Russell, Leon (Hank Wilson)

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Russell, Leon (Hank Wilson)

Russell, Leon (Hank Wilson) , gospel-style piano player with raspy mumbling vocals and compelling songwriting; b. Lawton, Okla., April 2, 1941. Leon Russell established himself as one of rock’s most unique figures. Initially a well-known session player and producer in Los Angeles during the mid-1960s, Russell first came to the public’s attention in the late 1960s with the Asylum Choir, in collaboration with songwriter-guitarist Marc Benno. He subsequently came to prominence as organizer and mastermind behind Joe Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, who later pursued a modestly successful solo recording career in the 1970s. His popularity faded after the mid-1970s, although he made a remarkable comeback in the country field with his 1979 duet album with Willie Nelson. Continuing to tour in the 1980s and 1990s, Leon Russell returned to recording in 1992 after nearly a decade’s absence.

Leon Russell started 10 years of classical piano lessons at age three and took up trumpet at 14, soon forming his first band. He later played briefly with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and toured with Jerry Lee Lewis for six months. After moving to Los Angeles in 1959, he learned guitar from James Burton and became a session musician. He played on most of Phil Specter’s hit productions through 1966, and on isolated hits by the Byrds, Herb Alpert, and Bob Lind. Russell also recorded with an astounding variety of artists, from Frank Sinatra to Gary Lewis and the Playboys, from Bobby Darin to Paul Revere and the Raiders.

In 1966 Leon Russell met songwriter-guitarist Marc Benno (b. July 1, 1947, Dallas, Tex). By 1967 Russell had withdrawn from the studio scene to build his own elaborate home studio, although he occasionally appeared with friends Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and played on infrequent sessions. Working briefly with the Bramletts, guitarist Don Preston, bassist Carl Radie, and others in the New Electric Horn Band, Russell formed the Asylum Choir with Benno in 1968, signing with theSmash subsidiary of Mercury Records. Their debut album sold poorly and their second, recorded in 1969, wasn’t issued until the end of 1971, on Shelter Records. It included Russell’s “Hello Little Friend” and Benno and Russell’s “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Tryin’ to Stay Alive.”

In 1969 Leon Russell assisted Delaney and Bonnie on their album OriginalAccept No Substitute, along with organist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radie, and vocalist Rita Coolidge. Later in the year he worked on Joe Cocker’s second album, which contained Russell’s “Delta Lady,” written for Rita Coolidge. By the beginning of 1970, Russell and English producer Denny Cordell had formed Shelter Records, which soon released Russell’s debut album. Recorded with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Stevie Winwood, among others, the modest-selling album included three classic Russell compositions, “Delta Lady,” “Hummingbird,” and “A Song for You,” as well as two excellent collaborations, “Prince of Peace” and “Roll Away the Stone.”

In a single day in March 1970 Leon Russell assembled the nucleus of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen aggregation for a two-month tour backing Joe Cocker. Consisting of more than 40 people, the entourage included Carl Radie, guitarists Chris Stainton and Don Preston, and backup singers Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear. The tour proved enormously successful, as did the subsequent live album and movie, but much to Cocker’s chagrin, the spotlight frequently fell on Russell or Coolidge, who regularly performed Russell and Bonnie Bramlett’s “Superstar.” Shortly after the tour’s conclusion in May, Russell assisted Eric Clapton with his debut solo album, coauthoring “Blues Power.”

Leon Russell’s next album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, was recorded with four sets of accompanying musicians: The Shelter People, The Tulsa Tops, The Muscle Shoals Swampers, and Friends from England. The album included two Bob Dylan songs and excellent originals such as “Sweet Emily,” “She Smiles Like a River,” “The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” and Russell and Don Preston’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In 1971 Russell produced the Bob Dylan singles “Watching the River Flow” and “George Jackson” and appeared at George Harrison’s August Concert for Bangladesh. Finally, in 1972 Russell scored his first major hit with “Tight Rope” from Carney, his best-selling album; it also contained his own “If the Shoe Fits …,” “Magic Mirror,” the minor hit “Queen of the Roller Derby,” and the engaging “This Masquerade,” a smash pop and R&B hit for George Benson in 1976.

Following Leon Live, Leon Russell confounded critics with the unexpected album of country standards, Hank-Wilson’s Back, which yielded the minor hit “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” In 1974 Russell ceased touring, appeared in the film biography A Poem Is a Naked Person, and issued Stop All That Jazz. His next album, Will o′ the Wisp, produced a major hit with “Lady Blue” and a minor hit with “Back to the Island.”

Russell subsequently severed his relationship with Shelter Records and recorded for his own label, Paradise, distributed by Warner Bros, hi spring 1976 he announced his secret marriage the previous June tovocalist Mary McCreary, who had already recorded two solo albums and provided background vocals to Russell’s Will o′ the Wisp. The couple launched the Paradise label with the appropriately titled Wedding Album, which yielded the minor hit “Rainbow in Your Eyes,” Russell’s last. Subsequent albums by Mary alone, Leon alone, and the couple together fared poorly.

Russell bounced back with 1979’s One for the Road, recorded with Willie Nelson, which included the top country hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” He later recorded with the bluegrass-style New Grass Revival. Russell returned to touring in the mid-1980s, gigging with Edgar Winter in 1987 and 1989. In 1992 Leon Russell recorded Anything Can Happen for Virgin Records, and later played sessions for George Jones, Bela Fleck, and the Tractors.

Marc Benno briefly returned to Tex. after the demise of Asylum Choir, but he was back in Los Angeles by 1969, where he signed with A&M Records as a solo act. Although he never rose from obscurity, he did write a number of excellent songs, including “Family Full of Soul,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down,” and “Either Way It Happens.” Benno traveled with Rita Coolidge’s Dixie Flyers during her 1971 European tour, and contributed a number of songs to her first three albums, including “(I Always Called Them) Mountains,” “Second Story Window,” “Nice Feelin’,” and “Inside of Me.” After years off the concert and recording scene, Benno re-emerged in 1979 with Lost in Austin, ably assisted by Eric Clapton. In the late 1980s he composed “Rock ’n’ Roll Me Again” for the best-selling Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Marc Benno returned to recording with 1993’s Take It Back to Texas on the Sky Ranch label.


the asylum choir: Look Inside the Asylum Choir (1968); Asylum Choir II (1971). marc benno: Marc Benno (1970); Minnows (1971); Ambush (1972); Lost in Austin (1979); Take It Back to Texas (1993). leon russell: Looking Back (1974); L. R.(1970); L. R. and the Shelter People (1971); Carney (1972); Leon Uve (1973); Hank Wilson’s Back (1973); Stop All That Jazz (1974); Will o’ the Wisp (1975); Best (1976); Americana (1978); Live and Love (1979); Solid State (1984); Hank Wilson, Vol. II (1984); Anything Can Happen (1992). mary mccreary: Butterflies in Heaven (1973); Jezebel (1974); Heart of Fire (1979). leon and mary russell: Wedding Album (1976); Make Love to the Music (1977). leon russell and willie nelson: One for the Road (1979). leon russell and the new grass revival: Live Album (1981).

—Brock Helander

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Russell, Leon (Hank Wilson)

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