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Leon Russell

+ {The Asylum Choir} + {Hank Wilson} + {Leon & Mary Russell}

Known equally as an eclectic singer-songwriter and a session/sideman to the stars, the maverick and bearded LEON RUSSELL peaked in the 70s, but is still an important figure in modern-day music having strung together a Top 3 duet set with long-time enthusiast ELTON JOHN. While Leon had a good deal of success on his lonesome, it would be other artists’ interpretations that made the man coin: most notably `A Song For You’ covered by everyone from the CARPENTERS and DONNY HATHAWAY to CHER and ARETHA FRANKLIN et al; `Delta Lady’ a massive hit for his “Mad Dogs” buddy JOE COCKER, and `This Masquerade’, a Grammy-award winner for pop-jazz giant GEORGE BENSON.
Born Claude Russell Bridges, April 2, 1942, Lawton, Oklahoma, the prodigy learned to play classical piano at a very early age, while he duly mastered a string of other instruments (trumpet, etc.) by the time he landed his inaugural gig, backing RONNIE HAWKINS & The Hawks at a Tulsa bar/nightclub – he was only 14 and had to fib about his age; he would soon support “The Killer” JERRY LEE LEWIS.
By the early 60s, the young Claude had relocated to California, where he secured session work. Teaming up with DAVID GATES (as David & Lee), the pair turned out one single, `Sad September’, in the fall of ’62, before the future BREAD man wrote C.J. Russell – as Lee was then billed – both sides of a solo single: `The Girl I Lost In The Rain’ (b/w `The One That Got Away’). In May 1964, A&M Records issued `Cindy’ (b/w `Misty’), while it would autumn the following year that LEON RUSSELL (on Dot Records) flopped with `Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout The Young’.
In the meantime, RUSSELL became a regular contributor to PHIL SPECTOR’s “wall of sound” (for IKE & TINA TURNER and many more), while other sessions included HERB ALPERT’s `A Taste Of Honey’, The BYRDS’ `Mr. Tambourine Man’ and an arrangement credit on GARY LEWIS & THE PLAYBOYS’ `This Diamond Ring’. In subsequently signing a proper solo deal at Smash/Mercury Records, his work for a raft of artists continued; as in sessions for GENE CLARK (ex-BYRDS) and another arrangement on `The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’ for HARPER’S BIZARRE.
Hoping to hop on the psychedelic gravy train, Leon and young guitarist Marc Benno formed The ASYLUM CHOIR, releasing the LP LOOKING INSIDE THE ASYLUM CHOIR {*6}, toward the fall of 1968; it found a cult audience but little critical acclaim. Obvious references to “Sgt. Pepper” and The BYRDS, the record was caught between garage/bubblegum and derivative psychedelia, which went toward unhealthy chart returns for singles, `Welcome To Hollywood’ (b/w `Soul Food’) and `Isicle Star Tree’ (b/w `Indian Style’). A sophomore set was knocked back the following spring and, of course, both went on to solo careers. While MARC BENNO carved out a small niche, RUSSELL became a top songwriter and session man, soon forming his own Shelter imprint (with Denny Cordell) – a subsidiary of A&M who would issue THE ASYLUM CHOIR II {*6}, in November 1971, when Leon had almost become a superstar.
Back in 1969, befriending rootsy soul duo DELANEY & BONNIE, Leon produced their `Accept No Substitute’ album, as well as augmenting the pair on their “Friends” tour; later friends would include such luminaries as ERIC CLAPTON and GEORGE HARRISON. That year also saw JOE COCKER taking RUSSELL’s `Delta Lady’ (penned for then girlfriend RITA COOLIDGE) into the lower regions of the charts and the UK Top 10; the workaholic jack-of-all-musical-trades, the brains behind COCKER’s celebrated “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour/movie the following year.
In May 1970, his eponymous debut album, LEON RUSSELL {*8}, was lauded by the critics and, in the process, reached #60. Performed in his own inimitable blues/gospel-drenched, backwoods-bayou style, RUSSELL’s chunky piano chords graced a clutch of un-associated titles (`I Put A Spell On You’ and `Give Peace A Chance’) that were already the dominion of Messrs SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS and LENNON/ONO BAND, while other self-penned cuts, `Hummingbird’, `Dixie Melody’, `Roll Away The Stone’ and the aforementioned `A Song For You’ and `Delta Lady’, were his ticket to the top of the tree.
