Words like “icon” and “legend” get thrown around much too liberally regarding musicians, but the terms fit Leon Russell like a well-tailored suit. With his Oklahoma drawl, rollicking barrelhouse/Delta Blues piano-style and inspired songwriting talent, he was custom built for Rock success in the ’60s and ’70s.
Russell began playing Tulsa nightclubs when he was just 14 years old and parlayed that experience into a successful session career in Los Angeles as a component of Phil Spector’s studio band. In 1967, Russell formed the Asylum Choir with Marc Benno; two years later, he became Joe Cocker’s musical director on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour; and in 1971, his profile rose exponentially with his appearance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. The following year, Russell’s solo album Carney just barely missed the No.
1 slot (its single, “Tight Rope,” just missed the Top 10) and he secured his place in music history with his hugely successful triple album Leon Live in 1973.
Although he's recorded consistently (barring a five year gap in the mid-’80s and a four year gap since his last album in 2006), none of Russell’s records have charted since his 1979 duet album with Willie Nelson. Russell has notched his greatest successes on the road, touring relentlessly over the past three decades — in the ’80s, he routinely packed Bogart’s twice a year — and his songwriting royalties have kept him more than comfortable (Russell wrote or co-wrote The Carpenters’ “Superstar,” George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady” and Whitney Houston’s “A Song for You,” and they’ve all been covered by dozens of other artists).
This could wind up being a big year for Russell — he brought down the house with his piano accompaniment for the Zac Brown Band at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony and recently co-wrote songs with Elton John and Bernie Taupin for Sir Elton’s next album. Amazingly, Russell’s greatest successes might lie on the road ahead. And every one will be well deserved.
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