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Forgotten Series: Leon Russell

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It's, of course, fitting that singer/songwriter/keyboardist Leon Russell's real last name is "bridges."

Claude Russell Bridges, born April 2, 1942, would one day write a tune called "The Masquerade" that, in jazz singer and guitarist George Benson's hands, hit No. 1 simultaneously on the jazz, pop and R&B charts. It's the footnote on Russell that got a thousand feet tapping. And powerful imagery that defines his life’s work in music.

A gravelly marvel of a singer, Leon Russell parlayed his Cliff's-notes rep as the rustic, yet rich swamp-popster into a terrific little rock sideshow. He's never exactly been in the spotlight, but careful liner-note readers – at least for a while – could always find Russell along its fuzzy edges.leon_russell01

If he set a standard of playing, and of innovating, that couldn't be matched later – he also established himself as a hard-headed iconoclast, perhaps the last of the bird-flipping genre-busters.

Russell started as a 14-year-old who lied about his age so he could sit in with rockabilly players like Ronnie Hawkins (who eventually led a tough group of Canadians that became Bob Dylan's backing group, the Band) and James Burton – the legendary late-period Elvis Presley guitarist from Shreveport.

That led to sessions work under the tuteledge of mad-genius producer Phil Spector, where Russell played on a stunning series of hit songs. Soon, he was the hipster sideman. He could be found opening for Jerry Lee Lewis, sitting in with Glen Campbell records, making friends with Beatles.

By 1970, Russell had written a hit for Joe Cocker ("Delta Lady") then helped organize and play on Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour – as famous now for its debauchery as its shimmering soul-deep musical fury. A self-titled solo album followed, and it included the minor hit "A Song for You."

Russell was at the top of his game. He appeared on the bill for George Harrison's proto-benefit concert for storm-torn Bangaladesh in 1971, performing a memorable medley of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and then the 1950s Coasters' hit "Young Blood."

His flair for gritty, but heartfelt playing led to invites for sessions work with the Stones, as well as B.B. King, and Dylan, another star from the "Bangaladesh" show. There then followed, on 1972's Carny, one of Russell's most enduring classic-rock staples, the single "Tight Rope" – and then an only-in-the-1970s triple-LP concert set called Leon Live in 1973.

But Leon being Leon, he followed those commercial successes with a country-tinged studio effort. Many fans weren't ready to cross that particular bridge. People tended to take him as a deep-fried, Southern-sounding rock act – though Russell is actually from Oklahoma – and were disappointed when he didn't play along.

But Russell's was clearly a spirit forged on variety, on not just the spice of life but the entire spice rack. He made his bones working across the spectrum, from arranging Ike and Tina Turner's towering single "River Deep, Mountain High" to playing a key role in the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man," Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "This Diamond Ring" and Herb Alpert's "A Taste of Honey."

His career began to slow, and for a while it looked like 1975's Will O' the Wisp — which produced the single "Lady Blue" – would be Russell's last great side. He was silent for much of the period from 1979-92.

But with Anything Can Happen (produced by the then-hot Bruce Hornsby), he finally reemerged both as a recording artist – famously collaborating later with Willie Nelson — but more particularly as a tireless touring act, even well into his '60s. His hair, and his ever-whitening beard, grew longer – but so did Leon Russell's legend as the consummate musician and never-ebbing rebel.

His records, and his concerts, are a strange mixture, this gospelly get-down groove coupled with a strange and strained vocal. It's down-home, happy and bedraggled – like a middle-aged hound dog. Leon can howl like that, too, his voice and his music so unadulterated and unique.

The difference now is, we accept that. Russell is the square peg finally, blessedly, crammed into the round hole.

He is what he is. A guy who crosses these bridges as he comes to them.

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About Nick Deriso

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Nice job! LR is way too underappreciated. I used to have a greatest hits collection that I listened to over and over when I was in my twenties.

  • Frank S

    Nick- thanks for un-forgetting Leon.
    There are many of us who have never forgotten him and he has remained a part of our lives from the time we first heard him. He is on a constant US tour and is singing his songs to us. Hopefully this will last forever.

  • mary ann

    Thanks for remembering Leon and what a contribution he has made to the music world! And, yeah, he’s still at it!

  • Elaine Elmer

    Leon Russell, very much his own person with classical music training; playing since he was 4 and professionally since 14, has the ability of seeing through much worldly B.S. calling a spade a spade, with great soul and heartfelt expression.
    His versatility includes ability to jump and rock
    with truely irresistable rhythm.

    I don’t know exactly why radio stations would rarely play his music after the ’70s but that
    was the case. Was it due to his own record company and no kickbacks? Did he offend somehow ?

    A conversation I had with some of his staff, late ’80s revealed they had been trying unsuccessfully to get it played. Was it just not
    popular as to current demand?

    He has almost always remained productive musically; dealt with some severe health problems…a down to earth true musician, with
    a solid core of devoted fans, currently picking up newer generations.

  • Constance Young

    I don’t know of a more enduring musician than Leon Russell. It is truly amazing that after 30 years in obscurity he emerges as if he hadn’t been gone. I last listened to Leon when I was sixteen (1971)when I saw him on the View (2010)I went to You Tube and spent the next days letting him take me down memory lane. So grateful for the trip…Rock on Leon and he does it like no other.