Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges; April 2, 1942 – November 13, 2016) was an American musician and songwriter who was involved with numerous bestselling pop music records over the course of his 60-year career. His genres included pop, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, standards, gospel and surf records, with six gold records to his credit.
His collaborations rank as some of the most successful in music history and as a touring musician, he performed with hundreds of Hall of Fame artists. He recorded 33 albums and at least 430 songs. He wrote "Delta Lady", recorded by Joe Cocker, and organized and performed with Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1970. More than 100 artists have recorded his "A Song for You" (1970).
As a pianist, he played in his early years on albums by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. On his first album, Leon Russell, in 1970, musicians included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. One of his biggest early fans, Elton John, said Russell was a "mentor" and "inspiration". They recorded The Union in 2010, which was later nominated for a Grammy.
Russell produced and played in recording sessions for Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, and others. He wrote and recorded the hits "Tight Rope" and "Lady Blue". He performed at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 along with Dylan and Eric Clapton, and in 2011 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, United States, Russell began playing piano at the age of four. He attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Also at Will Rogers High School were Anita Bryant, who was two years older, and in the same 1959 class, David Gates. Russell and Gates played and recorded together as The Fencemen . Another student at Will Rogers at the time was Elvin Bishop. During this time Russell was already performing at Tulsa nightclubs. He took the name Leon from a friend who lent him a fake ID to get into clubs he was legally too young to perform in.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1958, he became a session musician, working as a pianist on the recordings of many notable 1960s musical artists. By the late 1960s, Russell diversified, becoming successful as an arranger and songwriter. By 1970, he had become a solo recording artist, but he never relinquished his other roles in the music industry. After performing country music under the name Hank Wilson in the 1970s and '80s, Russell largely faded into obscurity.
Russell re-emerged in 2010 when Elton John called on him to record an album that became The Union. The album, which included guest performers Brian Wilson and Neil Young, brought renewed popularity to Russell, who later released a solo album and toured around the world.
Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 14, 2011. In June 2011, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
According to Russell's wife, Jan Bridges, Russell died at age 74 on the morning of November 13, 2016, quietly in his sleep at his suburban Nashville home. He had suffered a heart attack in July 2016 and had coronary bypass surgery, after which he postponed shows while convalescing at home. He had hoped to return to his concert schedule in January 2017.
Russell began his musical career at the age of 14 in the nightclubs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his group, the Starlighters, which included J. J. Cale, Leo Feathers, Chuck Blackwell and Johnny Williams, were instrumental in creating the style of music known as the Tulsa sound. After settling in Los Angeles in 1958, he studied guitar with James Burton. Known mostly as a session musician early in his career, as a solo artist he crossed genres to include rock and roll, blues, and gospel, playing with artists as varied as Jan and Dean, Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Delaney Bramlett, Freddy Cannon, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, the Byrds, Barbra Streisand, the Beach Boys, the Ventures, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Bob Dylan, J. J. Cale, B.B. King, Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Russell moved from Tulsa to Los Angeles in 1958. where, as a first-call studio musician, he played on many of the most popular songs of the 1960s, including some by the Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Bobby "Boris" Pickett, and Herb Alpert. He also played piano on many Phil Spector productions, including recordings by the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, and Spector's 1963 Christmas album. He can be seen in 1964's T.A.M.I. Show, playing piano with the Wrecking Crew (an informal name for the top L.A. session musicians of the 1960s), sporting short, dark, slicked-back hair, in contrast to his later look. Soon after, he was hired as Snuff Garrett's assistant and creative developer, playing on numerous number one singles, including "This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
In the mid-1960s he wrote or co-wrote songs, including two hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys: "Everybody Loves a Clown" (which reached the Billboard Top 40 on October 9, 1965, remaining on the chart for eight weeks and hitting #4) and "She's Just My Style" (which entered Billboard's Top 40 on December 18, 1965 and rose to #3). In 1964 he appeared on various TV shows, performing songs by Chuck Berry and others.
