As a young man barely out of his teens, Leon Russell found success in the music world. The ’50s through the ’60s saw him honing his craft by playing piano and guitar on sessions for heavyweights such as Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He later became one of rock and roll’s most sought after sideman, joining Phil Spector’s studio group and L.A.’s premiere crop of studio musicians, The Wrecking Crew.
He eventually discovered a talent for songwriting and in 1968 released his first album (with fellow musician, Marc Benno), entitled Inside The Asylum Choir. His stint with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and his stunning guest appearance at George Harrison’s Bangladesh concerts got the word out that Russell was a songwriter and performer of the first order. His ’70s albums such as Carney and Leon Russell and the Shelter People are filled with classics, many of which were eventually covered by artists such as The Carpenters, Rita Coolidge and George Benson. But Russell’s raspy, snarling delivery and gritty piano stylings made his versions the ones to hear.
When the ‘70s came to a close, Russell continued recording but his career floundered and more recently poor health kept him down. He became one of those “whatever happened to…” artists until Elton John took Russell under his wing, recording The Union with him, and helping Russell enjoy a resurgence in his career.
The new EMI anthology, The Best of Leon Russell, although a fine overview of Russell’s work, is more an introduction than an in-depth look at his music. That said, there are a few surprises. The inclusion of a duet with Willie Nelson on an upbeat, countrified version of “Heartbreak Hotel” is an unexpected treat. And Russell’s duet with Elton John on The Union’s “If It Wasn’t For Bad” is another fine addition to the track-listing.
Besides Lieber and Stoller’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” the collection includes three of Russell’s better known covers: Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” and the extraordinary live medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” from Bangladesh.
The biggest quibble I have with this release is that EMI did not take the time to offer information about what song came from which album. To their credit, they do note the years of release and songwriting credits, but if a listener likes what they hear, they might want to purchase the original recordings. The extra step might have served to sell more music and, these days, the music business can’t afford to take shortcuts.
For those who love Russell’s music and would like to have these songs in a neat package, this collection is for you. Since his classics make up the majority of the collection this is also an excellent CD for the uninitiated. If you’ve never heard his versions of “A Song For You,” “This Masquerade,” and “Delta Lady,” by all means consider adding The Best of Leon Russell to your collection.