Leon Russell (April 2, 1942 - November 13, 2016) was a highly acclaimed and influential singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and arranger who became famous as a performing artist during the 1970s. His music was a unique, down-home fusion of pop, rock, country, blues, and gospel which he performed with his trademark raw, gravelly vocals, often accompanying himself on piano. Over his long and multifaceted career, he was a highly sought-after session and touring musician who also wrote, produced and arranged numerous songs for other bands and artists.
Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma and raised in Tulsa, he started playing piano at age four and began his career at 14 performing in local nightclubs with his band, the Starlighters. He got his first name, Leon, from a friend who lent him a fake ID so that he could perform in clubs while underage. He moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and became a session musician, primarily a pianist/keyboardist, who recorded with hundreds of top acts as diverse as Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones. He became part of an elite group of L.A.-based musicians later known as The Wrecking Crew whose services were in high demand during its heyday in the 1960s-early 1970s.
In 1970, Russell launched his solo career with the release of his self-titled debut album while continuing to serve as a session musician, arranger, and songwriter for other bands and artists. He debuted on the Pop/Rock charts that year with "Roll Away The Stone," which became a minor hit. His fame took off in 1972 with the ragtime-inspired "Tight Rope," which became a Top 20 hit and one of his best known songs. He had another Top 20 hit in 1975 with the heartfelt, soft rock ballad, "Lady Blue." Other hits included "Home Sweet Oklahoma" (1970, credited to Leon Russell & The Shelter People), "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms"/"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (1973, as Hank Wilson), "Queen Of The Roller Derby" (1973), a cover of the Tim Hardin-penned "If I Were A Carpenter" (1974), "Back To The Island" (1976), "Rainbow In Your Eyes" (1976, credited to Leon & Mary Russell), and a cover of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" (1979, with Willie Nelson), which topped the Country charts.
Over the years, Russell toured actively and recorded some 430 songs and over 30 albums. Among the many songs he wrote as made famous by other artists are "Delta Lady" by Joe Cocker, "Superstar" by the Carpenters, and the extensively-covered "This Masquerade" and "A Song For You," the latter of which won Grammys for George Benson (1977) and Ray Charles (1993), respectively, and was later included in the Grammy Hall of Fame (2018). Russell's numerous other projects included co-producing Joe Cocker's 1970 live album, "Mad Dogs And Englishmen," and organizing and performing in the legendary same-named nationwide tour.
Leon Russell's many honors and accolades included being inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011. Elton John, who had once been Russell's opening act, cited him as his biggest influence. They recorded an album in 2010 titled "The Union" which earned a Grammy nomination and became the subject of a 2011 HBO documentary in which both musicians costarred. Russell's final album, "On a Distant Shore," was released in late 2017.
- For more info about Leon Russell's life and career, visit leonrussellrecords.com.
- Leon Russell discusses the "Mad Dogs And Englishmen" tour, Shelter Records, and other topics in an interview with Rolling Stone (December 10, 1970).
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- Tight Rope 1972
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