Remembering Leon Russell (1942-2016)

(This is a part of an eclectic, sometime series on artists WC has known and doesn’t want forgotten. The first post in this series was on Steve Goodman. The second was on Sir Terry Pratchett. WC has also written about Laura Nyro, Bill Berry, Jo Ann Wold and Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Here’s another wonderful artist WC doesn’t want to be forgotten.)

WC only saw Leon Russell live once, as the impresario of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” Tour, at the old MacArthur Court at the University of Oregon. The music was astonishing. The concert review writer for the Oregon Daily Emerald, the student newspaper was unimpressed, criticizing Russell for treating the star, Joe Cocker, as a kind of puppet, controlling everything he did. As it turned out, that was what Cocker had wanted, and what Russell did was showcase the skills of Joe Cocker – that sweaty blues style – in the most effective way possible.

Leon Russell was a musical polymath. He played every instrument he attempted very well. He was a gifted songwriter, a genius arranger, a much sought after studio musician and a fine live act. If you think WC is exaggerating, consider this:

• He was glimpsed on television as a member of the Shindogs, the house band for the prime-time folk-rock show “Shindig!” in the mid-1960s, and was in the house band for the 1964 concert film, “The T.A.M.I. Show.”

• He was in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra, and he played sessions for Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, the Ventures and the Monkees, among many others. His piano playing is heard on “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “Live With Me” by the Rolling Stones and all of the Beach Boys’ early albums, including “Pet Sounds.”

• He had numerous hits of his own, including”Lady Blue” and “Tight Rope.” Many of his songs became hits for others, among them “Superstar” (written with Bonnie Bramlett) for the Carpenters, “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker and “This Masquerade” for George Benson. More than 100 acts have recorded his “A Song for You,”

• When Joe Cocker’s Grease Band fell apart days before an American tour, at Cocker’s request Russell assembled Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a big, boisterous band that included three drummers and a 10-member choir. Its 1970 double live album and tour film became a showcase for Russell as well as for Cocker; the album reached No. 2 on the Billboard album chart.

• Russell also released his first solo album in 1970; it included “A Song for You” and had studio appearances from Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, two members of the Beatles and three Rolling Stones.

• He played the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden with George HarrisonBob Dylan and Eric Clapton; he produced and played on Dylan’s songs “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Watching the River Flow.” He toured with the Rolling Stones and with his own band.

• As “Hank Wilson,” he toured and recorded with the New Grass Revival, adding his piano and voice to their string-band lineup.

• In 2009 with Elton John, whom Russell had supported in the early 1970s, he recorded “The Union” — which also had guest appearances by Neil Young and Brian Wilson — and a 10-date tour together in 2010.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to all that,

There are at least 408 Albums on which he received a Credit

251 Total Artistic Credits
37 Types of Artistic Credits

  • Piano – 77 Credits
  • Arranger – 23
  • Keyboards – 20
  • Guitar – 17
  • Organ – 14
  • Electric Piano – 11
  • Guest – 11
  • Vocals – 11
  • Bass – 10
  • Miscellaneous – 58 (Miscellaneous includes Percussion, Trumpet, Moog, Clavinet and 23 more types)

282 Total Writing Credits
5 Types of Writing Credits

  • Songwriter – 161 Credits
  • Writer – 87
  • Composer – 20
  • Music – 8
  • Lyrics – 6

45 Production Credits

WC challenges readers to find a resumé in any form of music that can match the sheer breadth of Leon Russell’s.

Russell died in 2016 at the age of 74. An immense loss to the music WC loves. Let’s not forget that talent. Fire up “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” and enjoy.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Leon Russell (1942-2016)

  1. Tight Rope is my favorite – one of my road trip songs. And I like his version of Masquerade better than Benson’s. Thanks for the memory!


  2. Great remembrance of Leon, WC. In your list of musicians, you forgot to mention “Handsome Johnny” Prine. Or is he is a completely different category?

    Again, I always enjoy your observations.


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