Born: April 2, 1942 Primary Instrument: Piano
Leon Russell is a music legend and perhaps the most accomplished and versatile musician in the history of rock 'n roll. In his distinguished and unique 50 year career, he has played on, arranged, written and/or produced some of the best records in popular music.
Leon has played on pop, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, standards, gospel, and surf records. As a session musician, arranger, producer, singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, record company owner, bandleader, and touring musician, he has collaborated with hundreds of artists.
Born in southwest Oklahoma in 1942, Leon began piano lessons at age 4. He was playing in Tulsa nightclubs at the age of 14. After graduating from high school, Leon's band, The Starlighters, went on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis for almost two months. Leon left Tulsa at the age of 17 for Los Angeles where he began playing in the L.A. clubs and eventually became one of the best session musicians in Hollywood. He worked with the best Hollywood producers and top musicians in the business.
Russell became part of an elite group of studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew and played on hundreds of hit records in the 1960's. He was part of studio groups such as The Routers and The Super Stocks. The Routers recorded the huge hit Let's Go and The Super Stocks recorded surf and hot rod tunes. In 1964, Leon was a member of the the house band on the Shindig! show on ABC television which showcased the top pop acts.
Leon organized and led the band behind Joe Cocker for the famous Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of the U.S. in March-May, 1971. The huge 11 member band included 3 drummers and a 10 member choir which played 65 shows in 48 cities. The tour was filmed for the movie Mad Dogs & Englishmen. The live double-LP album on A&M Records reached #2 on the U.S. album charts and sold over a million copies.
1971, Leon joined George Harrison and friends for two performances of the Concert For Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York to raise money for refugees. His Jumpin' Jack Flash/Youngblood medley was considered the highlight of the show by some. The album earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
As a songwriter, Leon's songs have hit the charts across all genres and have been covered by a diverse range of artists. Ray Charles recorded A Song For You, B.B. King had a hit with Hummingbird, The Carpenters with Superstar and Joe Cocker with Delta Lady. The Carpenter's cover of Superstar, written by Leon and Bonnie Bramlett, went to #2 on the pop music charts. George Benson won the Record of the Year Grammy in 1976 for his cover of Leon's song, This Masquerade, and it became the first song in music history to hit #1 on the jazz, pop and R&b charts.
When Leon Russell was in the midst of what possibly was the busiest period in his life, he was often referred to by the musicians he worked with as “the master of space and time” for his otherworldly ability to fit into any musical situation.
The Oklahoma pianist, singer, songwriter and producer tapped a wellspring of American roots music forms, from country and gospel to blues and soul, during his assignments as a studio session player in Los Angeles who worked with Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and countless others in the '60s. Later that decade, before launching his solo career, he became the leader of bands assembled by Southern rock musicians Delaney & Bonnie (Bramlett), and English rocker Joe Cocker.
“He was the greatest bandleader of the late-'60s and early-'70s,” longtime admirer Elton John said recently. “At [George Harrison’s] Concert for Bangladesh, on [Cocker’s] Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, he was the man. He walks into a room of musicians [today], sits down at the piano and he still is the bandleader; he still is the man.”
Where did that musical expertise come from?
“I started playing in nightclubs when I was about 14 in Oklahoma,” Russell, 68, told me recently during a conversation about his forthcoming album with John, “The Union,” which was produced by T Bone Burnett and is the subject of a profile of John and Russell in Sunday's Arts & Books section. “At that time I made a crystal radio set, and oddly enough, with a crystal radio you can only get one station.
“So after I would get off my job at 1 or 2 in the morning, I’d get home and put on the crystal set with the headphones and just listen,” he said. “The station it got was a blues and gospel station, so I heard a lot of that music. That was a simple twist of fate.”
“The Union” represents the first time Russell has shared the spotlight with another pianist on an album, though it wasn’t by any means unique to his extensive experience in recording studios.
“Not really,” he said. “I used to play on Phil Spector’s records, and he liked to use three pianists” in creating his signature “Wall of Sound.” Russell said he and John had no difficulties when it came to figuring out who plays what on the new album.
“We never even discussed it,” he said. “There’s a song on the record called ‘A Dream Comes True,’ and the first time we sat down and played together, we sat down and played that song. It wasn’t even a song yet, just two pianos playing together. We came up with parts, and then just put the song on top of it. We never really discussed portioning out of any parts.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Russell said nonchalantly. “One of the features of being a piano player is playing as an accompanist for other people. I’m sure Elton has had as much experience with that as I have. When you play with another piano player, it’s just second nature to play the parts that need to be played.”