A Rockapaedia Obituary
Leon Russell died aged seventy-four in his sleep at his suburban Nashville home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, U.S.A. on 13th November 2016. Leon Russell's funeral was on 18th November at Victory Baptist Church, in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee,U.S.A. and a public memorial was held at The Oral Roberts University Mabee Center on 20th November.
Elton John, who had once been Russell's opening act, acknowledged him as his biggest influence as a piano player, a singer and a songwriter. Pixies' vocalist Black Francis credits Leon Russell with influencing his vocal style and said Leon Russell sang in a southern accent but it was very blown-out and exaggerated, very free and loose.
Leon Russell fathered six children. His oldest daughter Blue was with Carla McHenry. She was born February 20th 1972 and was named Blueagle after Oklahoman and Native American Artist Acee Blue Eagle. Leon Russell married Mary McCreary on June 20th 1975. Mary was a musical partner. They had two children, daughter Tina Rose and son Teddy Jack. Leon Russell and Mary divorced in October 1980. He married Janet Lee Constantine on February 6th 1983. They had three daughters together, Sugaree Noel, Honey and Coco.
Leon Russell was born in Lawton, Oklahoma. He began playing the piano at the age of four.
Leon Russell attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, alongside Anita Bryant, who was two years older, and in the same 1959 class as power-pop musician David Gates. Russell and Gates played and recorded together as the Fencemen. Also attending the Will Rogers school at that time was guitarist and singer-songwriter Elvin Bishop. During this time, Leon Russell was already performing at Tulsa nightclubs. He took the name Leon Russell from a friend who lent him a fake ID to get into clubs he was legally too young to perform in.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1958, Leon Russell became a session musician, working as a pianist on the recordings of many notable 1960s musical artists. By the late 1960s, he had diversified, becoming successful as an arranger and songwriter. By 1970, he had become a solo recording artist, but he never relinquished his other roles in the music industry. After performing country music under the name Hank Wilson in the 1970s and 1980s, he largely faded into obscurity.
Leon Russell re-emerged in 2010 when Elton John called on him to record the album that became The Union. The album, which included contributions from Brian Wilson and Neil Young, brought renewed popularity to Russell, who later released a solo album and toured around the world.
Leon Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2011. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2011.
According to his wife, Jan, Russell died quietly in his sleep at his suburban Nashville home on the morning of November 13th, 2016, at the age of 74. He had had a heart attack the previous July, followed by coronary bypass surgery, after which he postponed shows while convalescing at home. He had hoped to return to his concert schedule in January 2017.
Leon Russell began his musical career at the age of fourteen in the nightclubs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his group, the Starlighters, which included J. J. Cale, Leo Feathers, Chuck Blackwell, and Johnny Williams, were instrumental in creating the style of music known as the Tulsa Sound. After settling in Los Angeles in 1958, he studied guitar with James Burton. He was known mostly as a session musician early in his career. As a solo artist he crossed genres to include rock and roll, blues, and gospel music, playing with artists as varied as Jan and Dean, Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Delaney Bramlett, Freddy Cannon, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, Barbra Streisand, The Beach Boys, The Ventures, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, the Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Bob Dylan, J. J. Cale, B. B. King, Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones, and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
In Los Angeles, Leon Russell played as a first-call studio musician on many of the most popular songs of the 1960s, including some by The Byrds, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Bobby Pickett, and Herb Alpert. He also played piano on many Phil Spector productions, including recordings by The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love and in the 1963 A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector album. He can be seen in the 1964 concert film T.A.M.I. Show playing piano with The Wrecking Crew (an informal name for the top Los Angeles session musicians of the 1960s), sporting short, dark, slicked-back hair, in contrast to his later look. Soon after, he was hired as Snuff Garrett's assistant and creative developer, playing on numerous number one singles, including "This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
In the mid-1960s, Leon wrote or co-wrote songs, including two hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys: "Everybody Loves a Clown" (which reached the Billboard Top 40 on October 9, 1965, remaining on the chart for eight weeks and reaching number 4) and "She's Just My Style" (which entered the Billboard Top 40 on December 18, 1965, and rose to number 3). In 1964, he appeared on various TV shows, performing songs by Chuck Berry and others.
Leon played xylophone and bells on the 1966 single "The Joker Went Wild", sung by Brian Hyland and written by Bobby Russell. He also contributed to recording sessions with Dorsey Burnette and with Glen Campbell, whose 1967 album Gentle on My Mind credited him as "Russell Bridges" on piano, and arranged and conducted the 1966 easy listening album Rhapsodies for Young Lovers by the Midnight String Quartet. He co-produced and arranged hits by Tom Northcott, including "Sunny Goodge Street" in 1967, written by Donovan.
