Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1942 (as Claude Russell Bridges) the young man was a naturally gifted pianist and guitarist who became a fixture on the same nightclub scene that produced David Gates and John (J.J.) Cale. All three were instrumental in producing what became known as ‘The Tulsa Sound’ and such was their notoriety they relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties in time for the folk rock boom. Leon continued his studies with guitarist James Burton and soon became ‘first call’ pianist for sessions arranged by Phil Spector (on The Ronettes), with the Byrds, Gary Lewis & The Playboys and as front man on a Snuff Garrett oddity called Rhapsodies for Young Lovers by The Midnight String Quartet.
Following his de rigeur social commentary tune “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young” on Dot Records Leon hooked up with Dallas, Texas guitarist Marc Benno to form the Asylum Choir in 1967, the duo making the highly regarded debut album Look Inside the Asylum Choir (1968), that became a psych or freak beat cult artifact, thanks in part to the original artwork – a close-up of a roll of toilet paper!
Russell’s third album is the self-titled 1970 disc Leon Russell for the newly formed Shelter Records. Thanks to his association with Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett Russell could call upon a cast of players including Harrison and Starr, Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and secret weapon vocalist Merry Clayton. The CD reissue is priceless and ripe for discovery since it adds then unreleased collaborations with Clapton, the Stones and Klaus Voorman.
Parts of this super group affair would coincide with the Joe Cocker/Russell helmed Mad Dogs & Englishman – the album, the tour, the top grossing movie (though profits were absorbed on all three counts by the absurdly ambitious rock and roll circus nature of that event).
With “A Song For You” and “Shootout on the Plantation” making waves Leon rushed out Leon Russell and The Shelter People, a far more Southern-based affair though it contained a delicious cover of Harrison’s recent “Beware of Darkness” (Leon having played on The Concert for Bangla Desh version and also backed up Dylan there). The CD reissue contains three Dylan covers – “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “She Belongs to Me”. The original parent album sold plenty and hit #17 on Billboard’s Hot 200.
Now comes the breakthrough: Carney (1972) made #2 with an attendant hit single, “Tight Rope” backed with ”This Masquerade” peaking just outside the top ten. He kept it strictly country for the marvelous if obscure Hank Wilson’s Back, an album that features J.J. Cale on every cut plus the cream of the Okie crop. Well worth hunting down. As is Will O’ the Wisp (1975), a chart sleeper that gave him his third Gold album.
Following a couple of amusing discs with his wife Mary Russell and a lovely collaborative venture with Willie Nelson called One For the Road, Russell switched labels but didn’t repeat his previous successes, despite the creditable Anything Can Happen where he teamed with Bruce Hornsby on a release handled by Virgin Records America, Inc.
Just when he was in danger of disappearing into the ‘whatever happened to?’ category Leon delighted his fans with the Elton John mash-up The Union. Produced by T Bone Burnett this meeting of keyboards greats was warmly received and sold well internationally. In 2014 a revitalized Leon embarked on his Life Journey, a selection of evergreen lovelies from the pens of Hoagy Carmichael, Robert Johnson, Paul Anka and others. Luxuriating again in the company of orchestration – strings and plenty of brass – Leon hadn't just made another comeback, he’d upped his game with specialists friends including Darrell Leonard (ex-Stevie Ray Vaughan etc.), Greg Leisz and Robben Ford. Tommy LiPuma’s sparkling production and the sheer heft and quality of this disc make it a cert for discovery. It didn't sell as well as The Union (a top 3 release in the US) but it thrilled the hardcore fan base.
Meanwhile certain retrospectives can be tracked down and there is talk of a long-overdue box set (a Japanese one exists). The man’s own Leon Russell Records also has plenty of goodies, including information about the recently issued documentary A Poem Is a Naked Person filmed in a heyday moment between 1972 and 1974. If you like your mad dogs and Englishmen on the crazy side then check it out after you’ve delved into the Shelter releases that turned an unsuspecting world onto the wondrous voice and musical excellence of good ole Leon Russell.
