In the early ’50s, when Claude Russell Bridges was growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he learned about gospel music not by going to church, but by listening to it on the radio. He soaked up blues, folk, country and R&B the same way, and learned how to play all of it on the piano — the music of Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, you name it. Because Tulsa was in a dry county, there were no restrictions preventing him playing in clubs there at only 14. By age 16, he set his sights on Los Angeles, borrowed a fake ID from his friend Leon and adopted his name, and finagled his way into bars, night clubs and recording studios, where music industry people began to take notice.
Leon Russell was on his way.
By 1970-1972, he seemed to be everywhere, appearing with and/or producing records by the likes of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Rita Coolidge, Badfinger and more. His gospel-flavored piano, unusual vocal stylings and significant songwriting contributions made him a force to reckon with, influencing generations of musicians (particularly keyboard players) from Elton John to Bruce Hornsby.
Now, sadly, Russell is gone, dead at 74 from complications following a heart attack and surgeries. He joins a disproportionately large group of ’60s-’70s rock heroes who have passed away in 2016.
Long before he hit his commercial peak in the early ’70s as a solo artist and ubiquitous guest performer with many of rock music’s legendary figures, Russell was a significant figure behind the scenes in popular music. He was a member of the loose confederation of top-shelf LA session musicians sometimes known as The Wrecking Crew (or the “First Call Gang,” because, for more than a decade, they were the first ones called when a record was being made). You probably never knew it, but it was often Leon’s piano you were hearing on dozens of hit singles in the 1962-1969 period — The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring” and even Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” to name just a few.
Russell was much more than an impressive piano player. He could play guitar. He could play bass. He was part of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound Orchestra,” handling arranging and conducting duties on many recordings by The Crystals and The Righteous Brothers. Two of his early attempts at songwriting — “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She’s Just My Style” — both became Top Five hits in 1965 for Lewis & the Playboys. He did a stint as a member of The Shindogs, the house band on the TV rock variety show “Shindig,” and he appeared as keyboard player in the band that backed The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry and Lesley Gore in the legendary 1964 concert film “The T.A.M.I. Show.”
But he was just getting started. He helped fellow Wrecking Crew alum Glen Campbell launch his solo career in 1967, playing piano (billed as Russell Bridges) on his smash debut “Gentle On My Mind.” Although Russell’s first recording project as a solo artist — “Look Inside the Asylum Choir,” actually a collaboration with guitarist/singer Marc Benno — was a flop, he persevered. He coaxed new friend Denny Cordell, the British producer behind Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and Joe Cocker’s debut LP, to leave London for Tulsa, where the partners established Shelter Records, home to such artists as Russell, Cocker, J. J. Cale, Phoebe Snow and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
Cocker’s recording of “Delta Lady,” Russell’s tribute to singer Coolidge, became a Top Ten hit in the UK, and the 1969 LP “Joe Cocker!”, produced and arranged by Russell, reached #11 in the US. When Cocker needed to assemble a touring band to honor nearly 50 booking dates across the US in 1970, Russell stepped up to be bandleader and pianist in an assemblage of more than 20 musicians, who became known as “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” which spawned a film and hit album and singles like “Cry Me a River” and “The Letter,” driven by Russell’s forceful piano.
Meanwhile, simultaneously, Shelter also released Russell’s true solo debut LP (“Leon Russell”), which included the FM radio classic “Roll Away the Stone” and his own recording of “Delta Lady.” More important, it introduced his extraordinarily beautiful “A Song for You,” which went on to become a standard, recorded by more than 30 artists including The Carpenters, Willie Nelson, Andy Williams, Ray Charles, The Temptations, Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera.
He was an anomaly in his era: In an environment that favored the electric guitar as the main instrument, Russell emerged as one of the only piano-playing front men. There were the Jerry Lee Lewises well before him, and the Elton Johns afterwards, but Leon was the dominant keyboard guy at a crucial time in rock music’s development.
He found time to sit in on sessions for Clapton’s 1970 solo debut (featuring “After Midnight,” “Let It Rain,” and Russell’s song “Blues Power”). Then in 1971, he nurtured budding friendships with both Dylan and Harrison, helping Dylan forge a new style on tracks like “Watching the River Flow” (featuring Russell’s rollicking piano) and joining Harrison’s on-stage lineup for the watershed “Concerts for Bangla Desh” in New York City, where he performed a sizzling medley of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Coasters’ oldie “Young Blood.”