Leon Russell released his first solo single, "Everybody's Talking 'Bout the Young", for Dot Records in 1965.
The 1968 release of Look Inside the Asylum Choir by Smash Records was a recording of a studio group consisting of Leon Russell and Marc Benno.
Leon Russell and Denny Cordell established Shelter Records in 1969. The company operated from 1969 to 1981, with offices in Los Angeles and Tulsa.
Leon Russell performed as a member of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends in 1969 and 1970, playing guitar and keyboards on their albums and as part of the touring band. Through this group, he met George Harrison and others with whom he would work over the next couple of years.
Leon Russell's first commercial success as a songwriter came when Joe Cocker recorded the song "Delta Lady" for his 1969 album, Joe Cocker! The album, co-produced and arranged by Russell, reached number eleven on the Billboard 200. Leon Russell went on to organize and perform in (playing either piano or lead guitar) the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, using many of the musicians from Delaney and Bonnie's band. "Superstar", co-written by Leon Russell, was sung by The Carpenters and other performers.
During the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, Shelter Records released Leon's 1970 solo album, Leon Russell, which included the first recording of "A Song for You". This has become one of his best-known songs, with versions released by more than 40 different artists, including Billy Eckstine, The Carpenters, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, Helen Reddy, Whitney Houston, Elkie Brooks, Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, and Christina Aguilera. Both The Carpenters and The Temptations named an album after the song. Another song from the same album, "Delta Lady", was covered by Bobbie Gentry under the title "Delta Man" on her 1970 album Fancy. Also in 1970, Leon Russell played piano on Dave Mason's album Alone Together, notably on the song "Sad and Deep as You".
In November 1970, Russell performed at the Fillmore East with Elton John on the same bill. Those performances have been bootlegged. Leon and Elton appeared on The David Frost Show with Fillmore owner Bill Graham at this time.
"Leon Russell and Friends" recorded the "Homewood Sessions", broadcast as an "unscripted and unrehearsed" one-hour TV special on KCET (Los Angeles) that aired in December 1970 and was later re-broadcast several times on the Public Broadcasting Service.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Leon Russell owned The Church Studio on 3rd Street (renamed Leon Russell Road in 2010 by the Pearl District Association) in Tulsa. His former home on Grand Lake, in Oklahoma, contained a dining room table and chairs made from church pews taken out of the church when it was turned into a studio.
Leon Russell produced some tracks for Bob Dylan in March 1971 when Dylan was experimenting with his new sound. The sessions produced the single "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece", both of which prominently featured Leon Russell's gospel-flavored piano.
At the invitation of Delaney & Bonnie and George Harrison, Leon Russell played piano on Badfinger's third album, Straight Up in the summer of 1971. The piano part complemented Pete Ham's and George Harrison's dual slide guitars on Badfinger's "Day After Day". The Straight Up sessions were interrupted when many of the musicians left for New York City to participate in The Concert For Bangladesh, at which Leon Russell performed a medley of the songs "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood" and sang a verse on Harrison's "Beware of Darkness". Bob Dylan surprised Russell by asking him to play bass for some of his portion of the show; Leon Russell and George Harrison sang harmonies on the chorus of "Just Like a Woman".
Leon Russell was busy in 1971, as Shelter Records released 'Leon Russell' and the Shelter People and Asylum Choir II (co-produced by Marc Benno) and recorded at Leon Russell's Skyhill Studios. Leon Russell and the Shelter People went on to be Leon Russell's first U.S. gold album. In the same year, Leon Russell played on recording sessions with B. B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.
Leon Russell helped the blues guitarist Freddie King revive his career by collaborating on three of King's albums for Shelter Records during the early 1970s. During those same years, Leon Russell profited from what was then called the "country and western" market by recording and performing under the moniker "Hank Wilson", and was a regular performer at Gilley's Club, a honkytonk in Pasadena, Texas made famous by the film Urban Cowboy.
Leon Russell recorded the song "Get a Line on You" at Olympic Studios in October 1969, with contributions from Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, and probably also Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor. The recording was made during the recording sessions for the album 'Leon Russell' released in 1970, for which Starr and Wyman played drums and bass on some tracks, but was not included on the album. It was shelved until 1993, when it was issued as a bonus track on the 24K gold re-release by DCC Compact Classics. The Rolling Stones included the song, under the title "Shine a Light" on their 1972 album Exile on Main St..