He played xylophone and bells on the 1966 single "The Joker Went Wild", sung by Brian Hyland and written by Bobby Russell (no relation to Leon). He also worked sessions with Dorsey Burnette and Glen Campbell on Campbell's 1967 album Gentle on My Mind, where he was credited as "Russell Bridges" on piano, and arranged and conducted the 1966 easy-listening album Rhapsodies for Young Lovers, by the Midnight String Quartet. He co-produced and arranged hits by Tom Northcott, including "Sunny Goodge Street" in 1967, originally written by Donovan
Russell released "Everybody's Talking 'Bout the Young" in 1965. It was his first solo single on Dot Records
The 1968 release of Look Inside the Asylum Choir, by Smash Records was a recording of a studio group made up of Russell and Marc Benno that made The Asylum Choir.
Russell and Denny Cordell created Shelter Records in 1969, a US record label. The label operated from 1969 to 1981. The company established offices in both Los Angeles and Tulsa. Shelter Records used Sound City Studios for recording in its early days.
Russell played as a member of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends in 1969 and 1970, playing guitar and keyboards on their albums and as part of the touring band. Working with Delaney and Bonnie, Russell met George Harrison and others with whom he would work over the next couple of years.
Russell's first commercial success as a songwriter came when Joe Cocker recorded the song "Delta Lady" for his 1969 album, Joe Cocker! The album, co-produced and arranged by Russell, reached number 11 on the Billboard 200. Russell went on to organize and perform in the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, using many of the musicians from Delaney and Bonnie's band. "Superstar", co-written by Russell, was sung by the Carpenters and other performers.
During the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, Shelter Records released his 1970 solo album, Leon Russell, which included the first recording of "A Song for You". This has become one of his best-known songs, with versions released by more than 40 different artists including Billy Eckstine, The Carpenters, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, Helen Reddy, Whitney Houston, Elkie Brooks, Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, and Christina Aguilera. Both the Carpenters and the Temptations named an album after the song. Another song from the same album, "Delta Lady," was covered by Bobbie Gentry under the title "Delta Man" on her 1970 album Fancy. Also in 1970, Russell played piano on Dave Mason's album, Alone Together, most notably on the song "Sad and Deep as You".
In November 1970 Russell performed at the Fillmore East with Elton John on the same bill. Those performances have been bootlegged. Russell and John appeared on the David Frost Show with Fillmore owner Bill Graham at this time.
"Leon Russell and friends" recorded the "Homewood Sessions", broadcast as an "unscripted and unrehearsed" one-hour TV special on KCET TV (Los Angeles) that aired in December 1970 and was later re-broadcast several times on the Public Broadcasting System.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Russell owned The Church Studio on 3rd Street (renamed Leon Russell Road in 2010 by The Pearl District Association) in Tulsa. His former home on Grand Lake, Oklahoma, contained a dining room table and chairs made from church pews taken out of the church when it was turned into a studio.
The album Prince of Peace: Radio Broadcast 1970 is a soundboard recording of a December 1970 Fillmore East concert.
Russell produced some tracks for Bob Dylan in March 1971 when Dylan was experimenting with his new sound. The sessions produced the single "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece", both of which prominently featured Russell's gospel-flavored piano.
At the invitation of former Delaney & Bonnie and George Harrison, Russell played piano on Badfinger's third album, Straight Up in the summer of 1971. The piano part complemented Pete Ham and George Harrison's dual slide guitars on Badfinger's "Day After Day". The Straight Up sessions were interrupted when many of the musicians left for New York City to participate in the Concert For Bangladesh, at which Russell performed a medley of the songs "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood" and sang a verse on Harrison's "Beware of Darkness."
Russell was very busy in 1971 as Shelter Records released Leon Russell and the Shelter People and Asylum Choir II (which was co-produced by Marc Benno) and recorded at Russell's Skyhill Studios. Leon Russell and the Shelter People went on to be Russell's first US Gold album. That same year, Russell played on recording sessions with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.
Russell helped blues guitarist Freddie King revive his career by collaborating on three of King's albums for Shelter Records during the early 1970s. During those same years, Russell helped himself to a share of what was then called the "County and Western" market, recording and performing under the moniker Hank Wilson, and was a regular performer at Gilley's Club, the Pasadena, Texas, honkytonk made famous in Urban Cowboy.