As well as launching RUSSELL’s own career, Shelter were instrumental in setting out J.J. CALE, amongst others, on a long and illustrious (if low-key) career. With continued exposure from the “Mad Dogs…” tour doing him no harm, anticipation was rife for follow-up, LEON RUSSELL AND THE SHELTER PEOPLE (1971) {*7}, a transatlantic Top 30 success, highlighting hard-hitting interpretations of scorching DYLAN songs: `A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and `It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ (three others remained outtakes:- `It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, `Love Minus Zero – No Limit’ and `She Belongs To Me’) and one from GEORGE HARRISON: `Beware Of Darkness’. Alongside idiosyncratic self-penned material such as `Crystal Closet Queen’ and `The Ballad Of Mad Dogs And Englishmen’, guitarist Don Preston augmented the opening numbers, `Stranger In A Strange Land’ and `Of Thee I Sing’. The HARRISON connection, meanwhile, led Leon to joining the fray for the ex-BEATLES man’s “Concert For Bangladesh” benefit.
After supporting The ROLLING STONES on tour and laying down sessions for ERIC CLAPTON, DYLAN and B.B. KING, Leon’s third set CARNEY (1972) {*7} was an even bigger success, a near No.1 which saw the impressively bearded singer/songwriter using his chequered history in the music business as inspiration. Despite the country-rock clown symbolism which he used on the record (which featured `This Masquerade’ and hit `Tight Rope’), RUSSELL’s services were in demand constantly; the pianist even writing and producing two tracks with said DYLAN: `Watching The River Flow’ and `When I Paint My Masterpiece’. Leon also lent a hand to his future wife, Mary McCreary (of Little Sister), releasing her gospel-soul LPs, `Butterflies In Heaven’ (1973) and `Jezebel’ (1974), as well as working with her on a few collaboration albums a little later. In answer to COCKER’s “Mad Dogs…” and HARRISON’s “…Bangladesh” multi-disc sets, the excessive and exhausting LEON LIVE (1973) {*6} – recorded at Long Beach, California the previous year – showcased the complete RUSSELL at his peak. Saddled next to several of his own compositions was his re-vamps of DYLAN’s `It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, a 16-minute medley of JAGGER-RICHARDS’ `Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and Leiber-Stoller-Pomus’ `Young Blood’, plus a couple of traditional gospel dirges; the triple-LP nonetheless reached Top 10 status.
On the other side of the spectrum, the cornily-titled (and jacketed) HANK WILSON’S BACK, Vol.1 (1973) {*7} introduced RUSSELL’s Nashville alter-ego; basically an excuse to roll out several classic C&W/bluegrass staples such as `I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, `Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’, `Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’, `The Battle Of New Orleans’, `Goodnight Irene’, etc. This was a direction he would subsequently pursue with WILLIE NELSON, as well as forming his own bluegrass combo at the turn of the decade.
LEON RUSSELL, a year on, found him in transitional mode, slipping and sliding through the ages of music on a hatful of cover takes and his own self-penned numbers on STOP ALL THAT JAZZ (1974) {*5}. Not the commercial prospect he might’ve wished for, reviewers were stunned by his y’all/goofball arrangements of TIM HARDIN’s `If I Were A Carpenter’, MOSE ALLISON’s `Smashed’, DYLAN’s `The Ballad Of Hollis Brown’ and Leiber & SPECTOR’s `Spanish Harlem’ (as a melting-pot lounge instrumental!).
Remarkably still a Top 30 entity, the wholly self-penned WILL O’ THE WISP (1975) {*7}, had much more to say than his previous meanderings. Although at times mysteriously wayward (the short title track and `Little Hideaway’ were simply Leon in a forest of synths and cool musicianship), the set was quite sentimental or funky by way of `My Father’s Shoes’ and `Stay Away From Sad Songs’; concluding with his most stunning songs yet, `Lady Blue’ (a Top 20 smash).
To celebrate his marriage on June 20, 1975 to Ms. McCreary, several years on from John & Yoko, and 10 days ahead of the schmaltzy briefness of (Gregg) ALLMAN And Woman (er… CHER), LEON & MARY RUSSELL’s WEDDING ALBUM (1976) {*4} was one for fans of tabloid celebrity rather than the contemporary commercial mush inside. Subsequently sporting a haircut – no, not Leon! – on the sleeve-shot of Leon & Mary’s follow-up LP, MAKE LOVE TO THE MUSIC (1977) {*3} (also on Paradise Records), fans baulked at the prospect of listening to another nine saxxy songs of `Joyful Noise’ and `Easy Love’; incidentally, the couple had two children before divorcing in 1980; Leon was re-married to Janet Lee Constantine, and has been so ever since February 6, 1983.
