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Leon Russell's career runs the musical gamut from Sinatra to the Stones, the Beach Boys and BB King. He's written some of the most-covered songs in the pop songbook, and three Stones and two Beatles performed on his debut solo record, yet he isn't a household name. Photo: Getty Images

Leon Russell’s career runs the musical gamut from Sinatra to the Stones, the Beach Boys and BB King. He’s written some of the most-covered songs in the pop songbook, and three Stones and two Beatles performed on his debut solo record, yet he isn’t a household name. Photo: Getty Images

Leon Russell has Gone Back to the Island…

Another one on the way to Rock n’ Roll Heaven

We have just lost Leonard Cohen, and now… Leon Russell.

Musician Leon Russell has died in Nashville at the age of 74. His wife said he died in his sleep.

Leon Russell is a legend. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Russell made his name first as an ace session pianist before penning classic hits for himself and others. Besides his music, Russell was known for his striking appearance: wispy white hair halfway down his back and that covered much of his face. Russell played keyboard for the Los Angeles studio team known as the Wrecking Crew, helping producer Phil Spector develop his game-changing wall of sound approach in the 1960s.

He’s also a legendary character. In the 2008 documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” Cher recounts a time that Russell stumbled in late and drunk to a recording session led by legendary producer and future-convicted murderer Phil Spector.

When the insufferable Phil Spector (they were apparently recording one of Spector’s “wall of sound” productions) confronted Russell and asked him if he understood the word respect, Russell jumped on top of his piano and demanded if Spector understood the meaning of a certain two-word expletive phrase that we need not quote. According to Cher, the studio collapsed in hysterics. So, among his many other distinctions, Russell deserves special credit for standing up to one of the music industry’s most notorious jerks.

Imagine if every hit song of the late 50s, 60s, 70s, and even into the 80s was performed by one band. Ridiculous, huh? Well, guess what? It’s closer to reality than you may think.

The Wrecking Crew is an American documentary film directed by Denny Tedesco. It covers the story of the Los Angeles-based group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, famed for having played on numerous hit recordings throughout the 1960s. The film premiered at the 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival.

Popular music of the 1960s was dominated by young bands. Listening to rock and roll on jukeboxes and car radios created devoted fans of these groups, whose music communicated the optimism and sorrow of a generation contending with strong countercultural forces.

During the sixties and seventies, perhaps the most fertile period of popular music has ever produced, recording stars such as the Monkees, Carpenters, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, the Association, the Grass Roots, Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, the Mamas and the Papas, and dozens more ruled the airwaves. However, most listeners are likely unaware that a good share of these legendary artists seldom, if ever , played any of the instruments on their own records.

That’s right. Virtually all the instruments were played by an uncredited close-knit group of Los Angeles studio musicians, often referred to today by insiders as the Wrecking Crew (a name coined by the drummer Hal Blaine after the fact to describe how he and other sidemen had revolutionized the recording industry). From “Last Train to Clarksville” to “Monday, Monday” to “Mrs. Robinson,” these same studio pros time and again provided most or all of the guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, horns, and more on hundreds of the best-known singles and albums of all time. Their collective story provides a surprising behind-the-scenes glimpse of the creation of the songs that became the soundtrack for one of the most socially volatile periods in American history.

Radio listeners and record buyers never knew the truth, and that was just the way the major labels like Columbia, Liberty, Dunhill, A&M, and Capitol wanted to keep it. Preserving the illusion that famous bands played their own instruments was big business, very big business. As the Wrecking Crew bass player Carol Kaye dryly observes, “We all knew the scam that the record companies perpetrated.”

Record companies happily supplied the public with new songs and musical groups, all packaged with artistic photographs and biographical profiles. Left out of the story was an important historical fact: the bands, in many cases, did not play the instruments heard on their records. Instead, the task of recording the perfect tempo, pitch, and timbre fell to a small group of accomplished session musicians.

The Wrecking Crew documents the work of studio players who recorded the tracks for such hits as “California Dreamin'”, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”, “Be My Baby”, “The Beat Goes On”, and “Good Vibrations”. Interviews with producers, engineers, and session musicians reveal the warmth and humour that allowed their collective talents to turn a simple chord chart into an international phenomenon.

Leon Russell.

Leon Russell.

