During his heyday in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Leon Russell cut a wide swathe through rock’n’roll. For a while there he seemed to be everywhere, a Svengali who looked the part, with his silver, flowing locks and beard. This musicians’ musician was revered on both sides of the pond for his status as a living, breathing embodiment of neon-lit American roadhouse music, having logged countless hours in steamy, smoky joints before he was old enough to legally drink.
He’d headed west to LA from his native Tulsa in the early ’60s when barely out of his teens, but possessing chops for miles as a guitarist, pianist and arranger, he soon became a top-flight LA session man.
Among his myriad early credits, Russell played numerous dates for Phil Spector as a key member of the Wrecking Crew, pounded the ivories on Jan & Dean’s “Surf City”, brought a professional presence to the historic session for The Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man” and conducted the string section on his own arrangement for Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind”.
Subsequently, Russell was a mainstay of blue-eyed soul prototypes Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, the producer/arranger of Joe Cocker’s self-titled ’69 LP, and the organiser/ringleader of Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, which spawned a hit album and film, and a mentor to honorary shitkickers George Harrison and Eric Clapton. Russell also founded Shelter Records with expat English producer Denny Cordell, and the label would later sign and release records by the Tulsa-based Dwight Twilley Band and transplanted Floridians Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, as well as Texas blues great Freddie King and Memphis mainstay Don Nix.
Given Russell’s status as a wizard behind the scenes, pushing buttons and pulling strings, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he was also a writer and artist of distinction. It’s this aspect of his legacy that is spotlighted on this 16-song career overview, three quarters of it culled from the five studio albums he recorded between 1970 and ’75. As a performer, Russell is known for the strangulated soulfulness of his singing and his kinetic barrelhouse piano playing, in the grand tradition of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. But as a writer, he perpetuated an earlier tradition. Indeed, his stellar contributions to the Great American Songbook revealed Russell as the inheritor of the sophisticated Southernness of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.
By the time he retreated from the front lines of rock’n’roll and left the public consciousness at the tail end of the ’70s, Russell had deepened his imprint, penning a number of rock standards, including the Cocker-sung hit “Delta Lady” (celebrating his then-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge), his own “Tight Rope”, the Bonnie Bramlett co-write “Groupie (Superstar)”, a hit for The Carpenters (who dropped the “Groupie” reference, not surprisingly), as was the lovely “This Masquerade”. If anything, his original recordings of these classics make up in elegant understatement what they cede to the cover versions in show-stopping panache. And no subsequent rendition has approached Russell’s own sublime take on the exquisite love ballad, “A Song For You”.
Although Russell’s arrangements were often lighthearted, his most memorable lyrics possessed startling emotional weight. “Tight Rope” finds its narrator poised “linked by life and the funeral pyre”, while the refrain of “A Song For You” interweaves metaphysics and heart-wrenching poignancy: “I love you in a place/Where there’s no space or time/I love you for all my life/You are a friend of mine/And when my life is over/Remember when we were together/We were alone/And I was singing this song for you”.
The collection is filled out by “Heartbreak Hotel”, his 1979 duet with Willie Nelson, the only Russell single to top the US charts; his blazing medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/ “Young Blood” from 1971’s The Concert For Bangladesh; and “If It Wasn’t For Bad” from his belated return to the spotlight alongside one-time protégé Elton John on 2010’s The Union. The album’s opener, “Tryin’ To Stay Live”, from Asylum Choir II, a 1969 collaboration with Texan Marc Benno, serves as a mission statement for the entire career of a multi-talented blue-collar cat who for a time was the hardest-working man in showbiz.