Unheard-of Legend

Fresh off a 'Letterman' appearance, Leon Russell is obviously still hip

Current pop-culture dogma posits that no musical artist can be considered over the hill if he's still scoring gigs on Letterman. Some artists might score a "whatever happened to ... ?" appearance on The Tonight Show, sure. But you gotta be hip to be on the Late Show With David Letterman, which is exactly what songwriter, pianist and all-around classic-rock troubadour Leon Russell, accompanied by his band, did Feb. 17.

As famous for his long white mane and beard as he is for helping to infuse rock 'n roll with gospel, blues, country, R&B and Caribbean music, Russell will return to Tucson for a gig Sunday night, March 21, at the City Limits.

Never heard of Leon Russell? For shame! You've probably heard his songs. Scholars of rock history know that he's the author of hits for folks as diverse as Joe Cocker ("Delta Lady"), The Carpenters ("Superstar"), Mott the Hoople ("Roll Away the Stone"), B.B. King ("Hummingbird") and George Benson ("This Masquerade"), to name just a few.

Russell was born in 1942 in Tulsa, Okla. When he was still a teenager, he and his band backed up Jerry Lee Lewis. After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, he became one of the most sought-after session musicians of that pivotal decade in music. He played with such artists as Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Ventures, Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis, Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass and Willie Nelson.

In addition to playing piano on most of producer Phil Spector's hits of the 1960s, Russell's skills on the 88s are part of classic rock recordings such Jan and Dean's "Surf City," Bobby Boris Pickett's Monster Mash LP and The Beach Boys "California Girls" and Pet Sounds album.

Russell embarked on his own recording career in 1970--George Harrison even played guitar on his solo debut--eventually recording such excellent albums as Leon Russell and the Shelter People, Carny, Leon Live and Will o' the Wisp. He enjoyed his own hits with "Tight Rope" and "Lady Blue."

Throughout his career, Russell has maintained a country alter ego named Hank Wilson, who has released several albums of his own.

Contrary to the popular opinion, Russell has been far from idle since the turn of the century. He inaugurated Leon Russell Records in 2001 with three CDs: Signature Songs, a collection of acoustic piano/vocal recordings of Russell classics; Guitar Blues, an album which was previously available only in Japan; and the re-release of Face in the Crowd.

The label also has released albums by jazz vocalist Connye Florance and jazz guitarist Mike Gallagher; a couple of Hank Wilson recordings, including his collaboration with New Grass Revival, Hank Wilson Vol. 4: Rhythm and Bluegrass; an album by Russell's son, Teddy Jack; and Russell's own Hymns of Christmas and Moonlight and Love Songs, on which Leon takes on the standards while accompanied by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Russell's current band is heavy on the rhythms. The members include bassist Jackie Wessel, guitarist Brian Mansel, drummers Grant Whitman and Cody Chesterfield, and Leon's daughters, Tina Rose and Sugaree Noel, on vocals and percussion.

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