All great singers need great songwriters to bring out their best, and the late Karen Carpenter, was no exception.  Contrary to the well-worn hyperbole, not even Ms. Carpenter could produce a Top Ten hit by singing from the phone book. Karen’s perfect contralto was the beneficiary of a wide range of moving and memorable tunes composed by some of the best pop composers of the era, including some who were very close to home – and one who was from another world altogether.

The writer of three of the most memorable and haunting songs ever recorded by the Carpenters, each of which provided a perfect vehicle for Karen’s smoky and intimate vocal style, presented an image and a persona that could hardly stand in sharper contrast from a demure suburban ingénue from Downey, California. But what the Carpenters had in common with the inimitable Leon Russell – the talent, drive, and sensibility to produce enduring great music – supersedes in importance the glaring differences in their styles and deportment.

Russell also wrote two of the Carpenters’ most popular and prominent album cuts.  “A Song for You” was the title and “bookend” song of their 1972 album of the same name, which is generally regarded as the duo’s most artistically successful album.  It contains lines which, when sung in Ms. Carpenter’s husky lower register and pondered with the recollection of her premature death, are remarkably poignant:  “And when my life is over, remember when we were together.  We were alone, and I was singing this song for you.”

Leon Russell’s final contribution to the Carpenters’ catalogue is “This Masquerade,” another darkish ballad which was recorded as part of the 1973 multi-platinum album, “Now and Then.”  It is another bluesy, intimate, musically intricate piece that is a tribute both to Russell’s creativity and the Carpenters’ extraordinary ability to find the soul of a song and give it perfect pitch and voice in the recording studio.

Although the Russell songs recorded by the Carpenters all fit well within the duo’s musical oeuvre, Russell himself was an eccentric and multi-faceted character who might not have been entirely at home at the sedate Carpenter family digs in Downey.  To say the least.

Interestingly, however, his beginnings were strikingly similar to Richard Carpenter’s in one key respect:  Like Carpenter, he was a musical prodigy, who began playing the piano at 4 years of age and was playing for money in nightclubs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, well before he was old enough to order a drink.

Russell went from there to become a premier member (on piano) of the legendary informal group of session or studio musicians, now known as the Wrecking Crew.

A SONG FOR YOU – Leon Russell & Friends (1971)

Leon Russell went on from his Wrecking Crew days to become one of the most versatile artists in the music industry – composer, instrumentalist (on guitar as well as piano and keyboards), and vocalist. His musical range ran the gamut from hard rock to R&B to country rock to the melodic pop compositions that were so well-suited to Karen Carpenter’s intimate contralto. Among his many and varied career highlights – and the iteration at the farthest remove from the romantic ballads like “Superstar” and “A Song for You” that led to his intersection with the Carpenters’ sound – was his collaboration with Joe Cocker and the raucous tour group supporting Cocker’s 1971 “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” album. Russell’s hard-rock credentials, not to mention his instrumental versatility, are well evidenced by the accompanying video of his lead guitar backup to Cocker’s rowdy on-stage rendition of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” A farther remove from the world of “We’ve Only Just Begun” would be difficult to imagine.

Russell was perhaps the most accomplished and versatile musician in the history of rock ‘n roll. In his distinguished and unique 60-year career, he has played on, arranged, written, and/or produced some of the best records in popular music. Russell became one of the most sought after session musicians in Los Angeles during the 1960s, working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Phil Spector and from Glen Campbell to the Byrds.

Leon Russell Lady Blue

Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, on April 2nd, 1942, the younger of two sons. His father was a clerk for an oil company who moved the family to Tulsa when Russell was in the seventh grade. He was soon playing piano in nightclubs, often with a local friend, singer-guitar­ist J.J. Cale. “Oklahoma was a dry state,” Russell says. “It didn’t mean there wasn’t any alcohol — it just meant there wasn’t any laws, which allowed me to play at 14.”

Russell believes his distinctive piano style — low-end blues power with high-note sparkle — is partly the result of a mal­formation at birth of the bones in his head.

“It made me slightly paralyzed on one side of my body,” he says, leaving his left hand stronger than the right. To compensate, when he started writing and arranging music, “I was trying to find stuff that my right hand could play.”

“It gave me a very strong sense of duality,” he says. “It gave me an outlook into this plane that we live on and if I hadn’t had that, I’d probably be selling cars in Paris, Texas.”

To compensate, because he was slightly paralyzed on one side of his body, it left his left hand stronger than the right, so he started writing and arranging music, “I was trying to find stuff that my right hand could play.” Russell notes that when he was doing sessions in Los Ange­les, “writers hired me when they want­ed classical parts. They counted on me to make the arrangements easier.”

