In Memoriam Leon Russell 1942-2016


Why the media haven’t quite gotten to this sad death of another musical icon is beyond me. Leon Russell was a presence to be reckoned with. When he sat down behind the piano with his long white hair and beard, often with a hat, you just felt there was someone there. His broad musical output, which touches on folk, country, blues, rock, soul and jazz, speaks for itself. His woeful tale of heartache known as ‘A Song For You’ has been covered by over 100 artists, but even so, he was more known as a studio musician for the likes of Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.

Leon Russell was – along with Dr. John – my favorite white piano player. The Oklahoma born pianist had a way of combining styles from a young age; his early band The Starlighters, which also included J.J. Cale, was one of the creators of what would became known as the Tulsa Sound, which combined elements of country, blues, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, Russell was often invited to studio sessions by people looking for that sound, even after he moved to Los Angeles. Not just on piano, by the way; he was a proficient guitarist as well.

During this time, Russell had also proven himself as a highly successful songwriter. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Joe Cocker, who recorded his song ‘Delta Lady’. Russell eventually became the band leader for Cocker’s ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ tour, of which a popular concert film was made. Meanwhile, Russell was already working on a solo career. His self-titled debut was released in 1970 and included classics like ‘Shootout On The Plantation’, ‘Hummingbird’ and his own version of ‘Delta Lady’. And ‘A Song For You’, on which Russell’s performance may not be technically perfect, but it’s an intense emotional experience.

His contribution to George Harrison’s ‘The Concert For Bangladesh’ in 1971 is likely what brought him to public attention. Besides playing the piano and bass, he also sang the Rolling Stones classic ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and The Coasters’ ‘Young Blood’. During the rest of the seventies, he would keep steadily releasing albums either under his own name or his country alter ego Hank Wilson. I personally consider the dreamy, jazzy and occasionally bizarre ‘Carney’ to be his best solo studio album. ‘Magic Mirror’, ‘Tight Rope’, ‘This Masquerade’, ‘Roller Derby’ and ‘Manhattan Island Serenade’ are all masterpieces. Dutch listeners may recognize the latter as the basis for the 1981 Amazing Stroopwafels hit ‘Oude Maasweg’.

After the seventies, Leon Russell slowly faded into obscurity. He would continue releasing albums and playing live solo or backing artists, but it would take until 2010 before the duet album ‘The Union’ he recorded with ardent admirer Elton John brought him back to the public eye. The album is a masterclass in both piano playing and songwriting and shines with an unbridled joy for making music. Both Russell and John simply hadn’t sounded that great in years. Russell’s last studio album ‘Life Journey’ was released in 2014.

Even though he kept on playing live right until the end of his life and was even talking about tour dates in 2017, the many health issues that plagued Russell in recent years have ultimately prevented him from doing so. He was recovering from heart surgery when he died in his sleep at age 74 yesterday. And so, the in memoriam I had hoped not to write in a while is a fact. I will miss Russell’s adventurous musical spirit and urge everyone to dig into his sizable discography as a tribute to this musical mastermind who may not have gotten the public praise he deserved, but could count on undivided admiration from his fellow musicians.

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