Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Leon Russell Passes On

Leon Russell, pianist, guitarist, songwriter, and session musician, died on November 13 at the age of 74. The cause was a severe heart attack.

Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma on April 2 1942. He began studying music at a very young age. At age 4 he started classical piano lessons. In his high school band he played baritone horn and also learned to play the trumpet. He began playing gigs when he was only 14 years old.

It was in 1958 that he moved to Los Angeles and began working as a session musician and playing in clubs. It was during this period that he learned to play guitar. As a session musician he played on records by such diverse artists as Jan and Dean, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Freddy Cannon, Doris Day, Ray Charles, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, The Band, B. B. King, Bob Dylan, and many others. He was part of the house band of the TV show Shindig!, which aired on ABC from 1964 to 1966. He was also part of the house band of the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show.

In 1967 he built his own home studio. He and guitarist Marc Benno began working together under the name The Asylum Choir. Their first album, Look Inside the Asylum Choir, was released in 1968. A second album, Asylum Choir II, was delayed because of contract disputes. It was released in 1971 after The Asylum Choir had broken up.

In 1969 Leon Russell founded his own label, Shelter Records. He also responsible for forming Joe Cocker's new band,  Mad Dogs & Englishmen, when the Grease Band broke up. Mr. Russell performed with the band during the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and appeared in the tour film as well.

It was in 1970 that Leon Russell's first solo album, Leon Russell, was released. The album contained the original version of "A Song for You", which would be covered by artists from Andy Williams to Amy Winehouse. Mr. Russell released several albums throughout the Seventies. His song "Tight Rope", from his 1972 album Carney, hit no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. His single "Lady Blue", from his 1975 album Will O' the Wisp, went to no. 14. Leon Russell also produced tracks for Bob Dylan, and collaborated with blues guitarist Freddie King on three albums. He was instrumental in giving Tulsa basedd funk group The Gap Band their start. He also played on records released by Badfinger, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. He collaborated with Willie Nelson on two albums.

Leon Russell released fewer albums in the Eighties. Of those, two concentrated on country music. Hank Wilson Vol. II was recorded under the pseudonym "Hank Wilson" that he used for many of his country releases.  Solid State was a country blues album that he released as Leon Russell.  The Nineties saw Leon Russell release more albums than he had in the previous decade, including a Christmas album (Hymns of Christmas). The Naughts saw Leon Russell release several more albums than he had in either the Eighties or the Nineties. He collaborated with Elton John and Bernie Taupin on the album The Union.  In the Teens he released several more albums.

Leon Russell was one of the most talented pianists in rock history. While he could play guitar and play it well, it was always on the piano where he was at his best. Of course, he was also a talented songwriter. While Leon Russell would have only two singles that would hit the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100, he wrote several memorable songs that would be covered by others. His song "Delta Lady" was covered by Bobbie Gentry as "Delta Man". His song "Bluebird" was covered by Helen Reddy and peaked at no. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. His song "This Masquerade" was covered by Helen Reddy, The Carpenters, George Benson, and others. As a session musician, a solo artist, and a songwriter Leon Russell was immensely talented. His influence will be continued to be felt for years to come. 

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