JF’s Memory Time Machine: Leon Russel

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May 2013 JF’s Memory Time Machine: Leon Russel

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Today he’s acknowledged as one of rock music’s great contributors. As a songwriter he’s remembered for hit songs, including “Delta Lady,” a hit for Joe Cocker in 1970, and “This Masquerade,” for which he won a Grammy Award in 1977 after George Benson had a Top Ten hit with it the previous year. Also recorded by The Carpenters. Russell also performed his own hits, including “Tight Rope” (1972) and “Lady Blue” (1975).

Also thought of as the ultimate session man, through the years Leon Russell collaborated with everyone from Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Phil Spector, to the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. Among Leon’s 25 album releases, he has had a long-standing love affair with country music.

leon-russel-beatReflecting his Okie musical roots with the concept album, Hank Wilson’s Back, in 1973, and the follow-up Hank Wilson Vol. 2 in 1984, and a third collection, Hank Wilson A Legend In My Time in 1998, he also recorded the duet album Willie & Leon in 1979.

Another interesting musical amalgam was Leon and contemporary bluegrass ensemble, New Grass Revival, who recorded an album together. This included titles like I’ve Just Seen A Face, Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms and a frenzied bluegrass workout on Jumping Jack Flash.

Born on April 2, 1941, in Lawton, Oklahoma, Claude Russell Bridges spent his childhood years from three to 13 studying classical piano. At 14, Russell lied about his age to land a gig at a Tulsa nightclub, playing behind Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, before touring in support of Jerry Lee Lewis. In Tulsa, Leon was one of the vibrant local music scene which included other musicians like singer/songwriters, the enigmatic J J Cale and ex-Waylon sideman and member of The  Crickets, Gordon Payne, and Jesse Ed Davis, bass-player Carl Radle, drummers Chuck Blackwell, Jimmy Karstein and Jamie Oldaker.

When he turned 16, Leon moved to Los Angeles, studying guitar under the legendary James Burton, and appearing on sessions with various recording artists. Working sessions, he became close friends with many fellow sessionists, like Sonny Curtis, Glen Campbell and Liberty Records producer, Tommy ‘Snuffy’ Garrett. Playing and arranging, Leon was on a variety of recordings from Gary Paxton of the Hollywood Argyles, The Crickets, Bobby Vee, Bobby “Boris” Pickett of “Monster Mash” fame, and future member of Bread, David Gates. Leon and David got together to form a 1962 duo as David and Lee and had a one-off record with Sad September/Trying To Be Someone. This was given a belated UK release in 1973, probably to cash in both Leon and David’s later successes. Another outing on disc in ’62, was a pair of instrumental singles by The Fencemen, who were Leon and David, plus James Burton and drummer Chuck Blackwell, in between his stint with The Everly Brothers’ band.

As C J Russell, our man had a one-off single released on Mercury in ’63 with The Girl I Lost In The Rain/The One That Got Away.

The debut of ‘Leon Russell’ on disc came in 1964 with his versions of Misty and Cindy, released on A&M. Next was the 1965 single of Everybody’s Talkin’ Bout The Young, a Dylanesque protest item coupled with It’s Alright With Me, featuring some wild guitar from James Burton. The disc actually had a release in the UK in 1965 on Dot.

As part of the famous ‘Wrecking Crew’ session team, Leon produced and arranged a single for the Phil-Dan label credited as ‘Betty Willis’ on another instrumental oddity simply entitled Soul.

leon-russel-beat-magazineUS audiences in 1965 saw Leon make several appearances on the Jack Good USTV show Shindig! Suited up and looking smooth, he performed Jerry Lee Lewis-type numbers while completing the Jerry Lee effect with an occasional sneer at the camera.

An offshoot from the show was the band The Shindogs with whom Leon participated on their recording of Yes I’m Going Home/Who Do You Think You Are, and another obscure UK release on Fontana from ’67.

Moving more into session work, Russell helped to create Phil Spector’s renowned ‘Wall Of Sound’, playing on many of the greatest American pop singles of the 1960s. These included his arrangement on  Ike and Tina Turner’s monumental River Deep, Mountain High;

Russell also contributed towards the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man, US hit-maker Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ This Diamond Ring, and Herb Alpert’s recording of A Taste of Honey.

In 1970, he put together the touring rock extravaganza named Mad Dogs And Englishmen, built around British singer Joe Cocker and his pianist Chris Stainton.

It would be safe to say that this mighty rock 43-member ensemble, with all of its various indulgences, took its toll on the vulnerable Cocker, resulting in him becoming almost zombie-like by the end of the tour. However, from the combination Leon’s arrangement of The Letter and his song Delta Lady gave Cocker two of his biggest hits.

While the tour rendered Joe a shadow of his former self, for Russell, the tour had given him the exposure to become a high profile artist and musician in his own right. As credited on the Mad Dogs live album as ‘Master of Space and Time’, Leon has always been surrounded with some mystic and today enjoys his own level of super-stardom.

His most recent project was his joint effort with Elton John titled The Union. With his long white hair and beard, that mystique prevails as Leon resembles some sort of apparition, continuing to make music with whoever and in whatever musical mood takes him.

John Firminger

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