Words: Max Bell
Leon Russell never quite hit all the right notes the way he did on his eponymous debut. He never again seemed as convincing in his grasp of Americana music and themes, never again seemed as individual, and never again did his limited, slurred bluesy voice seem as ingratiating. He never again topped his triptych of "A Song for You," "Hummingbird," and "Delta Lady," nor did his albums contain such fine tracks as "Dixie Lullaby." Throughout it all, what comes across is Russell's idiosyncratic vision, not only in his approach but in his very construction -- none of the songs quite play out as expected, turning country, blues, and rock inside out, not only musically but lyrically. Yes, his voice is a bit of an acquired taste, but it's only appropriate for a songwriter with enough chutzpah to write songs of his own called "I Put a Spell on You" and "Give Peace a Chance." And if there ever was a place to acquire a taste for Russell, it's here. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
On the inaugural episode of Elvis Costello’s talk show Spectacle in 2008, Elton John -- who just happened to be a producer on the show -- rhapsodized at length about Leon Russell, hauling out a note-perfect impression of Russell’s piano style and Oklahoma drawl. It was enough of a tease to whet the appetite for more but nothing suggested something like The Union, a full-fledged duet album with Russell designed to raise the profile of the rock & roll maverick. Like all lifers, Russell never disappeared -- he just faded, playing small clubs throughout the U.S., spitting out bewildering self-released albums of MIDI-synth boogie, never quite connecting with the spirit of his wonderful early-‘70s albums for his Shelter label. The Union quite deliberately evokes the spirit of 1970, splicing Russell’s terrific eponymous LP with Elton’s own self-titled record and Tumbleweed Connection. In that sense, it’s a kissing cousin to John’s last album, 2006’s The Captain and the Kid, which was designed as an explicit sequel to 1975’s golden era-capping Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, but thanks to producer T-Bone Burnett, The Union dials down Bernie Taupin’s inherent pomp and ratchets up the roots. Burnett had John and Russell record live in the studio, trading verses and solos, letting the supporting band breathe and follow their loping lead. This relaxed, natural interplay cuts through the soft haze of Burnett’s analog impressionism, giving the record a foundation of true grit. If there are no immediate knockouts among this collection of 14 original songs, the tunes are slow, steady growers, taking root with repeated spins, with the sound of John and Russell’s piano-and-voice duets providing ample reason to return to The Union after its first play. And even once the songs take hold, what lingers with The Union is that natural interplay, how John and Russell easily connect with their past without painstakingly re-creating it. Surely, it’s a revival for Leon Russell, who has spent decades in the wilderness, but it’s not a stretch to say The Union revitalizes Elton John just as much as it does his idol: he hasn’t sounded this soulful in years.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Leon Russell's accolades are monumental in a number of categories, from songwriting (he wrote Joe Cocker's "Delta Lady") to session playing (with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, just to name a few) to his solo work. Unfortunately, it's the last category that never really attracted as much attention as it should have, despite a multitude of blues-based gospel recordings and piano-led, Southern-styled rock albums released throughout the 1970s. Leon Russell and the Shelter People is a prime example of Russell's instrumental dexterity and ability to produce some energetic rock & roll. Poignant and expressive tracks such as "Of Thee I Sing," "Home Sweet Oklahoma," and "She Smiles Like a River" all lay claim to Russell's soulful style and are clear-cut examples of the power that he musters through his spirited piano playing and his voice. His Dylan covers are just as strong, especially "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh," while "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall" have him sounding so forceful, they could have been Russell's own. A hearty, full-flavored gospel sound is amassed thanks to both the Shelter People and the Tulsa Tops, who back Russell up on most of the tracks, but it's Russell alone that makes "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen" such an expressive piece and the highlight of the album. On the whole, Leon Russell and the Shelter People is an entertaining and more importantly, revealing exposition of Russell's music when he was in his prime. The album that followed, 1972's Carney, is an introspective piece which holds up a little better from a songwriting standpoint, but this album does a better job at bearing his proficiency as a well-rounded musician.