Finally, in 1972, he had his biggest commercial success with “Carney” (#2 on the US album charts) and his only US hit single, “Tight Rope” (#11). Another track from the album was Russell’s stunning “This Masquerade,” which went on to become a Grammy-nominated hit for jazz guitarist/singer George Benson in 1976.
Clearly, Leon Russell made a huge impression, especially on fellow musicians, who were eager to work with him. And he influenced up-and-coming keyboardists, like my friend Irwin Fisch, an Emmy-nominated arranger/composer/performer who has recorded and toured with a broad range of artists over a 35-year career. He is a Russell devotee, and here’s why:
“As a studio musician, before becoming a solo artist, Leon solved the problem of the piano getting lost in the guitar soup,” he says. “He took to using the extremely high and low ranges where the instrument has the most personality, and often stayed completely out of the middle of the instrument where the guitars could roar and drown out the keyboard. He introduced a few signature riffs, most notably a racing descending run alternating octaves between the two hands. He used it all the time. Where the hell did that come from? Many think left field, but I’m convinced it was Rachmaninoff. I’d bet that he played the Prelude in C# minor when he was a kid.”
There are those who recognize Russell’s musical gifts but cannot abide his voice, which is…um…distinctive, to say the very least. Like Dylan, like Springsteen, like many other rock music vocalists, Leon’s voice is not for everyone. As Fisch puts it, “Vocally, Leon sounded like he swallowed an entire cactus. Daily. He made Dr. John sound like Bing Crosby. So for many, his voice was an acquired taste. But all that gravel and phlegm wasn’t affect. To my way of hearing, he couldn’t sing a false note, or let loose a scream that sounded anything less than inevitable. The feelings and ideas were communicated raw, without embellishment. If you accept that Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Little Richard are great singers, then you can’t deny Leon.”
By the mid-1970s, Russell’s star had faded somewhat. He chose to pursue the country music audience and adopted the down-home persona known as Hank Wilson, releasing a series of LPs under that name, as well as a one-time project with Willie Nelson, “One For the Road” (#3 on the country charts in 1979). Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Russell continued performing and occasionally recording on various labels, but to much smaller audiences in tiny venues. His releases included collections of standards (“Stormy Weather,” “As Time Goes By”), Christmas songs, and more country material under the Hank Wilson moniker.
Then, in 2010, Elton John, who had been deeply inspired by Russell back in his formative years, sought out his old mentor and they came up with “The Union,” a strong collaborative effort that rocketed to #3 on the charts, the highest position for either artist in decades. Russell’s wonderfully funky single “If It Wasn’t for Bad” was one of six tracks written or co-written by him. The new exposure afforded by the project no doubt influenced the nominating committee at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who at last inducted him in 2011.
In what turned out to be a final hurrah, Russell released one last LP, 2014’s “Life Journey,” a delightful smorgasbord of “songs I’ve always wanted to do,” including the Peggy Lee ’50s hit “Fever,” Delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen,” Ray Charles’ signature piece “Georgia On My Mind,” the Duke Ellington ’40s standard “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” a ’50s Johnny Fuller blues called “Fool’s Paradise” and a Russell original, “Down in Dixieland.” It didn’t sell, but it sure should have. Check it out.
Piano players who didn’t go pro could still admire Russell and his body of work. “Many boomers would be shocked to know just how many of their favorite hits were Russell creations, or at least Russell collaborations,” remarked Phil Pierce, a friend of mine who has dabbled in trios and coffeehouse gigs just for fun now and then. “Despite having an ample list of hit recordings to his own name, he seemed to thrive when writing for and playing with fellow artists. Perhaps the session player never gave way fully to the star — to our good fortune.”
Perhaps Leon’s greatest legacy is his desire to play and write fun, funky music with friends, for friends. “Personally, I really enjoyed his music,” says Pierce. “The chords were basic, and the melodies were easy to sing. Great bar songs for ham-fisted piano players like me. You could sound really good, with very little talent, playing Russell standards. Just add the felt top hat, the long flowing hair, the beard, and the glasses.”
R.I.P., Leon. You’ll be missed.