"Shine a Light" was a song featured on the Rolling Stones' 1972 album Exile on Main St.. A version of the song, under the title Get a Line on You, was made by Russell at Olympic Studios in October 1969 with assistance from Jagger (lead vocal), Ringo Starr (drums), Russell (piano), and probably also Bill Wyman (bass) and Mick Taylor (guitar). The recording was made during the recording sessions for the album Leon Russell (released 1970), where both Starr and Wyman contributed drums and bass to some of the tracks. However, the song "Get a Line on You" was not on the released album, but was shelved until 1993, when it finally surfaced as a bonus track on the 24K gold re-release by DCC Compact Classics (DCC Compact Classics GZS 1049).
Russell and his band hit the road in 1972 with a large-scale concert tour by Russell and his "Shelter People" entourage. A live performance was recorded in California at the Long Beach Arena on August 28, 1972, and was later released as Leon Live. In November 1972, Billboard cited Russell as a top concert draw and reported the '72 tour gross at almost $3 million. That same year, he released his Carney album, Russell's third solo studio album. The album peaked at number two on the Billboard 200. The album featured Tight Rope and This Masquerade (songs released on a 45 as the A side and B side respectively), and became his second Gold album.
Russell purchased multiple properties in the early 1970s in his home state of Oklahoma including the historic The Church Studio in 1972 located on the corner of 3rd Street and Trenton in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The church was also home to Shelter Records.
When Russell released Leon Live as a three-record set in 1973, it was his third US Gold album. The album was recorded live at Long Beach Arena, August 28, 1972.
Looking Back was released by Russell on Olympia Records in 1973, shortly after the success of his single "Tight Rope." It contains instrumental tracks recorded in the mid-1960s, featuring Russell on harpsichord.
Russell released Hank Wilson's Back! (Vol. 1), The album was recorded at producer Owen Bradley's barn studio in Nashville in 1973. The album made it into the Top Thirty Hits. Track one, Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms, was a minor hit.
Russell helped the group the Gap Band, a trio of Tulsa brothers, kick off their chart success in 1974. The group went on to produce several funk-disco hits. The Gap Band backed Russell on his Stop All That Jazz album.
Russell released Live In Japan on Shelter Records. The album was recorded live at Budokan Hall, Tokyo, Japan on November 8, 1973, and released in 1975.
Russell made it into the 1975 Top 40 Hits with Lady Blue on his Will O' the Wisp album. Will O' the Wisp was his fourth Gold album.
Helen Reddy sang Russell's Bluebird song as a single and on her No Way to Treat a Lady album released in 1975 . The song debuted on Billboard's Hot 100 in the issue of the magazine dated July 5 and reached #35 over the course of six weeks. That same issue also marked its debut on the magazine's Easy Listening chart, where it spent eight weeks and peaked at #5; on the RPM singles chart it got as high as #51. Reddy commented on the tune, "I love Leon Russell's writing and I love this song. It was an integral part of my repertoire for nearly 30 years, and I never tired of singing it."
Russell's song This Masquerade, the B-side of his 1972 hit single Tight Rope, went on to be recorded by numerous artists, including Helen Reddy and the Carpenters. George Benson's version of the song reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1977. As the writer of the song, Russell was nominated for Song of the Year but lost to Bruce Johnston, who wrote I Write the Songs. Russell's version of This Masquerade is part of the soundtrack for the Exorcist director William Friedkin's psychological thriller film Bug. The Bug Soundtrack was released on May 22, 2007. It also appeared in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness.
Russell departed Shelter Records to start his own record label, Paradise Records, in 1976. Russell and others would release albums through Paradise Records.
Russell released the Wedding Album, a studio album with his then wife, Mary Russell, otherwise known as Mary McCreary. It was distributed and released by Warner Bros. Records in 1976. Leon and Mary Russell were producers of the album, with the exception of the final track, "Daylight", which was produced by its writer, Bobby Womack. The Wedding Album was Paradise Records' first release.
In 1978, Russell released his Americana album on the Rhino/Warner Bros. label; the title is credited to the mix of influences that made Russell's unique musical style.