Words: Mike DeGagne
"Tight Rope" leads off Carney, and it's not just his biggest hit, it offers an excellent introduction to an off-kilter, confused, fascinating album. In a sense, it consolidates his two extremes, offering a side of fairly straightforward roots rock before delving headfirst into twisted psychedelia on the second side. On the whole, the second side deflates the first side, since it's just too fuzzy -- it's intriguing, at least in parts, but it never adds up to anything. Besides, the first side is already odd enough, but in a meaningful way; here, his fascination with Americana sideshows is married to songs that work, instead of just being vehicles for tripping in the studio. Of course, part of what makes Carney interesting is that it contains a bit of both, but interesting doesn't equal compelling, as the whole of Carney bears out.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Prior to his Elton John-endorsed career resurrection via the 2010 duet album The Union, Leon Russell cranked out self-released oddities to little notice. Once The Union again made Russell a draw, there was little chance that he would revive his MIDI keyboards, and Life Journey indeed stays far, far away from those cramped, tinny settings, preferring to revive the loose-limbed, woolly Tulsan rock & roll that made his reputation. Working with Tommy LiPuma -- a veteran producer who had never recorded with Russell but who helmed many successful jazz sessions, including George Benson's Grammy-winning Breezin' -- Russell primarily sticks to standards, whether they're by Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, or Billy Joel, and that's how it should be. Although he's a fine songwriter, as evidenced here by his two originals -- "Big Lips" and "Down in Dixieland," raucous numbers both -- Russell is a stylist, bending songs to fit his swinging piano and slow drawl. He may occasionally follow a straight line with a ballad but he knows how to draw out the phrases on "That Lucky Old Sun," finding an unexpected contour in familiar melody, and he finds funk in "Come On in My Kitchen" while tearing up "Fever" and leaving "New York State of Mind" as a splashy big-band celebration of the Big Apple. This small list suggests how Life Journey touches upon much of the music Russell has sung over the years -- it's heavy on R&B, blues, jazz, and swing, but strangely lacking in much country -- and LiPuma is a perfect match for this celebratory approach. Where The Union occasionally veered toward the austere, Life Journey is robust and soulful, emphasizing the raggedness of Russell's voice and smooth boogie in his playing. It's a joyous thing to hear, a record that recaptures much of the magic of Leon's Shelter records without being fussy.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Will O' the Wisp is the sixth studio album by Leon Russell. The album was released in 1975 on Shelter Records and peaked at No. 30 on the Billboard albums chart. It features the hit single 'Lady Blue' and 'Little Hideaway'.
Leon Russell knows something about country music. Born in Oklahoma, virtually all of the country and blues made their way through Tulsa along with Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. And while Russell is known primarily as a rock & roll performer, that doesn't mean jack. The 14 songs here offer a glimpse of where Russell's heart really lies. All classic country and bluegrass tunes, Hank Wilson's Back features Russell and a few dozen of his closest friends from both L.A. and Nashville tearing up the classics. With everyone from Melba Montgomery, Billy Byrd, Johnny Gimble, Bob Moore, Weldon Myrick, and Pete Drake to Carl Radle, David Briggs, Charlie McCoy, and fellow Okie J.J. Cale, Russell in his alter ego runs through standards such as Lester Flatt's "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms," Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Jambalaya," Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen," Hank Thompson's "Six Pack to Go," Leon Payne's "Lost Highway," George Jones' "The Window up Above," Jimmie Driftwood's "The Battle of New Orleans," and as a closer, Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene". This is no idle affair. Russell's reads of these classic songs from the country and bluegrass canon are played with fire, verve, and reverence, and he uses every trick in the book to get at the bottom of their meaning, allowing his voice to do things it never did before or since this recording. The playing is well rehearsed and stellar, and since it is played straight, the arrangements are minimal, making Cale's production job that much easier. Hank Wilson's Back is raw, immediate, and full of the kind of drunken passion that only someone who loves the country music tradition could execute. Highly recommended.
Words: Thom Jurek
Asylum Choir II is the second and final album of the studio aggregation consisting entirely of Leon Russell and Marc Benno. It was recorded, and meant to be released in 1969, but legal hassles held up its release for two years. It includes the tracks 'Sweet Home Chicago', 'Salty Candy' and 'Learn How To Boogie'.
Almost Piano = MIDI synthesizers, at least in this collection of ten instrumentals from Leon Russell. One of many self-recorded and self-released albums Russell kicked out in the new millennium, this, like so many of his latter-day LPs, is stiff, sequenced, and sprightly, too clearly betraying its origins as a computerized creation. For as careful as the production sounds, the compositions often sound almost incidental, as if Russell just set up and started playing, giving the tracks their titles afterward. While there are far worse ways to spend a half-hour or so -- Russell remains a fluid, engaging player -- it's also not especially engaging, either, and it's hard to imagine anyone but the most devoted Leon Russell fan putting this on as background music.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
One of many albums Leon Russell released on his own Leon Russell Records in the new millennium, Bad Country bears a copyright of 2003 and contains a selection of 12 original songs by Russell. As the title lightly implies, this is indeed a country album, but it's not bad -- either in its quality or its sound, as the music is perfectly pleasant. There's not a lot of raunch here -- it's a clean, slightly stiff production, sounding as if it has been stitched together with MIDI, as there's no breathing room in the rhythms and a slight steely ping to his keyboards. The only soul here comes from Russell's signature drawl, which is still in good shape, and while the songs here are hardly his best, they're nice showcases for Russell as an endearingly lazy country-rock stylist. To be sure, this is just for the fans -- and it's even kind of marginal on that level -- but if it doesn't have much that's compelling, it's not hard to enjoy in passing, either.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine