People Who Died: Leon Russell by Billy Sedlmayr

Leon Russell

Leon Russell was one of those pioneering cats, the few and far between. Born in Oklahoma in the '40s, playing piano before he was in the first grade. Ten years on, he was playing gigs with J. J. Cale in the Tulsa bar scene, graduated high school and skipped off to tour with "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis—a man who knew the cut of the road—and Russell wound up in L.A., in Eisenhower's late '50s.

He was picked to be part of house band for Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound"—The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love. That's him on Spector's famous '63 Christmas album, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Splitting time in Gold Star and other studios with The Wrecking, the killer cadre of LA's top session folk, which included Glenn Campbell, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Jim Keltner, and James Burton and others. (It was Burton who taught keyboardist Leon his way around a guitar neck.) Leon played, arranged and wrote for myriad artists and producers— from Sinatra to Simon and Garfunkel, Lou Adler to Brian Wilson, the Byrds to Sonny and Cher.

On the West Coast this cast all but owned the charts from the '60s to the early '70s. By 1969 America was in full battle gear. Leon moved to start Shelter Records with co-owner Denny Cordell. They put out his debut LP, his cover photo encased in blue; two parts Okie, one part Jesus, with his long stringy hair and Troubadour gone rock 'n' roll star-thang. "A Song for You" must've been cut by half the singers in the business. The album hit big critically and even made The Beatles and other rock royalty take notice.

In '71 they dropped Leon and the Shelter People and it's here I digress to tell my story. Eleven years old. School night. Leon was on PBS at midnight and I snuck to the TV. I was entranced by the opener "Stranger in a Strange Land," and the line "How many days has it been since I was born/How many days until I die." The slow buildup and gospel drawl, then everything meets the downbeat, wailing backup singers screaming as women in freaked-out tie-dye shirts (those Shelter People I told you about) are literally baking pies on stage and shuffling around aimlessly, clearly stoned, very stoned. And over all this psychedelic spook house, Leon's lived-in voice lays down the law, preaching, prowling, steeped in the music of the Americas.

A kid might feel more than a little disoriented.

Leon stepped up the game, put out a second studio-project album with guitarist/songwriter Marc Benno called Asylum Choir 2—worth picking up for "Intro To Rita" and "Straight Brother" where they flip a coin and turn a beautiful song out on its own legs. Leon then waits nine whole months before he fills the radio, concert halls and record stores with Carnie, stealing a page from Zimmy on the actor and his script. The cover finds road-weary Leon, face dabbed with bits of clown makeup, sitting inside what looks like a trailer belonging to the trapeze artist or tattooed man. "Tight Rope," with its plunky chords and its 1-2-3-boom rhythm, went Top 10, and material like "Manhattan Island Serenade," and, especially, "Me and Baby Jane"—the slow organ number where his lover finds the needle more necessary than love—hits home at the end of flower power, and everybody knew it. My personal favorite is "Out in the Woods"—a drummer's orgasm of a song, and a pulsating field recording from deep Africa with call-and-response vocals. A year later they turned that number loose on a triple record set Leon Live, for a good eight or nine minutes and there ain't a thing wrong with it, except the way an ever-bloated, wasteful industry makes a cash cow of a man's soul.

Leon Russell had a long recording career, shocking everyone, including me, in putting out Hank Wilson's Back, a pseudonym for Leon, which found this Oklahoma boy giving props to Hank Williams before it was fashionable.

But a story must end, so I'll tell you of Leon's herculean feats between all this, in 1970 and '71, because it's something you should know.

Joe Cocker was a northern soul singer with spastic movements and a penchant for booze and hard drugs. His debut solo record earned critical raves so his management team hired Leon on as bandleader, writer and singer. Christened Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a sort of Caucasian answer to the soul reviews of the late '50s and '60s.

Leon wrote the theme, gave Cocker his "Delta Lady," and the rest were covers of The Beatles and others. A huge undertaking that went on an exhaustive 50-city tour and broke the U.S. market wide open. Half of Russell's Wrecking Crew buddies were on the roster—hoards of backup singers, two drummers, and an ungodly, drugged-up mix of Brits and Yanks that went Top 10 with the Box Tops' "The Letter." That version heavily swings and then a horn section powers the chorus hook. It holds up today. They also went big with "A Little Help From My Friends," The Beatles deconstructed, with snare drums cracking like cannon fire.

A huge Mad Dogs and Englishman live album was released and a movie of tour footage by the same name (a diary of moments like Rita Coolidge on an airplane singing Leon and Bonnie Bramlett's "Groupie Superstar," or the British members of the band arriving on U.S. shores and looking at our way of life for the first time.)

Meanwhile George Harrison got involved with Bengali sitar player Ravi Shankar, each moved by the genocide of refugees (from war, floods and disease) in India. Death tolls had risen in horrific numbers. Unsure at first, Harrison decided to put on the biggest and probably first benefit of its kind at Madison Square Garden in the late summer of '71. Dylan had been in hiding, Clapton was strung out, and other heavy hitters were all in strange times. Leon was asked again to be the man, bandleader, arranger. George rifled his Rolodex for every big name, between The Beatles in Europe and Leon's crew in the states. George must've figured a lot could go wrong, but with Leon's considerable experience and cool demeanor, they might just pull it off. It was a larger band with bigger stars than any promoter had ever dreamed. They had one full practice on the night before the show. Dylan had stage fright. Clapton was dope sick. And behind the scenes, there was a dramatic music industry turf struggle among nonprofits for the biggest piece of the fundraising pie.

The shows went down on Sunday. Billy Preston's famous walk amongst the clouds, Jessie Ed Davis, Clapton and Harrison soloed against each other in "While my Guitar Gently Weeps."

There's too much to tell but the Concert for Bangladesh was a triple record set in a box with the photos of both India's starving children and the biggest band ever assembled on a single stage. The movie came out a year later and in it Russell is beyond cool, and he even rolled a sort of Oklahoma gospel choir of anarchy to do "Jumping Jack Flash"/"Youngblood" medley, and it showed Leon playing to the audience and his peers like there's hell to pay if the place don't rock. And from there, well, you can look it up yourself.

Elton John showed some real class in 2010 when The Union album came out, where a damaged friend, down on his luck, is again praised and put to work on a decent record and a PBS documentary.

Leon Russell died in November. Man, Leon, you changed my life and you must've had one hell of a story to go down with. Sleep well my friend. 

— Billy Sedlmayr

Comments (1)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly