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Leon Russell biography by Bill Janovitz

Book Review: ‘Leon Russell’ by Bill Janovitz – Illuminating One of Rock’s Most Elusive Icons

Leon Russell (1942-2016), a brilliant songwriter and arranger and a pianist supreme, was in the early 1970s the very archetype of a rock star. Then he slid into relative obscurity for decades, until none other than Elton John, who counted Leon as a major inspiration, brought him back into the limelight in 2010.

The Master of Space and Time

You may not know Leon Russell at all. Or you may know him only as the composer of “A Song for You” and “Masquerade,” and perhaps as the arranger and prime mover behind Joe Cocker’s legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of 1970. But even if you’re more deeply familiar with his work, Bill Janovitz’s new biography Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History will flesh out your knowledge and then some. Along the way, the book provides a pretty good primer on the evolution of the music business from the mid-20th century through the early 21st. Detailed and breezily written, it’s an absorbing read.

Tour manager Peter Nicholls told Janovitz that in 1973, “the two top-grossing traveling bands in America were Led Zeppelin and Leon Russell.” Around the same time, Hit Parader opined, “Maybe it is Leon’s combination of musical talent and personal magnetism that make him the only candidate in the musical field that can fill the void left by the Beatles.” Huh? Leon’s early-’70s heyday was a little before my time of fandom, but with opinions like that circulating, you’d think a rock aficionado like me would have gathered more. Yet all I ever had was an LP of his greatest hits.

But what a collection of astonishing recordings that is.

Before fame, and before creating the “Leon Russell” persona, the talented Claude Russell Bridges developed his chops backing the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, then becoming a go-to session player, playing piano for everyone from the Byrds and the Beach Boys to Phil Spector, Herb Alpert, and Frank Sinatra and spending some time as part of the famous “Wrecking Crew.” The list of artists Leon worked with at that stage and throughout his career would take up this whole review. (For a small sample, you can view Elton John’s introduction to Leon at the latter’s induction – largely at the English star’s urging – into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.)

Truth is, as an artist and as a musical innovator Leon resided at the intersection of just about all of the strands that went into creating rock music – and many of the arms that branched out from it.

Leon Russell: A Musician’s Musician

Janovitz quotes one musician who worked with Leon describing it this way: “To me, Leon often seemed like a musical funnel through with the entire world of music from every imaginable source and culture was flowing.” Or as David Crosby once put it: “He’s a stone fucking genius.”

But Leon was a restless spirit, both creatively and personally. Perhaps to compensate for abandonment by his father and difficult relationships with his family, once he had the means he repeatedly created communal situations for bandmates, collaborators, friends, lovers, and hangers-on. His most enduring performance legacy – the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour – was itself a collective, a big band including a large choir of backup singers – not all of whom were professionals.

Leon Russell refused to be locked into one genre of music. At the peak of his success as an artist, he left rock and roll mostly behind to dive deep into bluegrass (brilliantly), later synth-laden soft rock (not so successfully), and more.

Similarly, he couldn’t adapt to the societal norms that permit someone who makes a lot of money to create a comfortable, secure life for himself and his family. Ahead of his time, he invested in nascent technologies like drum machines, music videos, and a precursor to the Mellotron, sinking enormous resources into technological ventures that rarely paid off financially – and creatively not so often either. He formed and ran his own independent record label, Shelter Records, long before that was a thing – a label Ahmet Ertegun wanted to distribute so badly that the Atlantic Records chief once hired a plane to pull a message to that affect across the sky.

Yet even after his late-stage career revival, he was still, Janovitz believes, in debt when he died.

Leon repeatedly made bad management and financial decisions, often because of loyalty to people he felt personally close to regardless of their suitability for the work he tasked them with. It’s such a relief when despite a flagging career, he at last finds love with someone who turns out to be the right person, devoted and supportive through decades of a peripatetic, topsy-turvy career.

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News

Friends and fellow musicians recall him as exhibiting all the traits of bipolar disorder. Later in life, when autism became better known in popular culture, he self-identified as on the spectrum. None of that necessarily explains all the major facets of his life and personality. Physical ailments, including a right-side palsy, helped make his piano playing unique, for one thing, and also contributed to making him old before his time.

Leon Russell in 2009
Leon Russell in 2009. Photo credit: Carl Lender, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What combination of medical and psychological troubles turned the firebrand of the 1970s, preaching the gospel of rock-and-roll to tens of thousands, into the subdued white-bearded keyboardist of his later years, quietly hiding behind that Leon Russell image while hustling to small-club gig after gig to make ends meet? One can’t help but get a warm feeling reading about the renewed recognition he received in his last years, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Elton John and John’s manager.

We’ll never fully know what made the mercurial Leon Russell the artist he was. But Janovitz’s deeply researched book fills in the picture more than anything has before. A critically astute writer, Janovitz also provides incisive assessments of the music Leon made throughout his long career. I didn’t find myself disagreeing with any of these opinions as, thanks to streaming services, I caught up with the substantial elements of Leon’s recording career that I hadn’t been familiar with.

Writing during the pandemic, Janovitz scored over 130 interviews with a great many of Leon’s collaborators – Eric Clapton, Elton John, Rita Coolidge, Jim Keltner, Glyn Johns, Taylor Hanson, Syd Straw, and on and on – as well as Leon’s friends, lovers, and children. Their cooperation is a testament to the author’s hard work, but even more so, to the legacy Leon Russell left, one that touched and influenced so many major figures in music and continues to do so, and to reward us, to this day.

Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History is out now from Hachette Books.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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