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The Rockologist On Leon Russell And Elton John

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So I have to be honest here. The first time I ever heard of Leon Russell was as a pre-teen kid cruising my way through the pages of Circus Magazine, where I came across an an ad for Leon’s debut solo album, which was at the time still called Can A Blue Man Sing The Whites?.

Cool title, I thought.

The album was of course eventually released as Leon Russell’s self-titled solo album by Shelter Records (not sure whatever happened to that original title), and upon the first time I heard it, I was instantly enthralled.

But to be completely honest here, the first side of this album did absolutely nothing for me at the time. It was the second side that I really liked.

I liked Leon’s weathered, sand-papery voice well enough, and the production of the record, populated as it was by the then very much in vogue Muscle Shoals sound of people like Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, by way of British pop stars like Eric Clapton also went down very easy.

But to me, a few of the songs were still kind of lacking.

The second side however? Well, that was something else entirely.

Kicking off with “Delta Lady,” and proceeding from there to scream through an entire side of New Orleans delta funk like “Pisces Apple Lady” and “Roll Away The Stone,” this damn thing didn’t let up for a second. I was instantly hooked. Anchoring it all was Leon’s world weary rasp, set against some of the funkiest, Nawlins’ honky tonk piano you will ever hear in this lifetime.

From this auspicious debut as an amazing solo artist who was clearly (at least to my pre-teen ears) one to be reckoned with, Leon went down hill fast, at least for my money he did. Latter albums yielding hits like “Tightrope,” as well as ill-advised experiments like the country tinged “Hank Wilson Is Back” albums, just never completely recaptured the spark of that initial, brilliant debut album for me.

Of course, let’s keep things in perspective here. I was, after all, still a kid.

Obviously, Leon also went on to much bigger and better things. His stint as the bandleader and “master of space and time” in Joe Cocker’s extended Mad Dogs and Englishmen band is particularly memorable — and was obviously pivotal in establishing him as one of the true greats.

Still, as great as Joe Cocker’s blues shouting on his version of “Delta Lady” is on the Mad Dogs double live album from 1970 (and it is pretty great), I’ll take Leon’s, less celebrated original version in a heartbeat.

Not long after, Leon stole the show at the all-star benefit Concert For Bangla Desh show, by kicking the living crap out of a blues medley including songs like “Youngblood” and “Jumping Jack Flash.” The other headliners that night, which included no less than George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton didn’t stand a chance against him.

Which brings me to last nights episode of Saturday Night Live

Like Leon Russell himself, Elton John is a great artist, who I personally feel shot his creative wad fairly early in the game, but for entirely different reasons.

In my own opinion, Elton’s first five or so records represent his best work. But even these are spotty. For every truly brilliant moment like “Burn Down The Mission,” “Rocket Man,” and “Madman Across The Water, there are also ample amounts of filler on these records.

And once we get past Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the filler eventually gives way to paint by numbers hit-making. By the time of the eighties, even that formidable, but equally formulaic well of catchy pop tunes began to run dry.

The thing is, even for all of his concessions to blatant, and occasionally schmaltzy commercialization over the years, Elton’s heart still seems to be in the right place — and nowhere is this more apparent than in the way he has taken Leon Russell under his wing in the past year.

I’m not entirely sure what got Leon to the place where Elton found him — apparently broke and semi-destitute, in failing health, and with his status as a legendary artist largely forgotten by a brutally short-sighted music industry.

All I know, is Elton came to his rescue in the past year — both making an album and going on tour with him and inducting him into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame — and Leon has acknowledged the debt in kind.

Elton John’s heart has never been in question in that respect. Still, it was kind of sad to see Elton and Leon together on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, when the former hosted the show. I give Elton ultimate credit for bringing Leon along to what ultimately may prove to be his last dance before a nationally televised audience.

But seeing Leon as a shell of his former “master of space and time” self (his voice was barely audible in the sound mix) was also kind of sad — especially as Elton participated in skit after self aggrandizing skit hammering home the fact that he is a very famous, very wealthy, and very gay pop star.

Look, Elton, we get it. You’re rich. You’re famous. You’re gay. We get it.

But thank you once again for reaching out to Leon Russell.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Rudy

    I did read and appreciate the article. I just wanted to point out that Elton did not write the material. None of the hosts do, with the possible exceptions of returning show alumni.

    SNL has indeed been a garbage dump for a while. At least they found different settings to tell the same joke in throughout the episode. Business as usual.

    I have seen Elton and Leon perform together several times since the album came out. I should say I have been blessed to see them perform together.

