Music is fickle and moody mistress who seems to always be on her period. Any one who studies music history knows that you can be crazy talented (or Apollo himself) and get no where. You can also have zero or little actual talent and get places, leading a movement where every record company needs someone just as or more less-talented than you are. The key seems to be doing the right thing at the right time with the right people watching. Just like Edgar Allen Poe, many great composers and musicians were or are penniless and still just putting bread on the table. Unlike Poe, many haven’t or never will receive the recognition their work merits. Music has its idols and icons, its Olympians, but it also has the under-rated, unheard-of, and the forgotten. Here they are:
Leon Russell: at first glance, Leon appears to be a pimped-out Santa Clause who raided the Colonel’s closet. It’s not just appearances. He is just that cool, end of story. The list of his accomplishments, collaborations, and people he has won the respect of reads like a history of Rock music since the early 1960’s. indeed to over-state the magnitude of this man, you need to insist he built the Great Wall in a week, re-united the Beatles, tamed the Chupacabra, and can photosynthesize. But knowing Leon, who knows…
Here’s a little background: Leon began playing piano at age four, and just 10 years later he was a regular pianist in the Tulsa nightclubs. He left at age 17 to head to L.A., and became one of the best and session musicians in Hollywood. He became a member of “The Wrecking Crew” who were the legendary producer Phil Spector’s studio band, which means he played on records for The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Bobby Picket, and literally countless of albums and tracks for the Spector artists, and his songs are all over the charts in the 60’s and 70’s. His website starts his biography of with this summary of his musical life.
“Leon has played on pop, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, standards, gospel, and surf records. As a session musician, arranger, producer, singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, record company owner, bandleader, and touring musician, he has collaborated with hundreds of artists, including Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Edgar Winter, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, J.J. Cale, David Gates, Bruce Hornsby, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, B.B. King, Freddie King, Bill Wyman, Steve Cropper, Carl Radle, Chuck Blackwell, Don Preston, Jesse Ed Davis, Rita Coolidge, Gram Parsons, Barbra Streisand, Ike & Tina Turner, Ricky Nelson, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Ann-Margret, Dean Martin, Marvin Gaye, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood, and groups such as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, The Monkees, The Astronauts, The Accents, The Fencemen, The Ventures, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Rolling Stones, The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Tractors and on and on and on…”
Told you he was legit. Heck, he might as well have invented the word “legit”, as I doubt many have amassed such an impressive résumé. He founded Shelter Records, which has called home by the likes of Freddie King, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, J.J. Cale, and others. His continued work as a high-demand session musician continued, landing him places on albums with countless of his friends, almost all of who compose the cannon of some genre. As song writer, he has written songs that have had great success for B.B King (Hummingbird), Joe Cocker (Delta Lady), Ray Charles (Song for You), and the Carpenters (Superstar) among many others. He organized and lead Cocker’s backing band for the “Mad dogs and Englishmen”, and played with and recorded Delaney and Bonnie (who are unknown greats in their own right). He also was joined such greats as former Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and Billy Preston for the first big benefit concert, the Concert for Bangladesh, in 1971. Beside the amazing piano work and notable bass playing, he gave us a stunning version of “Jumping Jack Flash/ Youngblood” those two nights.
Notice that I haven’t even mentioned his solo work? He started in 1968, writing and recording with Marc Benno A Look Inside the Asylum Choir. His self-titled album released in 1970 contained his hits “Delta Lady” and “song for You”, and boasts such musicians as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Mick Jagger, Ringo, and way too many more which I will omit for length, and I don’t really want your minds to explode. His first album to go gold was Leon Russell and the Shelter People in 1971, and his 1972 masterpiece Carney gave us his catchy hit “Tightrope”. He was named “top concert attraction” by Billboard for 1973, and had albums and songs hitting the top of the charts all over the place. Not exactly a Beatle-esque “hit single orgy”, but he was up there.
It was during the early 70’s the he made yet another legendary contribution to popular music: in introduced the world to Elton John, taking the young performer in tour with him and getting him set up in the music world. During the 70’s and 80’s, Leon delved into a little more of his country side under the pseudonym, Hank Wilson. Three albums were released under this name. He also recorded and toured with Willie Nelson and Edgar Winter during this time. In more recent years, things hit hard. As much as a legend Leon is, things just never took off for him. According to Elton John, Leon was touring “just to put food on the table, playing all sorts of small places and losing dignity.” Knowing Leon, you should be able to predict what happened next…
Things exploded. They caught on fire and burned down and then sprung up from the loins of Mother Earth fueled by his mighty beard and maybe Powerthirst. The Union was released in 2010, a collaboration between Elton John and Leon. It was no less than perfect. With guest stars ranging from Brian Wilson to Neil Young, every single track is powerful, poignant, and punching, ranging from Elton’s trusty theme of the old West(“Jimmie Rodger’s Dream”) to anger and regret of love gone wrong (“When Love is Dying”, “Should have sent Roses”), from the Civil War (“Gone to Shiloh”), to growing old (“Never too Old”). Rolling Stone named it the 3rd best album of the year (and really, Kanye got #1? Come on now…REALLY?) In today’s age of music piracy, this album is one worth spending money on. No joke. Here is the opening number, “If it Wasn’t for Bad”.
Leon was finally inducted into the Rock n’ Roll hall of Fame in 2011 in recognition for his work as a sideman. Due to this well-deserved and over-due honor, the success of The Union, and the subsequent return to mainstream touring with Elton John, Leon Russell is finally starting to get the recognition such a talent deserves, yet is till largely unknown to modern audiences, and few who were not there to see him emerge. Leon Russell: he is that cool.