50 years into a career that’s touched down at many important junctures in rock history, Leon Russell shows no signs of slowing down. Sunday, August 6, Russell and his band perform at the Claremont Opera House. The piano-playing “Master of Space and Time” is hard to pin down. He doesn’t give interviews – “Leon Russell speaks through his music,” his web site proclaims.
His sound crosses so many genres, however, that it’s difficult to know exactly what he’s saying.
Perhaps that’s the point, because whether it’s pop, gospel, country or his own funky stew of Oklahoma boogie rock, Leon Russell inhabits each style effortlessly. If he were talking, he’d probably just call it good music – like so many of his fans.
As an arranger, songwriter and session player, Russell helped shape a generation of music before he’d even released an album of his own. As a solo artist, he continues to influence artists to this day, from Elton John to Bruce Hornsby.
In 1956, Russell quit school and lied about his age to get a job in Jerry Lee Lewis’s band. He was only 14 at the time, but his destiny was sealed. “I’d just spent three days, twelve hours a day, taking entrance exams to Tulsa University and I just thought, well, it’s a waste of time,” he said in a 1971 interview. “I figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants and travel around, play some rock and roll music, which I decided was easier and better.”
Later, Russell was a member of the “Wrecking Crew” house band that created so many hits for Phil Spector. He also arranged “This Diamond Ring” for Gary Lewis and the Playboys and “River Deep, Mountain High” for Ike and Tina Turner. In the mid-Sixties, Lenny Waronker recruited him to round out a stable of renegade artists tasked with making a new kind of music. “We wanted hits,” said Waronker, “but we wanted them on our own terms.”
Russell went to the West Coast, where he joined the likes of Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Brill Building alum Jack Nietzsche to become what rock critic Robert Christgau termed a “Super Sideman.”
Leon Russell was a big part of the “California Sound” of the era. That’s his stomping honky-tonk piano outro on Jan and Dean’s “Surf City;” he also helped on Sonny & Cher’s early singles, and played on the Beach Boys’ iconic “Pet Sounds” album.
He appeared on so many records that he had trouble remembering them all. “I may have played on parts of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and their second single as well,” says Russell, “I can’t remember.” His piano playing is unmistakable, though, on “Live With Me” a standout track on the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” album. He later did session work for Delaney & Bonnie, and served as musical director on the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour, which helped Joe Cocker emerge as a star.
With the help of friends George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, Russell’s eponymous 1970 solo debut was an immediate smash, its influence felt far and wide. The hit single, “A Song For You,” has since been covered by a multitude of artists. Elton John called Russell “my idol,” and cited the record as source material for his breakout hit “Your Song.” “I copied Leon Russell and that was it,” Elton told a journalist in 1971.
A second album and a show-stealing appearance at the “Bangla Desh” benefit concert cemented Russell’s reputation as a solo artist. His gospel-fueled “Okie Rock” dominated the airwaves, with “Roll Away Stone” in the charts, and “Delta Lady” a smash for Joe Cocker.
With a steady string of hits, including his cover of Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Tightrope,” and “This Masquerade,” Russell’s star steadily rose. By 1973, he was the top-grossing concert attraction in the United States and, on the strength of the audacious three-disc “Leon Live,” regularly sold out stadiums.
The next year, he decided to shift gears with an album of country standards and Hank Williams covers that confounded old fans, but won him a lot of new ones. He followed “Hank Wilson’s Back” with the more mainstream “Will O’ The Wisp,” which yielded the hits “Back to the Island” and “Lady Blue.”
By the end of the decade, he’d wholeheartedly embraced country music, moving to Nashville and recording the live “One For The Road” with Willie Nelson, and winning a CMA Album of the Year award. “Willie is a national treasure,” says Russell, “When it comes to music and music business, he knows so many things that I have no idea about.”
Since then, Leon Russell has toured with the New Grass Revival, Edgar Winter and collaborated further with Nelson. In 1992, Russell acolyte Bruce Hornsby produced “Anything Can Happen.” Russell’s also released two more Hank Wilson records, the most recent, “Legend in My Time: Hank Wilson Volume III” in 1998.