Leon Russell and his band hit the road in 1972 with a large-scale concert tour by Leon and his "Shelter People" entourage. A live performance was recorded in California at the Long Beach Arena on August 28, 1972, and was released as a three-record set in 1973 as 'Leon Russell Live'. It became his third U.S. gold album. In November 1972, Billboard cited Russell as a top concert draw and reported the 1972 tour gross at almost three million dollars.
Also in 1972, Leon released his Carney album, which was his third solo studio album. The album peaked at number two on the Billboard 200. The album featured "Tight Rope" and "This Masquerade" , and became his second gold album.
Leon Russell purchased multiple properties in the early 1970s in his home state of Oklahoma, including the historic Church Studio in 1972 located on the corner of 3rd Street and Trenton in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The church was also home to Shelter Records.
Looking Back was released by Leon Russell on Olympia Records in 1973, shortly after the success of his single "Tight Rope". It contains instrumental tracks recorded in the mid-1960s, featuring Leon playing the harpsichord.
Leon Russell released the album Hank Wilson's Back! , which was recorded at producer Owen Bradley's barn studio in Nashville in 1973. The album made it into the Top Thirty Hits. Track one, "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms", was a minor hit.
Leon Russell helped the Gap Band, a trio of Tulsa brothers, kick off their chart success in 1974. The group went on to produce several funk-disco hits. The Gap Band backed Russell on his album Stop All That Jazz.
Leon Russell released Live In Japan on Shelter Records. The album was recorded live at Budokan Hall, in Tokyo, on November 8th, 1973, and released in 1975.
Leon Russell made it into the 1975 Top 40 with "Lady Blue", from his album Will o' the Wisp. It was his fourth gold album.
Helen Reddy recorded Leon Russell's song "Bluebird" as a single and on her 1975 album No Way to Treat a Lady. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in the July 5th issue of the magazine and eventually peaked at number 35. That same issue also marked its debut on the magazine's Easy Listening chart, where it spent eight weeks and peaked at number 5; on the RPM singles chart it reached number 51. Reddy said, "I love Leon Russell's writing and I love this song. It was an integral part of my repertoire for nearly 30 years, and I never tired of singing it."
Leon Russell's song "This Masquerade", the B-side of his 1972 hit single "Tight Rope", was later recorded by numerous artists, including Helen Reddy and The Carpenters. George Benson's version of the song reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Record of the Year at the 1977 Grammy Awards. As the song writer, Russell was nominated for Song of the Year in 1977 but lost to Bruce Johnston, who wrote "I Write the Songs". Russell's version of "This Masquerade" was used for the soundtrack for the psychological thriller film Bug, which was directed by William Friedkin. The Bug soundtrack was released on May 22, 2007. The song was also used in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness.
Leon Russell departed Shelter Records in 1976 to start his own record label, Paradise Records.
In 1976, Leon Russell released the Wedding Album, a studio album with his then wife, Mary Russell, otherwise known as Mary McCreary. It was the first release by Paradise Records, and it was distributed by Rhino/Warner Bros. Records. Leon Russell and Mary were the album producers, except for the final track "Daylight", which was produced by its writer Bobby Womack.
In 1978, Leon Russell released his Americana album on the Rhino/Warner Bros. label. The title is credited to the mix of influences that made Russell's unique musical style.
After touring with Willie Nelson, Russell and Nelson in 1979 had a number1 hit on Billboards country music chart with their duet of "Heartbreak Hotel". This single was nominated for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group at the 1979 Grammy Awards (presented on February 27th 1980), with the award going to the Charlie Daniels Band for "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". They also released their duet country pop-rock studio album, One for the Road, that year. It was Leon Russell's fifth gold album. The album was nominated for 1979's Album of the Year awarded by the Country Music Association, which went to Kenny Rogers for The Gambler. The track "I Saw the Light" was nominated for Best Inspirational Performance at the 1979 Grammy Awards, which instead went to B. J. Thomas for his album You Gave Me Love.
Leon Russell spent the next two years touring with the New Grass Revival, releasing two more albums with Paradise Records before the label folded.
On May 15th, 1980, Russell joined with New Grass Revival to record a live album at Perkins Palace in Pasadena, California, released in 1981 as Leon Russell & New Grass Revival – The Live Album.
Following up on his country theme, he made a second Hank Wilson album, Hank Wilson Vol. II released in 1984, Hank Wilson being Russell's self-styled country music alter-ego since the early 1970s. Released on Leon Russell Records. Leon
Russell released a country blues album, recorded in Hendersonville, Tennessee, at his Paradise Studios, called Solid State. It was released by Paradise Music in 1984.
