Like a lot of the most influential musicians of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Leon Russell was decidedly enigmatic. He was a successful arranger, producer, writer, and session musician – with long, flowing hair that turned white early on – who from time to time found success on the pop charts as a singer. He also rivaled Harry Nilsson for the greatest disconnect between the hit songs he wrote and the ones he made popular for himself, as he was often remembered for covering other people’s material both in concert (the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) and on record (the Hank Wilson series of country covers). His style of singing could be an acquired taste, but there’s no doubting his remarkable influence over the years.
Mr. Russell’s musical career took off in the ’60s while playing piano as part of a collective called the Wrecking Crew, which also included a young Glen Campbell. Among the first hit records that included his keyboard work was “This Diamond Ring”, the first of seven top-10 hits in a row by Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965.
He went on to write hits for that band (“Everybody Loves a Clown”, “She’s Just My Style”) and to play on Glen’s award-winning cover of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind”. His song “Delta Lady” became a hit for Joe Cocker in 1969, leading him to organize Joe’s legendary 1970 “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” tour that also featured Rita Coolidge and Delaney and Bonnie.
Afterwards more and more singers were covering Leon’s compositions. His song “Hummingbird” was recorded by B.B. King for 1970’s “Indianola Mississippi Seeds” and became a staple of the blues guitarist’s set list.
During the summer of 1971, a cover of his “Superstar” became the fifth straight top-5 hit for the Carpenters.
(In 1983, Luther Vandross made the song into a quiet-storm favorite when he recorded it as a medley with a bit of the Stevie Wonder tune “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”.)
Even as his own star was rising, Leon continued to support other artists. His piano playing can be heard on the 1971 top-10 Badfinger classic “Day After Day” – along with the guitar work of George Harrison!
After hitting #2 on the album charts with “Carney” in 1972, Leon wouldn’t have another major success until his song “Lady Blue” made the top-20 in 1975. That same year, Helen Reddy’s rendition of his tune “Bluebird” became a top-40 hit – and she’s stated in liner notes for one of her greatest-hits collections that she never tired of singing it.
In 1976 guitarist George Benson had his first top-10 hit on the pop and R&B charts after more than a decade of recording with his take on Leon’s “This Masquerade” – which would later win the Grammy award for Record of the Year.
His most endearing song may very well be one that has never been a major hit on any chart. Just like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, it’s become a go-to song for singers auditioning for a televised talent show. “A Song For You” was memorably covered by Donny Hathaway in 1971, leading to covers over time by the Carpenters, the Temptations, Herbie Hancock with Christina Aguilera, and Simply Red. The late Ray Charles won a Grammy for his stirring 1993 interpretation.
I saw Leon Russell in early 2010 at the Tarrytown Music Hall, and while it wasn’t as memorable for me as it appeared to be for others around me, I could appreciate his talent and showmanship. Around that same time he was dealing with health issues, but was still able to complete a duets album with Elton John that would become the biggest hit in years for both men later that year, rising to #3 on the charts. He was scheduled for four concerts in the NY/NJ/CT area in early 2017, but he did not fully recover from a heart attack this past July, and he passed away this weekend at age 74. Much like with Leonard Cohen, it may only be with a deeper examination of Leon Russell’s catalog that people can recognize and appreciate the scope of his accomplishments.