He became Leon Russell after moving to California. He was borrowing IDs and musicians’-union cards to get work, most often from a guy named Leonal Du-brow. Russell never legally changed his name. “It’s handy,” he admitted. “I can be a different person for a while.”

“I started playing in night clubs in Oklahoma when I was fourteen. It was a dry state, and there were no liquor laws so consequently there were no laws about minors playing in night clubs, so I had the oppportunity to start early. I went out to California the week I got out of high school, I was seventeen, and found out that they weren’t goign to have any sense of humor about that, they weren’t going to let me play or even go into the night clubs unless I was twenty one, so I had to borrow IDs. The musicians’ union wouldn’t let you play—they called it “home stay”—they didn’t want people coming into California and playing in night clubs, so in order for me to join the California union, I had to not work for a year. I said, “You’ll have to explain what you’re thinking about that.” I had to borrow union cards and borrow IDs and if they had a different guy at the door who didn’t know me and I’d already given my ID back to the person I borrowed it from. It was tough. I caught pneumonia out there and the doctors wouldn’t help me in the hospital because I was a minor and I didn’t have any adults so they wouldn’t treat me in the hospital, but I got over it more or less. But it’s pretty much a warring state out there.”

Leon Russell – Wild Horses

Russell 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, including Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Edgar Winter, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, J.J. Cale, David Gates, Bruce Hornsby, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, B.B. King, Freddie King, Bill Wyman, Steve Cropper, Carl Radle, Chuck Blackwell, Don Preston, Jesse Ed Davis, Rita Coolidge, Gram Parsons, Barbra Streisand, Ike & Tina Turner, Ricky Nelson, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Ann-Margret, Dean Martin, Marvin Gaye, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood, and groups such as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, The Monkees, The Astronauts, The Accents, The Fencemen, The Ventures, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Rolling Stones, The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Tractors and on and on and on…

Russell 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, Russell was a member of the house band on the Shindig! show on ABC television which showcased the top pop acts.

Joe Cocker performs at the Fillmore East for his 'Mad Dogs And Englishmen' live album with Leon Russell as he plays a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar in New York, on March 27th, 1970. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Joe Cocker performs at the Fillmore East for his ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’ live album with Leon Russell as he plays a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar in New York, on March 27th, 1970. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Russell built a recording studio in his home in 1967 where he and Marc Benno recorded songs which were released on two critically acclaimed records as the ‘Asylum Choir’. Leon co-produced, arranged, and played piano, organ, and guitar on Joe Cocker’s second album, ‘Joe Cocker!’ in 1969. He also recorded and toured with ‘Delaney & Bonnie & Friends’.

Russell founded Shelter Records with partner Denny Cordell and released Leon’s first solo album, “Leon Russell” in May, 1970. It included Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Klaus Voorman. The album contained classic Leon songs, ‘A Song For You’, along with ‘Hummingbird’, and ‘Delta Lady’. Shelter Records was home for not only Leon but many other artists such as Freddie King, Don Nix, J.J. Cale, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Gap Band, Dwight Twilley and Phoebe Snow. Leon played on and produced three Shelter albums for blues guitarist Freddie King.

As a songwriter, Russell’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 Russell’s song, “This Masquerade”, and it became the first song in music history to hit #1 on the jazz, pop and R&b charts.

Leon Russell, renowned multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones,has died. Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty

Leon Russell, renowned multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones,has died. Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty

Leon organized and led the band behind Joe Cocker for the famous “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour of the U.S. in March-May, 1970. 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.

On August 1st, 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.

Leon’s first solo album to earn a Gold record was “Leon Russell and The Shelter People” (1971). The “Carney” album, released in 1972, would be his best seller and included the single, “Tight Rope” which reached #11 on the pop music charts. By 1972, Leon was a major concert attraction. Billboard Magazine named Leon the top concert attraction for 1973. His concert at Long Beach, CA on August 28, 1972 was recorded and released on the triple-LP album ‘Leon Live’ which rose to #9 on the pop charts. Leon released the second Asylum Choir album, ‘Asylum Choir II”, in 1972 from songs recorded years earlier. The single “Slippin’ Into Christmas” rose to # 4 on the Billboard Christmas chart in 1972.