Leon Russell released Delta Lady on Del Rack Records in 1991. Many of the songs are remixes of early recordings.
Leon Russell released a new album Anything Can Happen recorded at Paradise Studios, released on Virgin Records in 1991. Pianist Bruce Hornsby produced this comeback album. During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hornsby worked extensively as a producer and sideman with Leon.
In 1993, Paradise Records released the Leon Russell 24k Gold Disc album. It was a remix of recordings done at Olympic Sound in London in 1969.
Leon Russell released his Hymns of Christmas, album with 10 instrumental hymns by himself on Leon Russell Records in 1995.
Capitol/EMI Records in 1996 released the album Gimme Shelter! The Best of Leon Russell, a two-CD album set with 40-tracks covering 1969-1992.
Capitol/Right Stuff Records released in 1997 the album Retrospective, an album with Leon Russell's 18 all-time best-selling songs.
Leon Russell released a new album Hank Wilson, Vol. 3: Legend in My Time. Returning to his county artist name on Ark 21 Records, released in 1998 .
In 2000, Leon Russell and Q Records released Live at Gilley's , a performance from September 17, 1981. Also in 2000, Leon Russell Records released the rock album Crazy Love on CD.
Signature Songs was released in 2001 on Leon Russell Records. It was re-released in 2007 by MRI Associated Labels.
Leon Russell returned as Hank Wilson, but this time with a twist of bluegrass, in Rhythm & Bluegrass: Hank Wilson, Vol. 4, released in 2001 on Leon Russell Records.
Leon Russell and the others who played on the "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" tract each won Grammy Awards for Best Country Instrumental Performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards, which were presented on February 27th, 2002.
Moonlight & Love Songs, an album of Leon Russell's standards was released on Leon Russell Records in 2002.
At age sixty-five, Leon Russell made the new Okie rock album Angel in Disguise, which was released by Leon Russell Records in 2007.
Leon Russell played at Diversafest, Tulsa's Music Conference and Festival in 2007. From 2002 to 2010, Dfest was an annual live event that showcased independent and emerging artists and hosted educational music industry panels and a tradeshow. Over its last four years, Dfest was held in the historic Blue Dome District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Almost Piano was released in 2008 by Leon Russell Records. It is a synthesizer piano collection of ten instrumentals from Leon Russell.
After years of reduced prominence, Leon Russell's career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him for a new project. In November 2009, Leon Russell worked with John and Bernie Taupin on The Union, a double album record credited equally to Leon Russell and Elton John. Recorded in February 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the CD was released on October 19th, 2010. The Union was Leon Russell's sixth gold album. The recordings were interrupted in January 2010 when Leon Russell was hospitalized and underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak, as well as treatment for heart failure and pneumonia. On April 2nd, 2011, Leon Russell and Elton John performed together as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. Rolling Stone placed the album in third place on its list of the 30 Best Albums of 2010. A couple of months later, Leon Russell announced plans for a solo LP, although no specifics were given, and in October 2010 Leon Russell and Elton John embarked on The Union Tour. Elton John and Leon Russell also appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Leon Russell and Elton John were nominated for their tract "If It Wasn't for Bad", from their The Union album, for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals at the 2010 Grammy Awards, which were presented on February 13th, 2011.
In 2011, the documentary film The Union by Cameron Crowe was released. It explored the creative process of Elton John and Leon Russell in the making of the 2010 album The Union. Leon Russell played in Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth, Texas in 2013. He had first played at the picnic in 1976.
In 2014, the album Life Journey was released on Universal Records. Working with Tommy LiPuma, this album included two new songs by Leon Russell: "Big Lips" and "Down in Dixieland".
On March 16th, 2015, a restored version of a previously unreleased 1974 documentary about Leon Russell, A Poem Is A Naked Person by filmmaker Les Blank, was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The film features concert footage of Leon Russell in New Orleans and Anaheim and of the recording sessions for the album Hank Wilson's Back.
In 2015, Leon played at Virginia's Lockn' Festival and the Wildflower! Arts and Music Festival in Richardson, Texas. On September 11th, 2015, Leon Russell joined Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Chris Stainton, and other members of the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour for a tribute concert to Joe Cocker organized by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Original tour photographer Linda Wolf documented the reunion and performance.
Leon Russell had a nationwide concert tour to enthusiastic crowds in 2016 and was planning to tour into 2017. The album On A Distant Shore was posthumously released in September 2017.