Legendary producer-record exec Denny Cordell and Leon Russell had a remarkable run with their Shelter Records in the ’70s. They formed the label after working successfully together with Joe Cocker, in particular on Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmentour, with Russell as the music director.
They formed the label on Russell’s home turf, Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1970 and put out Russell’s great early work, Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers’ classic first two albums, stinging electric guitar blues by Freddie King and Albert King, the swampy Americana of J.J. Cale, early Phoebe Snow, the Gap Band, and the great power pop of the first two Dwight Twilley Band (with the late Phil Seymour) albums.
Leon Russell, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, and the pseudonymous album of country covers, Hank Wilson’s Back Vol. 1, are excellent albums, but 1972’s Carney is the highlight of Russell’s career. Cordell leads Russell into a highly personal and weird world of Roller Derby queens, expired junkie girlfriends and the queasy thrills of the carnival.
The jaunty hit “Tightrope” pushes Russell’s vocals up front and neatly captures
the vertigo inherent in relationships and similar balancing acts. The album, Cordell and Russell all peak on “This Masquerade” (later covered by
George Benson), which opens with strange vibraphone and eerie electric guitar
interplay that is beautiful, evocative and fathoms deep. A simple strummed
acoustic guitar and Russell’s most natural singing blend with a light Latin beat
into a flickering pool of intrigue and regret.
Cordell continued his amazing production streak with the first Tom Petty album.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is one of the great debuts of the ’70s, and, alive with youthful energy, is Petty’s most compelling album.
Again, Cordell’s production hits the mark. “Rockin’ Around With You” kicks off
the album with an insistent backbeat, Petty’s patented mush-mouthed delivery
and an almost-new wave intensity.
“Breakdown” was Petty’s first radio hit – it comes alive with an insinuating guitar
line from stalwart Mike Campbell and Petty’s nuanced vocal over a great
melody, buoyed by a loping beat.
“American Girl” is the best song Petty has ever recorded: the kind of anthem that few southwest of Springsteen were recording in the ’70s. “Girl” generates a level of excitement that belies a relatively tame arrangement. The chiming guitars, the syncopated drums and Petty’s vocals – both pleading and defiant – leave no doubt as to the archetypal nature of this “American Girl” or this American band.