At the height of his popularity as a rock star, Leon released a country music album, “Hank Wilson’s Back” under the name Hank Wilson on August 31st,1973. His last Shelter Records studio album, “Will O’ The Wisp” (1975), included the hit single “Lady Blue” (#14 on the charts) and went Gold. “The Best Of Leon” was released in 1976 and earned a 6th Gold Record. Leon founded Paradise Records a Warner Bros. label and released albums from 1976-84 such as “The Wedding Album”, “Make Love To The Music”, “Americana”, “Life And Love”, “Solid State” and “Hank Wilson Vol. II”.

Leon co-hosted with Willie Nelson, the first of Willie’s 4th of July picnics. Leon has continued to be a regular performer at Willie’s picnics through the years. Leon joined Willie on tour and they teamed in 1979 for the country album, “One For The Road”, which earned a Gold record and was honored by the Country Music Association with a nomination for “Album Of The Year”. The album included the song “Heartbreak Hotel” that was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.

Leon Russell performs in Paris, France. David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images

Leon Russell performs in Paris, France. David Wolff – Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images

Russell’s gospel influences came from over the radio:

“I was raised in the Methodist Church, which is a very Germanic, military kind of music they have there. I heard this other music on the radio: Pentecostal. That was right up my street. If I’d been in that church, I’d probably been up there [on a pulpit] with Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.”

Russell said he cherishes memorable scenes from his session years more than particular results. “A lot of the stuff that was the greatest for me was not necessarily a hit.” He played on a session for one of the then-unknown Aretha Franklin’s obscure pop recordings for Columbia, before she emerged as the Queen of Soul on Atlantic: “I saw 30 violin players tapping their sticks on the stand in appreciation after seeing her sing. I’d never seen that in my life.”

Russell acknowledged he was not the classic crooner: “Of course, my voice is a pretty unusual, kind of funny, voice. It’s really interesting to do [orchestral arrangements]; it’s kind of like standing on a ledge. My conception is what pulls me through. I know what the melodies [mean], even though I might sound like Moms Mabley a bit when I’m trying to sing ’em. There are great singers in the [technical] sense . . . who may not know what the melodies are about.”

And Russell figured that, more than most songwriters of the rock era, he has a handle on what standards are about.

“‘This Masquerade’ was recorded 43 times before George Benson recorded it [and had a Top 10 hit with it in 1976]. The last number I knew for ‘A Song for You’ was 128 [versions] 15 years ago, and that was before Ray Charles had his hit on it [in 1993]. There was a period in my life when I was trying to write standards, songs that everybody recorded. I did a pretty good run of it.”

Elton John said: My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me. 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. When Mr. Russell’s "Greatest Hits" album came on one day during the trip, I started to cry, it moved me so much. His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, and it makes me so angry that he’s been forgotten.

Elton John said: My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me. 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. When Mr. Russell’s “Greatest Hits” album came on one day during the trip, I started to cry, it moved me so much. His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, and it makes me so angry that he’’s been forgotten.

After a number of years of reduced prominence, Russell’s career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him out for a new project.

A surprise phone call from  John led to the duo collaborating on a studio album, The Union, which became a surprise hit and even more importantly helped reintroduce the listening audience to one of America’s greatest musical treasures. The album reached No. 3 on the charts, and the single “If It Wasn’t for Bad” was nominated for a Grammy Award.

In November 2009, Russell worked together with John and Bernie Taupin on The Union, a double album record credited equally to both Russell and John. Recorded in February 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the CD was released on October 19, 2010. The Union was Leon’s 6th Gold album. The recordings were interrupted in January 2010 by a health scare: Russell was hospitalized and underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak, as well as treatment for heart failure and pneumonia. On April 2, 2011, Russell and John performed together as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. Rolling Stone placed the album in third place on its list of the 30 Best Albums of 2010. A couple of months later, Russell announced plans for a solo LP, although no specifics were given, and in October 2010 Russell and John embarked on the Union Tour. Elton John and Leon Russell also appeared on The David Letterman Show.

In 2011 the The Union film was released, a documentary film by Cameron Crowe exploring the creative process of musician Elton John and Leon Russell in the making of 2010 album The Union.

Leon Russell — Back to the Island

 

Russell released his last solo studio album, “Life Journey,” in 2014.

In July, 2016, Russell suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery, but had resumed playing live shows. He was scheduled to perform in Pensacola on Tuesday, Nov. 15.  He was also scheduled to play at the Ryman Auditorium in March with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. He had hoped to return to the schedule in January 2017.

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