Leon Russell Dead at 74
Leon Russell, renowned multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who collaborated with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and Elton John over the course of 50 years in the music industry, died Sunday. He was 74.
“Leon Russell died on Nov. 13, 2016 in Nashville at the age of 74. His wife said that he passed away in his sleep,” Russell’s website wrote. “The Master Of Space And Time was a legendary musician and songwriter originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma who performed his gospel-infused southern boogie piano rock, blues, and country music for over 50 years.”
Elton John, who collaborated with Russell on 2010’s The Union, paid tribute to the musician on Instagram. “My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me,” John wrote. “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.”
Russell, an inductee of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, dealt with a string of health problems in recent years, including surgery to stop leaking brain fluid in 2010 and a heart attack that he suffered this July that required surgery.
Born Claude Russell Bridges outside Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1942, Russell began playing the city’s nightclubs when he was still a teenager. While in high school, Russell formed a band called the Starlighters; upon graduating, Jerry Lee Lewis recruited him to join his touring unit.
“When I had a chance to go on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis. I’d just spent three days, twelve hours a day, taking entrance examinations to Tulsa University and I just thought, well, it’s a waste of time, ’cause I have to study so many things I’m not interested in,” Russell told Rolling Stone in 1970. “ROTC I had to take, and right away I knew that I didn’t want to do that. I figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants and travel around, play some rock and roll music, which I decided was easier and better.”
At the age of 17, Russell moved from Tulsa to Los Angeles, quickly climbing the nightclub ranks to emerge as one of the city’s most in-demand session musicians. During this period, Russell worked with artists like the Byrds, Herb Albert and Phil Spector; as a member of Spector’s “Wrecking Crew,” Russell played keyboards on tracks like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High.”
In addition to his session work, Russell – nicknamed “The Master of Space and TIme” – began recording his own music, beginning with 1968’s Look Inside the Asylum Choir, his collaboration with fellow session musician Marc Benno.
Two years later, Russell released his first solo LP, Leon Russell, which featured “A Song for You.” Artists like Andy Williams, Donny Hathaway, the Carpenters, the Temptations and, notably, Willie Nelson and Ray Charles covered the track, with Charles’ rendition winning the 1993 Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. In 2005, “A Song for You” duet between Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera also landed a Grammy nomination.
In the early Seventies, on the brink of his own stardom, Russell instead receded into his influential role out of the spotlight. Between the Asylum Choir and his early solo albums, Russell served as songwriter, performer and co-producer on Joe Cocker’s 1969 LP Joe Cocker! and orchestrated Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. Following that, Russell joined Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and took part in George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in August 1971.
Russell also produced Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and worked with a wide variety of artists ranging from Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to the Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, the Gap Band and Willie Nelson, who became of close friend of Russell’s.
As a songwriter, Russell also penned “Superstar” (popularized by the Carpenters), his own 1972 hit “Tight Rope” and “This Masquerade,” with singer George Benson winning the 1977 Record of the Year Grammy for his cover.
After his prolific run in the Seventies, Russell stepped back in the Eighties and Nineties, quietly releasing his own solo work. However, in 2009, Elton John sought Russell’s services for a collaborative LP that became the following year’s The Union, which earned a five-star review from Rolling Stone.
The LP sparked a rejuvenated interest in Russell’s work; his unreleased 1974 documentary A Poem Is a Naked Person finally saw release in 2015.
In 2011, John inducted Russell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
Throughout his lifetime of making music, Leon Russell glided effortlessly from rock & roll to blues and gospel. But the singer-songwriter-pianist, who died Sunday at home in Nashville at the age of 74, had a strong affinity for country music, a relationship that Russell fostered even while working in Los Angeles, far away from his native Tulsa, Oklahoma.
An integral part of the renowned Wrecking Crew, the cadre of L.A. musicians whose studio mastery was heard on countless recordings throughout the Sixties, Russell joined fellow Crew members, including guitarist Glen Campbell, playing piano in the Shin-diggers, the house band for the ABC Shindig! music series. Russell, uncharacteristically clean-shaven at the time, would get the chance to step into the solo spotlight occasionally, including a rambunctious performance from a February 1965 episode of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” that includes Campbell on banjo. (Watch the clip below.)
In 1973, Russell would even adopt a country pseudonym: the name “Hank Wilson,” under which he released Hank Wilson’s Back!, a superb collection of honky-tonk, bluegrass and country standards that included Lester Flatt’s “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and the George Jones weeper “The Window Up Above.” All of it was supplemented by Music City’s finest session players at the time, including Harold Bradley, Pete Drake, Grady Martin and Charlie McCoy. A sequel, Hank Wilson, Vol. II, appeared 11 years later and, by that time, Russell had teamed with Willie Nelson for the sprawling One for the Road, a double LP that, while not recorded live, captured the duo at their freewheeling best. The album also gave Russell (or Wilson), his only country Number One, with the pair’s rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Performed in the video above with Nelson’s full band, the players include drummers Paul English and Rex Ludwig; two bass players, Nelson’s longtime band member Bee Spears and Chris Ethridge; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; guitarist Jody Payne; and Russell’s sax man Marty Grebb. One for the Roadmarked Russell’s fifth gold album. In 1999, Hank Wilson returned for a third volume of country covers, including “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Crazy” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
Russell’s admiration for the Red Headed Stranger ran deep: Russell had the honor of being the first to sign Nelson’s signature-adorned guitar, “Trigger.” And their friendship was also long-lasting – Nelson and Russell team up one last time for a new duet set to appear on Nelson’s as-yet-untitled upcoming album, produced by Buddy Cannon.