Leon Russell

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Leon Russell photo by Jim McCrary and Redferns
Leon Russell photo by Jim McCrary and Redferns

American musician and songwriter Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridgeson April 2, 1942, the second of John Griffith and Hester Evel (née Whaley) Bridges’ two sons at Southwestern Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Russell always favoured his left hand. He was born with cerebral palsy an injury at birth that damaged his second and third vertebrae, causing a slight paralysis in the right side of his body, most notably affecting three fingers on his right hand. This caused Russell to develop his signature left-hand-dominant piano playing style.

Both of Russell’s parents played the upright piano in their home. At the age of four Russell’s mother heard him picking out the melody to “Trust and Obey”, a hymn he had heard at church. He started taking piano lessons at age four at the Popejoy School of Music in Anadarko, a 38 mile trip to and from the family home.

Russell attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Fellow classmates included Elvin Bishop, Anita Bryant and David Gates (from Bread). His first record appearance was created while Russell was in high school in 1957. Then 15 years old, Russell played piano on “Jo-Baby”, a song written by 16 year-old Gates.

Performing while underage in clubs and bars, Russell assumed the name “Leon Russell” from a fake ID card he used to enter clubs even though he was a high school student. At the time, Oklahoma was a “dry” state, so teenagers were able to perform in clubs that ordinarily would have only been open to those over 21 years of age.

Russell was primarily a session musician in his early career. During session work he played for and with artists as varied as George Harrison, Delaney Bramlett, 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, Lynn Anderson, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

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.

Russell released his first solo record, the single ‘Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young’, for Dot Records in 1965.

Russell and music producer Denny Cordell established Shelter Records in 1969. The company operated from 1969 to 1981, with offices in Los Angeles and Tulsa. Shelter Records released “Duppy Conqueror”, reggae artist Bob Marley‘s first American single.

In 1972, DC Comics sued the record label for copyright infringement. The Shelter Records logo included an upside-down version of the well-known Superman logo.

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.

In 1970 Russell was hired by Joe Cocker to help form a band and rehearse for 48 date tour, (he had only a week to locate, audition, hire and rehearse a 10-piece band). Cocker said he had been told by US immigration authorities he had to perform “right away” or lose his visa and be deported from the US. Rita Coolidge claimed the real reason was due to threats that Cocker would be physically harmed if he didn’t comply with an order to tour.

Russell released his 1970 solo album, Leon Russell during the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. The album featured a number of guest vocalists and musicians, including Bonnie Bramlett, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ringo Starr. The album included two Russell compositions that have become best-selling standards, ‘A Song for You’ and ‘Delta Lady’.

Tom Petty, with his early band Mudcrutch, signed his first record deal with Shelter Records.

In 1973 Russell created the fictional musical personality “Hank Wilson”, and recorded the album Hank Wilson’s Back Vol. In 2010, a BBC review called Russell’s album “one of the most joyful sidebars of his career… a deeply entertaining album that, like all great country, turns melancholy and gloom into melody and dancing”.

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.

In 1976, Russell and Barbra Streisand wrote the song “Lost Inside of You” for the film soundtrack of A Star Is Born. The A Star Is Born soundtrack received a Grammy nomination.

Russell had six children: a daughter from a relationship with Carla McHenry; a son and daughter from his first marriage to Mary McCreary; and three daughters from his later marriage to Janet Lee Constantine.

After years of reduced prominence, Russell’s career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him for a new project. In November 2009, Russell worked with John and Bernie Taupin on The Union, a double album record credited equally to Russell and John.

In 2010 Russell had surgery for a brain fluid leak and was treated for heart failure. In July 2016, he suffered a heart attack and underwent heart bypass surgery.

Russell died in his sleep at his Mt. Juliet home on November 13, 2016, at the age of 74.

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.” John hosted the induction of Leon Russell into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 14, 2011.

Russell recorded more than 35 albums and also excelled as a songwriter for other performers. His A Song for You was recorded by Joe Cocker, the Carpenters, the Temptations, Neil Diamond, Lou Rawls, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and his good friend Willie Nelson.

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