RIP: Leon Russell

Posted November 14, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Rock legend, songwriter, musician dies at the age of 74

Leon Russell's 1970 debut solo album, features his magnum opus "A Song for You"

Leon Russell’s 1970 debut solo album, features his magnum opus “A Song for You”

Leon Russell, the long white beard sporting rock icon known for penning “A Song for You” and prominent side musician in the ’70’s for a host of rock performers, died in his sleep at his home in Nashville. Russell was 74. No cause of death has been ruled, but health ailments were a visible part of his latter years. In 2010, he underwent surgery to stop leaking brain fluid, and he suffered a heart attack in July 2016, preventing him from touring excessively. He was told by doctors to remain at home in order to recuperate.

Russell, who has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, has been in the music industry for an astounding six decades, starting as a nightclub and bar musician in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. His skill and musical diversity — spanning blues, country and rock, allowed him to quickly work with big names such as Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones and JJ Cale, a former member in Russell’s Tulsa group the Starlighters. After moving to L.A. in 1958 after much demand, he became a in-house musician, playing on a litany of rock ‘n roll classic for the likes of the Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Herb Alpert, Bobby “Boris” Pickett (rumors fly over if he played on the Halloween classic “Monster Mash;” it is in stone that Russell played on its B-side, “Monster Mash Party”).  In the coveted 1964 music concert film The T.A.M.I. Show — featuring James Brown, the Stones, Lesley Gore, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and a host of others, Russell can be seen playing on keys with the Wrecking Crew.

Coming off a career high with Joe Cocker’s live concert album and companion tour Mad Dogs & Englismen, Russell revved up his songwriting and experienced his first bite with mainstream success while co-penning “Superstar” with Bonnie Bramlett. It was first recorded by Delaney and Bonnie under the title “Groupie (Superstar)” in 1969 and would be re-recorded multiple times by other artists including Sonny & Cher, Vikki Carr and Joe Cocker, but it would reach its mighty legend years later in 1971 when the Carpenters gave it a pop finish on their self-titled 1971 LP. The Carpenters’ version flew to number 2 pop and number one on the Adult Contemporary charts, cementing the legacy of the song for good. Luther Vandross’s 1983 epic seven-minute version, tied to a subtle intro of Stevie Wonder’s “Til You Come Back to Me,” also became a fan favorite, encouraging a newer and younger generation of stars like American Idol winner Ruben Studdard to favor the more dramatic R&B arrangement.


“Superstar” put him in high demand, sparking him to record his debut solo album in 1970 for his own record label Shelter Records. That self-titled disc — showcasing his distinctively gravely voice — contained what many have dubbed as his career masterpiece, “A Song for You,” an intimate ballad showing the pains of a rock star begging for forgiveness from an estranged lover. Like “Superstar,” it focused on the wiles of fame as it bore down heavily on the cause of separation: “I’ve acted out my life on stages/With ten thousand people watching, but we’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you.”

“A Song for You” has also been covered by a multitude of rock and pop artists, including R&B singer Donny Hathaway, whose 1971 version remains the most pivotal and imitated. A side note, gospel singer Myrna Summers sung with Hathaway as a backing vocalist during those sessions and pushed a gospel-styled version on Give Me Something to Hold To, a 1980 live album recorded at the Federal Correctional Institution for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.

While running Shelter Records, Russell signed other acts and opened the window for several upcoming artists, many with ties to the Tulsa area where his Church Recording Studio was based. One of those acts included a diverse R&B band fronted by the Wilson brothers known as the Gap Band. Their debut album, released on Shelter (Magician’s Holiday), went virtually no where, but the experience of working with Russell propelled them to land on Mercury Records via Lonnie Simmons’ R&B boutique label Total Experience Records, and launching their legendary funk/R&B sound and a commanding fleet of Top Ten R&B records. Charlie Wilson and his brothers also played in Russell’s touring band for a few years.

During the ’70’s, Russell maintained his work ethic as a session musician while releasing records of his own, some being certified gold including Leon Russell and the Shelter People, Carney and Will O’ the Wisp. He also recorded several duets’ albums with former wife Mary Russell, a former Sly & the Family Stone protégé. Notably taken for those sessions was a smooth R&B ditty produced and written by Bobby Womack called “Daylight.” His songwriting remained hefty, producing material like “This Masquerade” (a Top Ten hit on George Benson).


In the ’80’s, Russell regulated his recordings to the style of country and bluegrass, mostly accredited to his alter-ego Hank Wilson and a 1979 duets’ album with Willie Nelson which yielded a number one country hit with “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Russell’s piano style, music, work regimen has impacted a long list of influential rock performers. None was more impacted by Russell’s legacy than Elton John, who teamed up with Russell for the T-Bone Burnett-produced The Union. Released in 2010, the disc netted both John and Russell a Top Ten placement on the Billboard 200 and became one of the best albums of 2010 from most music critics, including HiFi Magazine. “He was a mentor, inspiration & so kind to me. I loved him and always will,” John wrote on Twitter after learning of Russell’s passing. Others like Elvis Costello hailed Russell as a mighty tower in the world of influence. “Leon made everything happen when he took the stage,” he told the New York Times in 2015. “For heaven’s sake, his rock and roll credits could fill up a big inscribed monolith, if they still made such things.”


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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