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.