    “Hey Ahab” is the new single, but it does not feature any of Leon’s vocals in the front; he backs Elton on it. By contrast, the first single, “If It Wasn’t For Bad,” was Leon up front with Elton backing.

    “Monkey Suit” would not have been my choice for the second song they performed. It does have Elton and Leon alternating, but it does not show off Leon’s strengths – and maximize the pathos he easily evokes with his voice – like other songs from the album do. I would have had them perform the ballad “Never Too Old” or the uptempo “A Dream Come True” were I in charge. They would have showcased both of them wonderfully.

    I agree, though, that Leon’s mic was not up to snuff. Neither, for that matter, was Elton’s. The sound was not terrible, but not wonderful, on the overall. The appearance will sell some records, but it probably could have sold more.

    If you’re a fan of Elton’s early 70s records, the obvious thing for me to do is recommend “Songs From the West Coast” from 2001 to you. It is song-by-song blissful songcraft that, unlike his 80s and 90s material, is not immediately identifiable with the era in which it was made when you put it in the player. It is in my opinion his absolute best. I think you might well agree it ranks up with the early 70s records, of which “Honky Chateau” is my favorite. 🙂

  • I can see where it might seem like I’m hating on Elton here, but I’m honestly not. The way he reached out to Leon when a lot of other famous friends in the music world didn’t, in my opinion speaks volumes about Elton’s generosity and kind and caring nature towards a fellow human being who, I’m assuming, influenced him greatly. Like I said in the article, Elton’s heart seems to be in the right place.

    As an artist, I haven’t been much of a fan of Elton’s work since right around the time of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but that’s probably just me. I certainly respect him as one of the greats, and in that regard Elton’s track record speaks for itself anyway (regardless of what I might think).

    What disappointed me about the SNL performance was, for one thing, the fact that you couldn’t even hear Leon in this supposed “duo” performance. Maybe it was the sound mix, but from my couch, I heard all Elton and basically no Leon at all.

    The skits I could mostly take or leave, which is generally true of most of the “comedy” on SNL these days. But the “joke” about Elton being a very famous, very rich, and very gay man wore really thin after hearing it the first time. But that didn’t stop them from repeating it ad nauseam throughout the entire show, did it?


  • Rudy

    I feel the need to point out, Glen, that you should get a hold of a copy of “The Union,” the album Elton and Leon released in October which they are promoting.

    If you hear the tracks “If It Wasn’t For Bad,” “In the Hands of Angels” and, most especially, “Hearts Have Turned to Stone,” you will see without a doubt that, at least in the studio, Leon is as far as you can get from a “former shell” of a relevant artist.

    Leon wrote all three of those songs himself, which Elton is quick to point out. “Hearts Have Turned to Stone” is far and away the best track on the album, and certainly the most socially relevant. It is every bit as lyrically incisive as Leon’s best and earliest classics.

    Also, it’s not fair to criticize Elton as being immodest. Remember, “Saturday Night Live” is a comedy show, and one that is put together in less than a week before it goes on air, and he was the host, not the one writing the material. The show hasn’t been at its funniest since the days of Norm MacDonald and Molly Shannon.

    Without going into detail, I want to further add that, although I am not famous or particularly noteworthy, Elton went out of his way to be extremely kind and generous to me late last year. He astounded me with his thoughtfulness and consideration. He had a new album to promote, and little did I know that he had a baby around the bend, and yet he still took time for me. I will never forget it.

    I’m not saying that for my own sake. I just don’t want people thinking of Elton as an ego-stroking, immodest, reckless or inconsiderate person; the paragraph beginning “Look, Elton…” might cause them to think that way. A man who would be so kind to someone in my position, when he had nothing to gain from it, cannot possibly warrant those adjectives.

  • nick coby

    Great Read Glen!
    Leon is not destitute, he is a very humle, caring man, who likes doing small venues,, he may not be rich as Elton (Moneywise),but he is rich in love and has an awesome family.
    You have to hear Leon with his band,, then look out! 90 minutes of non stop swamp rockn’roll!

  • gordon waite

    I just watch the performance online. I could hear both performers fine, and the performance itself was pretty electrifying, considering the fact that Leon Russell is like 100 years old or something. Long live Leon!

  • mkamccracken

    Glen – I’m not sure what the deal was with the performances on SNL last night, but my wife and I attended the Elton John concert in State College PA on March 27th. Going in, I wasn’t sure how the portion of the concert with Leon Russell would play out. However, it was great – they did 8 songs from The Union and Leon sang his parts well. In comparison, last night on SNL, I agree, was a mess. I’m not even sure if his mic was on. Maybe it was the confined setting? I was too bad the TV audience didn’t get to see what I saw live less than a week earlier.