After touring with Willie Nelson, in 1979 Russell and Willie had a #1 hit on Billboards country music chart with their duet of "Heartbreak Hotel". They released their joint duet studio country pop-rock album,One for the Road, in 1979. One for the Road was his fifth Gold album.
Russell released Life And Love, an album on Paradise Records, in 1979 .
Russell spent the next two years touring with the New Grass Revival, releasing two more albums with Paradise Records before the label folded.
On May 15, 1980, Russell joined with New Grass Revival to record a live album at Perkins Palace in Pasadena, California, released in 1981 as Leon Russell & New Grass Revival – The Live Album.
Following up on his country theme, he made a second Hank Wilson album, Hank Wilson Vol. II released in 1984, Hank Wilson being Russell's self-styled country music alter-ego since the early 1970s. Released on Leon Russell Records.
Russell released a country blues album, recorded in Hendersonville, Tennessee, at his Paradise Studios, called Solid State. It was released by Paradise Music in 1984.
Russell released Delta Lady on Del Rack Records in 1991. Many of the songs are remixes of early recordings.
Russell released a new album Anything Can Happen recorded at Paradise Studios, released on Virgin Records in 1991. Pianist Bruce Hornsby produced this comeback album. During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hornsby worked extensively as a producer and sideman with Russell.
In 1993, Paradise Records released the Leon Russell 24k Gold Disc album. It was a remix of recordings done at Olympic Sound in London in 1969.
Russell started Leon Russell Records, an independent record label, in 1995.
Russell released his Hymns of Christmas, album with 10 instrumental hymns by Russell on Leon Russell Records in 1995.
Capitol/EMI Records in 1996 released the album Gimme Shelter! The Best of Leon Russell, a two-CD album set with 40-tracks covering 1969-1992.
Capitol/Right Stuff Records released in 1997 the album Retrospective, an album with Russell's 18 all-time best-selling songs.
Russell released a new album Hank Wilson, Vol. 3: Legend in My Time. Returning to his county artist name on Ark 21 Records, released in 1998 .
Russell released Face in the Crowd in 1999, a blues album on Sagestone Entertainment Records.
Blues: Same Old Song CD was released on Paradise Records in 1999.
In 2000, Russell and Q Records released Live at Gilley's , a performance from September 17, 1981. Also in 2000, Leon Russell Records released the rock album Crazy Love on CD.
Signature Songs was released in 2001 on Leon Russell Records. It was re-released in 2007 by MRI Associated Labels.
Russell returned as Hank Wilson, but this time with a twist of bluegrass, in Rhythm & Bluegrass: Hank Wilson, Vol. 4, released in 2001 on Leon Russell Records.
Moonlight & Love Songs, an album of Russell's standards was released on Leon Russell Records in 2002.
At age 65, Russell made the new Okie rock album Angel in Disguise, which was released by Leon Russell Records in 2007.
Russell played at Diversafest, Tulsa's Music Conference and Festival in 2007. From 2002 to 2010, Dfest was an annual live event that showcased independent and emerging artists and hosted educational music industry panels and a tradeshow. Over its last four years, Dfest was held in the historic Blue Dome District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In Your Dreams was released on CD by Leon Russell Records in 2008.
Bad Country released on Leon Russell Records in 2008, with 12 original songs by Russell.
Almost Piano was released in 2008 by Leon Russell Records. It is a synthesizer piano collection of ten instrumentals from Russell.
After a number of years of reduced prominence, Russell's career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him out for a new project. In November 2009, Russell worked together with John and Bernie Taupin on The Union, a double album record credited equally to both Russell and John. Recorded in February 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the CD was released on October 19, 2010. The Union was Russell's sixth Gold album. The recordings were interrupted in January 2010 by a health scare: Russell was hospitalized and underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak, as well as treatment for heart failure and pneumonia. On April 2, 2011, Russell and John performed together as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. Rolling Stone placed the album in third place on its list of the 30 Best Albums of 2010. A couple of months later, Russell announced plans for a solo LP, although no specifics were given, and in October 2010 Russell and John embarked on The Union Tour. Elton John and Russell also appeared on The David Letterman Show.
