LifeNotes: Rock Legend Leon Russell Dies In Nashville

Leon Russell

Leon Russell

 

 

Original post, published on Nov. 14, 2016 at 8:58 a.m.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame member Leon Russell passed away on Sunday (Nov. 13) at his Nashville-area home.

Russell, 74, was recovering from heart-bypass surgery he underwent in July. His wife Jan Bridges reported yesterday that he died in his sleep.

The legendary singer, songwriter and pianist is best known for such pop hits as “Tight Rope,” “Lady Blue” and “Back to the Island.” But he also had country success with records made as “Hank Wilson.” And he won many kudos for his collaborations with Willie Nelson, New Grass Revival and Elton John, among others.

Born Claude Russell Bridges in 1942, Leon Russell was a native of Lawton, Oklahoma who began playing piano at age 3. Lying about his age, he played at dances and nightclubs in Texas and Oklahoma in 1956-57. Still a teenager, he moved to Los Angeles in 1959 to seek a career as a professional musician.

By the early 1960s, his abilities on piano, trumpet, guitar, bass and other instruments had made him a sought-after session musician. He backed The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Rita Coolidge, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, The Monkees, The Ventures and more.

Russell played on The Byrds hit “Mr. Tambourine Man,” on Herb Alpert’s instrumental “A Taste of Honey” and “California Girls” by The Beach Boys and “Surf City” by Jan & Dean. Russell played on all of the hits recorded by Gary Lewis & The Playboys and also co-wrote the group’s hits “Everybody Loves a Clown” (1965) and “(You Don’t Have to) Paint Me a Picture” (1966).

He was in the house band for the 1964 rock movie The T.A.M.I. Show. He was a member of The Shindogs, the backing musicians in the network pop TV series Shindig.

After a number of unsuccessful solo records, Russell teamed up with musician Mark Benno to form The Asylum Choir in the late 1960s. He also performed on the records, concerts and TV appearances of Delaney & Bonnie.

Pictured (L-R): Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, and Charlie Monk. Photo: Courtesy Charlie Monk

Pictured (L-R): Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, and Charlie Monk. Photo: Courtesy Charlie Monk

Through Delaney & Bonnie, Russell became acquainted with Joe Cocker. He was soon leading Cocker’s band and recording sessions. In addition, he provided the singer with the 1969 hit “Delta Lady.” Russell’s reputation was also enhanced by his organization of Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, album and documentary film.

Striking out on his own again, Leon Russell released his first solo album in 1970. Titled Leon Russell, it contained his ballad “A Song for You.” More than 100 other artists have since recorded this song. The LP also contained Russell’s “Hummingbird,” which became a 1970 hit for B.B. King.

Russell took part in 1971’s all-star Concert for Bangladesh in New York’s Madison Square Garden. This event co-starred George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar and Ringo Starr alongside Russell. Its resulting recording won the Grammy Award as Album of the Year.

In 1971, The Carpenters scored a huge pop hit with “Superstar.” The song was co-written by Russell with Bonnie Bramlett.

Russell earned his first solo Gold record for his 1971 LP Leon Russell and The Shelter People. His second came for the 1972 LP Carney, which contained his hit “Tight Rope.” His tour with this music led Billboard to name him the world’s top concert attraction of 1973. Appropriately, he earned his third consecutive Gold record for 1973’s Leon Live.

He changed direction that year with the release of his country debut, Hank Wilson’s Back. Its tracks “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “A Six Pack to Go” both made the country charts. He shifted gears again with the 1974 collection Stop All That Jazz.

Russell returned to the pop hit parade with his 1975 hit “Lady Blue” and its 1976 follow-ups “Back to the Island” and “Rainbow in Your Eyes.” He wrote all three singles. His 1975 LP Will o’ the Wisp earned him his fourth Gold Record. The Best of Leon Russell (1976) was his fifth.

George Benson earned a Record of the Year Grammy Award for singing Russell’s song “This Masquerade” in 1976. But Russell’s own new recordings — 1976’s The Wedding Album (with then-wife Mary McCreary), 1977s Make Love to the Music (with McCreary) and 1978’s Americana — received comparatively little attention.

His reputation as a live performer remained high, however. With his mane of white hair, ringmaster top hat, tent-revival intensity and dramatic flare, he was a charismatic stage presence. He was dubbed “The Master of Space and Time” and attracted a fanatical following dubbed Leon Lifers.

In 1978-79, he toured with Willie Nelson. These concerts were widely praised and highly successful. A 1979 double LP titled One for the Road documented them, yielded the No. 1 country smash duet “Heartbreak Hotel” and became his sixth Gold Record.

Leon Russell married the former Janet Lee Constantine in 1979. They relocated to Nashville shortly afterward.

He embarked on a second series of acclaimed concerts in 1980-81. These were in collaboration with New Grass Revival and were also preserved on vinyl.

Leon Russell issued a steady stream of solo albums in the 1980s and 1990s, including three more as “Hank Wilson.” In 1993, Ray Charles won an r&b Grammy for his rendition of Russell’s “A Song for You.” Russell, himself, won a country instrumental Grammy in 2001 for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from the CD Earl Scruggs and Friends.

He enjoyed a huge career revival in 2010, thanks to The Union, a duet CD with longtime admirer Elton John. The album was produced by T Bone Burnett and led to a joint tour by the piano-playing greats.

Leon Russell was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. This was also the year he was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Russell’s solo comeback CD appeared in 2014. It was titled Life Journey. In 2015 came the release of A Poem Is a Naked Person, a documentary film about him that been shot by Les Blank in 1973-75, but never before released.

Leon Russell was honored by the Nashville Association of Talent Directors (NATD) last Wednesday. This was for his lifetime of achievements as a live performer and top showman. At the time of his death, he was planning to return to the road in January.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by six children — Blue, Teddy Jack, Tina Rose, Sugaree, Honey and Coco.

Funeral services were open to the public and conducted on Friday, Nov. 18 at Victory Baptist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, beginning at 1 p.m. CT. Visitation was private.

 

 

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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