Distinctive in both appearance and sound, Leon Russell, the “ultimate rock and roll session player” according to All Music Guide’s Jason Ankeny, has been a fixture on the American music scene for nearly five decades. Russell got his start as a session player and arranger during the late 1950s and early 1960s, working with music luminaries such as Herb Alpert, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones, and Barbra Streisand. Russell made his major-label debut with a self-titled album released in 1970 on Shelter Records, a label he formed with producer Denny Cordell. Since then, Russell has released more than 20 studio albums and continued to work as a solo artist, session player, and producer.
Born Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1941, in Law-ton, Oklahoma, Russell displayed an early interested in music and by the age of three began studying classical piano. Just over a decade later, he mastered the trumpet and at the age of 14 formed his own band. Lying about his age, young Russell managed to land a job playing behind Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at a Tulsa nightclub. This job led to a gig touring in support of Jerry Lee Lewis. Moving to Hollywood in his late teens, Russell began working for legendary record producer Phil Spector and soon was an integral part of Specter’s infamous “Wall of Sound” studio group. Much sought after as a session player, Russell stayed busy writing songs and providing recording session support for such notables as Herb Alpert, the Byrds, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand. He also found time to study guitar with the legendary James Burton. In the early 1960s he played with rockers Gary Paxton of the Hollywood Argyles, Bobby “Boris” Pickett of “Monster Mash” fame, and David Gates, who was eventually to become the lead singer of Bread. Russell also became heavily involved in arranging. Among the hits that bear his imprint are “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds.
In 1967 Russell built his own recording studio, and he teamed the following year with guitarist Marc Benno to form the Asylum Choir; they released Looking Inside (Asylum Choir), which was a disappointing failure. Russell’s career got a much-needed boost when he and Denny Cordell put together the all-star, 43-member entourage of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of America. Russell and his band, the Shelter People, were prominently featured on Cocker’s memorable cover of “The Letter,” first made popular by the Box Tops. The Cocker version soared into the top ten in the late spring of 1970. Russell’s first genuine song-writing hit came with “Delta Lady,” written for Cocker. Later in 1970 Russell and Cordell founded Shelter Records. The label released Leon Russell, which managed to climb to number 60 on the pop charts. Leon Russell & the Shelter People, released late in 1970, climbed to number 17 on the American pop charts and
Born Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1941, in Lawton, OK; married Mary McCreary, 1975; divorced.
Began studying piano, age three; added the trumpet, age 14; formed a band, landed nightclub gig in Tulsa, mid-1950s; toured with many groups, including Jerry Lee Lewis, mid-1950s to mid-1960s; settled in Los Angeles, became part of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” late 1950s; became notable recording session player, late 1950s-early 1960s; embarked on solo career, 1970s; has worked with music legends Herb Alpert, the Byrds, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and members of the Beatles.
Addresses: Record company —Leon Russell Records Inc., P.O. Box 58095, Nashville, TN 37205, website: http://www.leonrussellrecords.com. Booking —Barber & Associates, 412 Liberty Street, Knoxville, TN 37919-4520.
number 28 on the British charts. Although his career as a featured performer was taking off, Leon continued to accept session work from high-profile performers, including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Dave Mason.
Another boost for Russell’s career came in August of 1971 when he appeared with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton in the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York City. A number of critics singled out Russell’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley as the musical highlight of the show. The exposure helped lay the groundwork for Russell’s next two albums—Asylum Choir II and Carney, the latter of which spent a total of 35 weeks on the charts, including four weeks in the number two position, before finally achieving gold status. “Tight Rope,” a single from Carney, made it to number eleven on the pop charts.
Russell’s next big record was Leon Live, a three-record set recorded in front of 20,000 screaming fans at the Long Beach Arena in 1972. Leon Live managed to successfully capture the excitement of the singer’s live shows, so much a part of his appeal during the 1970s. In 1973 Russell followed with Hank Wilson’s Back, a country-flavored album that made it to number 28 on the pop charts and number six on the Cash Box country charts. Although the record was not at all well received by some of Russell’s hard-core rock fans, it brilliantly displayed an aspect of the singer’s talents that had not previously been seen. The singer’s next album, Stop All That Jazz, released in 1974, provided further evidence of Russell’s versatility but failed to make much of an impression commercially, largely because it failed to satisfy the central core of his loyal following, who were looking for the traditional Russell sound.
Those fans were rewarded in 1975 with Will o’ the Wisp, an album replete with the sounds most of his followers had always associated with Russell. The album itself climbed to number 30 on the pop charts; successful singles from the album included “Lady Blue,” “Back to the Island,” and “Bluebird.” In June of 1975 Russell married Mary McCreary. But with the good news came some bad news. After about five years, Shelter Records began to crumble. To replace the label, Russell formed Paradise Records. The following year newlyweds Russell and McCreary released The Wedding Album on the Paradise label, at the same time that the final Shelter recording, The Best of Leon Russell, was hitting the stores. The latter outperformed The Wedding Album, which might have been considered an omen that all was not well. Before long, Russell and McCreary went their separate ways.
In 1979, Russell teamed up with country singer Willie Nelson to record One for the Road, a two-record set of country music classics. Not surprisingly, Russell’s collaboration with Nelson, who was then at the very peak of his popularity, did extremely well, quickly going platinum. During the 1980s and into the early 1990s, Russell toured and recorded with New Grass Revival and Edgar Winter.
Although his heyday is behind him, Russell remains active in the music business. He continues to write, produce, and record his own material in his Nashville studios. At the same time, he still sits in on sessions with other artists recording in the Music City. During the 1990s, he released a total of five albums, including Anything Can Happen in 1992, Blues in 1995, Legend in My Time: Hank Wilson, Volume 3 in 1998, and Face in the Crowd in 1999. A number of Russell compilations were also released during the 1990s, including Gimme Shelter and Retrospective.
Looking Inside (Asylum Choir), Smash, 1968.
Leon Russell, The Right, 1970.
Leon Russell & the Shelter People, Shelter, 1971.
Asylum Choir, Shelter, 1971.
And the Shelter People, The Right, 1971.
Asylum Choir Il, The Right, 1971.
Carney, The Right, 1972.
Hank Wilson’s Back, The Right, 1973.
Leon Live, The Right, 1973.
Stop All That Jazz, The Right, 1974.
Live in Japan, Shelter, 1975.
Will o’the Wisp, The Right, 1975.
Wedding Album, Paradise, 1976.
Make Love to the Music, Paradise, 1977.
Americana, Paradise, 1978.
Willie & Leon, CBS, 1979.
One for the Road, Columbia, 1979.
The Live Album, Paradise, 1981.
Solid State, Paradise, 1984.
Hank Wilson, Vol. 2, Paradise, 1984.
Anything Can Happen, Virgin, 1992.
Hank Wilson, Vol. 3: Legend in My Time, Ark 21, 1998.
Face in the Crowd, Saga, 1999.
Blues: Same Old Song, MVP Japan, 1999.
Live at Gilley’s, Atlantic, 2000.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
“Biography,” Leon Russell Records, http://www.leonrussellrecords.com/page570602.htm (December 10, 2001).
“Leon Russell,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=Bk81gtq7ztu43~C (December 10, 2001).
“Leon Russell Biography,” RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid=3218&cf=3218 (December 10, 2001).
“Leon Russell: Master of Space and Time,” The Complete Leon Russell, http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Backstage/5646/(December 10, 2001).
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