearly forty members of the entourage toured the U.S. for two months. The resulting album, recorded at New York’s Fillmore East, was a smashing success, reaching #2 – the highest-charting album of Joe Cocker’s career and a launching pad for Russell’s own emergence as a solo artist.
Beyond these highly visible roles, he’s been a notable music-business entrepreneur, having founded his own studio (Skyhill) and several labels (Shelter, Paradise and Leon Russell Records). During the Seventies, Russell’s Shelter imprint released his own output, launched the careers of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, J.J. Cale, Phoebe Snow and Dwight Twilley. It was on Shelter that venerable Texas bluesman Freddie King revitalized his career.
Russell has been a prolific and celebrated songwriter, He composed “A Song for You,” one of the greatest love songs of the modern era. The list of artists who have covered “A Song for You” includes Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield, Whitney Houston, Willie Nelson, Christina Aguilera and Michael Buble. Several other songs of Russell’s have also been successful for others, including “This Masquerade” (which George Benson took into the Top Ten) and “Superstar” (cowritten with Bonnie Bramlett), a #2 hit for the Carpenters.
Most of all, Leon Russell has enjoyed a remarkable and lengthy career as a performing and recording artist. His all-encompassing style ranges from raucous, gospel-inflected rock to heartfelt romantic ballads. He’s also cut albums of country and bluegrass music, delved into the Great American Songbook, and recorded an album of Christmas hymns. He’s recognized as one of the best interpreters of Bob Dylan and even recorded with Dylan (“Watching the River Flow”) in the mid-Seventies.
As a central figure on the rock scene during the Seventies, Russell shared studios and stages with members of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others. No fewer than three Stones and two Beatles guested on his self-titled debut album – as did Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker. With his long, flowing beard and top hat, Russell cut a memorable figure on concert stages during the Seventies, when he was the self-styled “Master of Time and Space.” His churchy, rolling piano figures and sly, drawling vocals pegged him as a unique stylist, and his evangelical outpouring of energy from the stage made his concerts, as Russell put it, “an artificially induced religious experience.” Among the most captivating performances of the Seventies was Russell’s frenetic, high-energy medley of the Coasters’ “Young Blood” and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” in the Bangla Desh concert documentary.
Russell’s recording career actually began back in 1962, when he and David Gates (later of Bread) cut a single as Dave and Lee. Russell’s first solo single (“Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young”) came in 1965. In the late Sixties he recorded with fellow Oklahoman guitarist Marc Benno; they called themselves the Asylum Choir and made two albums. Russell exploded into public view in 1970 with the release of Joe Cocker’s live double-album Mad Dogs & Englishmen (documenting a tour on which Russell served as pianist and musical director) and Russell’s self-titled debut, which included the classics “A Song for You,” “Delta Lady” and “Hummingbird.” Mad Dogs & Englishman was a remarkable juggernaut, with Russell at the helm of a 20-member musical troupe that he personally assembled on Cocker’s behalf.
Leon Russell & the Shelter People, which appeared a year later, would become his first gold album. Its notable songs included “Stranger in a Strange Land” and Russell’s memorable cover of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness.” The introspective Carney, released in 1972, held the #2 position on Billboard’s album chart for a month and yielded his highest-charting single, “Tight Rope” (#11). The sprawling, three-disc Leon Live documented the full Leon Russell concert experience at its chaotic, charisma-filled peak in 1973.
Russell introduced the world to the Gap Band, a group of fellow Oklahomans who – before they became funk-disco sensations - backed him on Stop All That Jazz (1974). Russell returned to the Top Forty in 1975 with “Lady Blue,” from Will O’ the Wisp. Subsequently, Russell explored his roots in country, recording a set of covers by Hank Williams and others (for which he used the pseudonym Hank Wilson) in 1976. Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1, recorded in Nashville at producer Owen Bradley’s legendary Barn studio, cracked the Top Thirty and netted a minor hit, “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”
His next album was 1978’s Americana, whose title nodded to the melting pot of homegrown influences that figured in Russell’s music (and presciently anticipated the roots-based Americana movement that would take hold in the Nineties). Well-received tours with Willie Nelson yielded the double-album One for the Road in 1979. He cut a live album with New Grass Revival that was released in 1981. Pianist Bruce Hornsby, a Russell protege, produced the 1992 comeback album Anything Can Happen.
In 2002, Russell launched a new label, Leon Russell Records, on which he released albums by himself and artists he discovered. Among his first releases on the label was Signature Songs, wherein he reprised his best-known songs in stripped-down arrangements for voice and piano. Now that Russell had the freedom of his own label, torrent of work followed, including Moonlight & Love Songs (2002), Angel in Disguise (2007), and more volumes in the “Hank Wilson” series.
Over the course of five decades, Russell has proven himself to be a proudly eclectic product of America’s vast musical landscape. “I like all kinds of music, and I hate to do the same thing all the time,” he remarked of his far-ranging muse.