In 2011, the film The Union was released, a documentary film by Cameron Crowe exploring the creative process of musicians Elton John and Russell in the making of the 2010 album The Union. Russell played in Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth, Texas in 2013. He first played at the picnic in 1976.
In 2014, Life Journey was released on Universal Records. Working with Tommy LiPuma, Russell made a new album with two new songs: "Big Lips" and "Down in Dixieland".
On March 16, 2015, a restored version of a previously unreleased 1974 documentary about Russell, A Poem Is A Naked Person, by filmmaker Les Blank, was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The film features concert footage of Russell in New Orleans and Anaheim, and footage of the recording sessions for the album Hank Wilson's Back.
At the Lockn' Festival in 2015, Russell played at the Wildflower! Arts and Music Festival in Richardson, Texas. On September 11, 2015, Russell joined alumni, Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Chris Stainton and other members of the 1970 Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour for a special tribute concert to Joe Cocker organized by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Original tour photographer Linda Wolf documented the reunion and performance.
Russell extended a nationwide concert tour to enthusiastic crowds in 2016 and was planning to tour into 2017.
Death and legacy
Russell died in his sleep at his suburban Nashville home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, on November 13, 2016, at the age of 74, his wife said in a statement on his website. In 2010, he had undergone surgery, and in July 2016 he suffered a heart attack. He was recovering from heart surgery. Leon Russell's funeral was on November 18 at Victory Baptist Church, in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, and a public memorial was held at The Oral Roberts University Mabee Center on November 20.
Elton John, who had once been Russell's opening act, acknowledged him as his "biggest influence as a piano player, a singer and a songwriter." On hearing of Russell's death, he said: "My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me." John once recalled:
When Mr. Russell's "Greatest Hits" album came on one day during the trip, I started to cry, it moved me so much. His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, and it makes me so angry that he's been forgotten.
Pixies vocalist Black Francis credits Russell with influencing his vocal style: "I realize there's a certain kind of vocalizing I do that takes its cue from Leon Russell. He sang in a southern accent but it was very blown-out and exaggerated, very free and loose."
Leon had six children. His oldest daughter Blue was with Carla McHenry. She was born February 20, 1972 and was named Blueagle after Oklahoman and Native American Artist Acee Blue Eagle. Leon married Mary McCreary on June 20, 1975. Mary was a musical partner. They had two children, daughter Tina Rose and son Teddy Jack. Leon and Mary divorced on October 3, 1980. He married Janet Lee Constantine on February 6, 1983. They had three daughters together, Sugaree Noel (born October 9, 1982), Honey (born January 19, 1986), and Coco (born April 29, 1990).
Russell was not allowed to see his son Teddy for 10 years following his divorce from McCreary. Teddy visited his father upon reaching 18.
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roc reviewed: Leon Russell @ Watseka Theatre
Saturday March 21, 2015 Watseka Theatre, 218 East Walnut Street, Watseka IL 60970. Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame Inductee, Legend...One of most talent musicians of all time! Million Selling Award Winning Hits include; "A Song For You", "This Masquerade", "Tight Rope", "Superstar", "Delta Lady" & #1 hit "Heartbreak Hotel". Russell began his musical career at the age of 14 in Tulsa. He studied guitar with James Burton (Elvis Presley & Ricky Nelson). Known mostly as a session musician early in his career, playing with artists as varied as Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Gram Parsons, Delaney Bramlett, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Ventures, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, B.B. King,Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker and The Rolling Stones. In 2010 Elton John/ Leon Russell "The Reunion" # 3 hit album was released. They performed together on Saturday Night Live. Doors Open 5:30pm for dinner & Full bar. Show 7pm. Tix $40. at the theatre, by phone 815 993-6585 or www.watsekatheatre.com
cindy.foote reviewed: Leon Russell @ Talking Stick Resort Arena
Saw Leon with Elton John. Have been a big fan of both for 40 years. Leon sounded like he did 35 years ago. Both were fantastic, what a treat to see the 2 best musicsians and piano players of all time. If you've never seen Leon do yourself a favor. You won't be sorry. You'll get a chance to see one of the few musicians who never sold out.