Leon Russell, R.I.P.
I first saw Leon Russell in 1972. He appeared in a movie.
Just months before, ex-Beatle George Harrison had organized the first-ever rock n’ roll charity benefit concert. The all-star gala was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City and featured a virtual “who’s who” of 1970’s pop scene. George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, even Bob Dylan showed up after a long self-imposed hiatus, making his first live concert appearance in five years.
But the unlikely star of the evening, who ended up stealing a show, tuned out to be the pianist — a tall and lankly, stringy-haired, graveyard-voiced punch-the-time clock session player named Leon Russell.
Most of us had never heard the name Leon Russell until that epic concert. Later, the Concert for Bangladesh was wrapped up and packaged into a 3-hour mega-movie and also released as a triple-album, unheard of in that time. [The Concert for Bangladesh is a remarkable story in its own — read more HERE].
Have a listen to Leon’s performance that night. Remember, piano players weren’t supposed to be bad asses. But Leon Russell certainly was a bad ass. He turned the piano into ax of blues, gospel, bluegrass, rock and soul. He blew us away. I never forget Leon Russell after seeing him that night.
Leon Russell has been famously described as a “musician’s musician.” His gravitas wasn’t built upon the number of hit records he performed, even though he enjoyed his fair share of success. Well, on second thought — that’s not true. Leon Russell performed on more hit records than probably any performer in history, yet million of people probably do not know his name. SEE MORE HERE, if you’re curious. Leon Russell’s legacy will live on because so much of the music you and I know, words and musical arrangements that have been an integral part of the soundtrack of our lives, were performed by Leon Russell.
Remember “Strangers in the Night,” the classic 1964 song by Frank Sinatra? That’s Leon Russell on piano.
Remember all the Beach Boys records, including Pet Sounds, often regarded as one of the best rock albums of all time? That’s Leon Russell on piano, part of The Wrecking Crew, playing on every hit song.
Remember iconic music producer Phil Spector and his groundbreaking “Wall of Sound?” Leon Russell played on every single of those Spector-produced records.
Remember “Masquerade,” the monster 1973 hit by George Benson, which was the first song to top the charts on Jazz, Rock, and R&B charts at the same time? That song was written by Leon Russell.
I could go on and on. This merely scratches the surface on an extraordinary career, much of which was spent behind the scenes.
Allow me to share a few more videos, which I think help to capture the creative genius of Leon Russell.
Here’s one of his first television appearances, back in 1964. He’s unrecognizable at the time, performing a cover of Check Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Here’s his most popular hit record, “Tightrope.”
One of my favorites was “Hummingbird.” Fucking staggering……
And finally, Leon Russell’s masterpiece, “A Song for You.”
Leon Russell died this Sunday, at the age of 74.
What an astounding talent Leon Russell was. What a gift of he gave us. Not just of music, but of himself.
Please take a moment to read this obituary here: