This is way too late in coming. I don’t know why it took me so long to compose this. It was November, I was busy, I could make a thousand excuses and none of them would be good enough. It is hard to lose your heroes. The Master of Space and Time has slipped his earthly bonds and somewhere maybe off the coast of the Sea of Tranquility or way beyond, a rock and roll revival meeting is surely shaking the rings around Saturn.
Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma was a hothouse of talented young musicians in the 1950’s. Elvin Bishop was a student there. There was also a cat named David Gates who one day would go on to have a string of hit singles as the front man in a soft rock band called Bread. But years before that he was in a band called The Fencemen with a piano player named Claude Russell Bridges. Legend has it that young Mr. Bridges later took the name Leon Russell when a friend lent him his fake ID so that the fourteen year old musician could perform in the Tulsa clubs with his later band The Starlighters. The Starlighters were instrumental in creating what later became known as the Tulsa Sound and included J.J Cale, Chuck Blackwell and Leo Feathers.
At seventeen Leon hopped a Greyhound bus to California and was quickly invited into the legendary Wrecking Crew, an assemblage of the steadiest and most respected session musicians in LA working mainly under the direction of Phil Spector. Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine Tommy Tedesco, Earl Palmer, Larry Knechtel, Jim Horn, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, are just a small sampling of the talents that comprised the Wrecking Crew. Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) and Glen Campbell spent time on this formidable roster as well before moving on to their own solo success. Their output was so voluminous that Carol Kaye once said she never imagined doing anything else because as a bass player in the WC she was making more money than the President of the United States.
They backed Frank Sinatra, his daughter Nancy, The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, The Monkees, Barry McGuire, The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Bobby Vee, The Carpenters, John Denver, The Association, The Fifth Dimension and Nat King Cole and most any other major act recording in the studios of Los Angeles at that time. During this period Leon played piano on Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night and co-wrote the Gary Lewis and the Playboys hits Everybody Loves a Clown and She’s Just My Style
In 1969 along with Denny Cordell, Leon Russell established Shelter Records. Around the same time he joined the Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett tour. Eric Clapton was on that tour as well as a rather covert George Harrison. And it was during this period that he wrote Superstar with Bonnie Bramlett and Blues Power with Clapton. It was also around this time that Joe Cocker was preparing for a tour without the support of his regular mates The Grease Band, the group he had played with for years and who had backed him at his breakout performance at Woodstock. Leon signed on, assembled a band and thus the Mad Dogs and Englishman tour and subsequent hit album came into being.
But I had not seen him perform until August 1st 1971 when George Harrison stepped up to the microphone at The Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden and said “We’re going to do a couple of numbers from Leon”. He blasted into a medley of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Lieber and Stoller, Doc Pomus classic Youngblood and the building began to shake. The very next day I bought his first two (solo) albums.
Two years later in 1973 I was in college in New Mexico and word got out that Leon would be coming to Albuquerque and the chance to see him do his own show after witnessing his sample at Madison Square Garden was too much to pass up. Quite a few of us made the 60 mile journey from Santa Fe on the darkened New Mexico roads to Albuquerque. I had seen quite a few respectable acts in my young concert going career, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Traffic, The Beach Boys, Mountain, and the aforementioned Concert for Bangladesh to name but a few but I had never seen nothing like this. This was a revival meeting disguised as a rock concert. But it was more than rock it was blues, gospel, a touch of the classical, jazz, country and folk. The band was tight and the owner of the spotlight had no problem sharing it, giving over solo spots to the Rev. Patrick Henderson and Phyllis Lindsay on numbers like Great Day and I Serve a Living Savior.
A friend of mine, in the orchestra section was standing right in front of the stage with a lady friend perched on his shoulders. In a flash Leon reached and pulled her up to the stage and led her back to the piano as he rattled the keyboard. Just as suddenly he leaned over and gave her a big fat kiss before sending her back to my friend’s shoulders. It is a moment I will never forget, but what I remember the most is the feeling, the complete hysterical joy that stayed with me for days, a feeling that still colors my visions “When hate is clouding up my day”. The walls vibrate, the earth shakes, there is a hum of pure ecstasy. The mind and body separate existing only ethereally. I recall that moment and I am healed in an instant, no matter how deep in the muck of dissatisfaction I am, at least for the moment.
Leonard Cohen passed just about a week before Leon. Perhaps because the shock of his passing was so overwhelming the news of Leon’s passing got somewhat overlooked. Leonard Cohen was one of the great rock poets, often referred to as the Canadian Dylan. Certainly Leon was not the poet that Leonard Cohen was but Leonard Cohen could not rock a piano like Leon Russell.
In 1973 he was the top concert draw in the US and his records were always near the top of the charts. At some point he made a decision to concentrate on country music and he did so through an alter ego he called Hank Wilson, an obvious nod to country legend Hank Williams. He did a couple of albums under this pseudonym that sold fairly well. He also recorded a splendid album with Willie Nelson, One for the Road which produced a number one hit, a cover of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. But the kinds of sales that the country music of that time generated could not compare to the pop sales and slowly Leon’s star began to diminish.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to see him again at BB King’s in Manhattan. This time the venue was much smaller and so was the size of the band. There was no more jumping up and down on the stage or dancing on the piano with guitar, no sweet young things were pulled up onto the stage. He entered with the assistance of a cane. The howling full throated voice had been winnowed to down to a crusty yet noble mumble but the hands still flew across the keyboard with the same amazing dexterity and as always the band was very tight. His powers to jolt an audience onto its feet were as great as ever. There was a moment of melancholy for me when after the last song of the set instead of leaving the stage and returning to the roaring exultations of the crowd for the encore, he stayed at his piano and said “this is the part of the show where I would usually leave and come back so I’m just going to ask you all to imagine I left and now I’m back” and then he sang A Song for You.
Two years later he was “rediscovered” by Elton John, forty years after he had opened for Leon on his first American tour. Their collaboration, The Union was nominated for a couple of Grammys and picked by Rolling Stone magazine as the third best album of 2010. Leon’s voice had a clarity that had been missing at the BB King show. Elton sought him out after listening to Back to the Island on his IPod while vacationing in Hawaii. All those years ago Leon was extremely gracious to him, imploring him to join him on his own encores, supplying a generous showcase for the as yet little known but future superstar.
Elton’s kindness was not lost on Leon. His hauntingly beautiful In the Hands of Angels, the final song on the album is dedicated to Elton as well as T-Bone Burnett and all the folks who made this opportunity possible.
He recorded two more albums after that. 2014’s Life Journey is filled with standards, a tribute to Hoagy Carmichael, Robert Johnson, Billy Joel and others he admired. Although an excellent songwriter himself he only sings two of his own originals. Paying tribute was nothing new to Leon. He took no one for granted. Forty years earlier with Crystal Closet Queen he honored Little Richard who “made me want to give up my job at the Safeway store and play a little rock and roll music”
“I got a rainbow around my beautiful face and I’m living in a pot of gold. I’m gonna sing a song of love for you one more time (Tutti fruiti the beauty’s on duty)
Right before The Union sessions were about to begin Leon had to have emergency brain surgery. When he returned to the studio expectations were realistically low. The Master of Space and Time shocked everyone. It was said that the music itself healed him and the more he played the better he got. His work on it is incredibly dynamic and nuanced.
I will never understand how he could write lyrics like “I bet you didn’t think I knew how to rock and roll” How could anyone ever think that?