Russell’s career received a major push in 2010 when Elton John – who’s often cited him as an early influence - approached him about a collaboration. T-Bone Burnett produced the project, which included cameos from Neil Young and Brian Wilson. The resulting album, The Union, entered the Billboard chart at #3 – Russell’s highest showing since 1972’s Carney. Rolling Stone would rank it as the #3 album of 2010. Moreover, the single “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” written by Russell, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. The Union also included “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes,” a warm song of tribute by John for and about his fellow pianist, mentor and collaborator.
Leon Russell (piano, guitar, vocals; born April 2, 1941)
April 2, 1941: Claude Russell Bridges (a.k.a. Leon Russell) is born in Lawton, Oklahoma.
1958: Leon Russell moves to Los Angeles, where, as a talented but underaged prodigy, he’ll find work as a live and session musician.
August 1965: “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young,” Leon Russell’s first solo single, is released on Dot Records.
May 1968: Leon Russell and Mark Benno begin recording their first album as the Asylum Choir, which will be released as Look Inside the Asylum Choir later this year.
February 1969: The duo of Leon Russell and Marc Benno begin making their second album as the Asylum Choir at Russell’s Skyhill Studios. It will be released two years later, after Russell has become popular as a solo artist.
July 26, 1969: Accept No Substitute – The Original Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, a landmark roots album, arranged by Leon Russell (who also plays piano), enters the album chart.
February 1970: Leon Russell releases his self-titled solo album, which will reach #60. It includes the classic “A Song for You.”
March 20, 1970: Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, featuring Leon Russell as musical director, performs the first show of a two-month tour in Detroit.
March 27, 1970: The Mad Dogs & Englishmen, featuring vocalist Joe Cocker, performs at New York’s Fillmore East, a recording of which will be released as a double album.
April 1971: Leon Russell & the Shelter People, the singer/pianist’s second album, is released. It will reach #17.
October 16, 1971: The Carpenters’ recording of “Superstar,” written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, peaks at #2 for two weeks (behind Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May”).
June 26, 1972: Carney, Leon Russell’s third album, is released. It will peak at #2 for four weeks.
August 26, 1972: Leon Russell’s “Tight Rope” enters the singles chart, where it will peak at #11.
April 1973: The triple album Leon Live, taken from a performance at the Long Beach Arena the previous August, is released.
August 31, 1973: Leon Russell releases Hank Wilson’s Back, an album of favorite country songs. He will ultimately record three more albums using the Hank Wilson persona.
August 25, 1975: “Lady Blue,” by Leon Russell, enters the chart, where it will peak at #14.
June 12, 1976: George Benson’s recording of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” enters the singles chart. It will peak at #10 and win a Grammy for Record of the Year.
July 1976: Leon Russell releases The Wedding Album, the first of two albums he’ll make with wife Mary Russell. Make Love to the Music will follow a year later.
December 29, 1976: The Best of Leon Russell becomes Russell’s fifth solo album to be certified gold by the RIAA.
September 1978: Leon Russell’s Americana is released. It will be his last studio album of new songs for fourteen years.
June 30, 1979: One for the Road, a live double album by Willie Nelson and Leon Russell, enters the album chart, where it will peak at #25.
April 1981: Leon Russell’s The Live Album, recorded two years earlier with the New Grass Revival, enters the album chart.
March 1984: Hank Wilson Volume II, Leon Russell’s second album of country-music covers – and the only album he’ll record in his musically least-active decade – is released.
April 7, 1992: Anything Can Happen, Leon Russell’s first release in eight years, is issued on Virgin Records.
November 12, 1996: Gimme Shelter: The Best of Leon Russell, a two-disc retrospective, is released.
January 29, 1999: Leon Russell’s Face in the Crowd is released. It comes less than a year after the third volume in his country-music series using the pseudonym Hank Wilson.
September 11, 2001: Leon Russell’s Signature Songs, an album of solo re-recordings of eleven of his best-known numbers, becomes the first release on the artist’s namesake label.
October 19, 2010: The Union, a collaboration between Elton John and Leon Russell, is released. It will enter the album chart at #3, its peak position.
February 22, 2011: Leon Russell’s induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame is announced.
March 14, 2011: Leon Russell is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 26th annual induction ceremony in New York. Elton John is his presenter.
A Song for You
Stranger in a Strange Land
Home Sweet Oklahoma
If It Wasn’t for Bad
Fong-Torres, Ben. “Leon Russell: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone (December 2, 1970): 32-38.
Laredo, Joseph F. “The Master of Time & Space.” Liner notes for Gimme Shelter! The Best of Leon Russell. EMI/Shelter Records, 1996.
Simmons, Michael. “The Ringleader of Seventies Rock Royalty Returns from the Wilderness.” Mojo (November 2010).
Roeser, Steve. Leon Russell: Legend in His Time. Goldmine (September 11, 1998): 26-44.