As polished as a DOOBIE BROTHERS record, but sounding remarkably like WILLIE NELSON in his heyday, 1978’s solo AMERICANA {*4} was just too out-of-sync with the times. Songs penned with Dyan Diamond and KIM FOWLEY about `Elvis And Marilyn’, `From Maine To Mexico’ and a cover of `When A Man Loves A Woman’, this near-Top 100 LP was met with maximum critical backlash. As fate would have it, RUSSELL managed to saddle up with his country hero on the Willie And Leon double-set, `One For The Road’, which graced the Top 30 and spawned a massive country hit on a cover of ELVIS’s `Heartbreak Hotel’.
After the dismal LIFE AND LOVE (1979) {*4} solo set, there was a spirited resurgence in THE LIVE ALBUM (1981) {*6}, which credited the NEW GRASS REVIVAL, from a gig the previous May. Obviously bluegrass in nature and almost hip to be square, Leon journeyed down the bayou for re-charged versions of LENNON & McCARTNEY’s `I’ve Just Seen A Face’, JAGGER & RICHARDS’ `Wild Horses’, RAY CHARLES’ `I Believe To My Soul’ and a Wizard of Oklahoma re-tread of `Over The Rainbow’.
The rest of the 80s saw RUSSELL’s solo recording activities take a back seat; only his work with co-songwriter/producer Doug Snider, SOLID STATE (1984) {*5}, reaching his fans, while another round of pseudonymous honky-tonk – his last album for several years – was unveiled as HANK WILSON VOL II (1984) {*6}; `Wabash Cannonball’, `Tennessee Waltz’, `Heartaches By The Number’, `Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, `I’m Movin’ On’, `I Saw The Light’ et al… a sort-of Hanks for the memories.
RUSSELL eventually returned in 1992 with the BRUCE HORNSBY-produced ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN {*5}, an aptly-titled effort for Virgin America which saw the singer-songwriter’s experimental excursions receive a frosty reception from critics. Apart from the shamanistic `No Man’s Land’, and others by way of `Angel Ways’ and `Faces Of The Children’ (a cover of CHUCK BERRY’s `Too Much Monkey Business’ said it all), Leon could do little right for doing it wrong.
Nevertheless, the maverick remained something of a backroom legend in the music industry, his place in the annals of rock history assured. On the back of another C&W tribute set, LEGEND IN MY TIME: Hank Wilson Vol.III (1998) {*5} – featuring `Sixteen Tons’, “Sweet Dreams’, `Funny How Time Slips Away’, `Okie From Muskogee’, `Crazy’, `He’ll Have To Go’ etc. – RUSSELL made a more solid comeback the following year with FACE IN THE CROWD {*6}, a partial revisiting of the deep south piano plonking with which he originally made his name; son Teddy Jack aiding and abetting him on production duties.
Post-millennium or thereabouts, the man’s beard was gaining more weight than his flagging career; BLUES: THE SAME OLD SONG (late 1999) {*4} – re-issued in 2001 as “Guitar Blues” – RHYTHM & BLUEGRASS: HANK WILSON VOL.4 (2001) {*6} – with the Newgrass Revival – and MOONLIGHT & LOVE SONGS (2002) {*4} albums were strictly for his fans.
Sorting out another batch of self-financed recordings by way of ANGEL IN DISGUISE (2007) {*5}, ALMOST PIANO (2008) {*5}, BAD COUNTRY (2008) {*4} and IN YOUR DREAMS (2008) {*4} – the latter couple recorded back in 2003 – Leon had lost the support that had stuck by his waning standards. Then up popped Sir ELTON JOHN, who, in one fell swoop, put the man back on the musical map via 2010’s collaborative `The Union’; T-BONE BURNETT at its axis.
Looking uncannily similar to British institution ROBERT WYATT, though with a bright-white beard longer in length, the comeback trail was complete for Leon’s LIFE JOURNEY (2014) {*7}. Promotional appearances on Later With… Jools Holland (et al), the man at the piano concentrated primarily on a funky jazz motif in staples `Fever’, `Georgia On My Mind’, `Come On In My Kitchen’, `That Lucky Old Sun’, `The Masquerade Is Over’ and BILLY JOEL’s `New York State Of Mind’; produced by veteran Tommy LiPuma, RUSSELL’s only self-penned numbers were `Big Lips’ and finale `Down In Dixieland’.
Sadly, just as the western world was coming to terms with the loss of legend LEONARD COHEN, Oklahoma’s best-loved singer-songwriter LEON RUSSELL passed to the other side on November 13, 2016. He’d recently recovered from bypass surgery after a heart attack and was scheduled to be touring in the new year.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Feb-Nov2016

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