November 13, 2016

Leon Russell — One of Rock’s Most Respected Musicians and Songwriters

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The last time I saw Leon Russell he was the opening act for Bob Dylan. Dylan, like so many of the musicians of this classic rock period, had enormous respect for the man with the long silver hair. Leon had fallen out of the public eye and Bob wanted to give him some a spotlight as a thank you for all he has done. He wasn’t the only one who remembered Leon. Elton John considered Russell to be an influence on him and wanted reward him by doing an album together called THE UNION that gain much praised from the critics. It was another chance to do a comeback tour.

His reputation as a songwriter earned Leon a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He also was honored with an Award for Music Excellence from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Some of his most noted songs that he wrote were “A Song for You”, “Tightrope” “Lady Blue” and “Delta Lady”.

It was “Delta Lady” that was a big hit for Joe Cocker. The Joe Cocker tour known as the Mad Dogs and English Men tour was a huge success primarily because of the work Leon Russell as music director. Read about that tour in my article about the most memorable concerts in Philadelphia. That same tour led to a popular film and a huge selling double album of their live performances on the tour.

It wasn’t the only memorable concert that Leon was part of. "The Concert for Bangla Desh." The benefit concert put together by George Harrison led to both George and John Lennon playing on Leon’s solo album.

His music career of started at a very early age. Russell, born in Lawton, Oklahoma, began as a nightclub piano player in Oklahoma at the age of 14, also backing touring artists when they came to town. Jerry Lee Lewis was so impressed with Russell that he hired Russell and his band for two years of tours.

Soon after that in 1959, at an age when his piers were still in high school, Leon moved to Los Angeles and got work as a studio musician and played back up for a host of superstars. He and his very good friend from back home, Glen Campbell were part of the famed studio musicians that came to be known as The Wrecking Crew. This group played on more hit records than anyone in the history of music. Among those that the backed up were The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Mams and the Pappas, The Grassroots, Harry Nilsson, and The Monkees. That is just a small part of the long list of artists who owned a great deal of their music being a hit to this amazing group. In addition, Russell produced and played on recording sessions for Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones and of course Joe Cocker.

Aside from my memory of the Mad Dogs Tour, there was another concert that took place that was part of what could be the greatest radio contest ever. WIBG had a free concert that featured Leon Russell. The catch was that in order to get a ticket you had to listen to WIBG to get the clues as to where the concert was being held. It kept people glued to the radio. After all Leon Russell was selected by Billboard Magazine as the top concert attraction in the world in 1973.

During the last show I witnessed by Leon it was noted that he really didn’t look well. While his performance was still great, he had trouble getting around. Despite that, before his peaceful death, he was planning on going out on tour next January. Music was his driving force.

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