I fell in love with the music of Leon Russell in 1972. I came across his then new album “Carney” in the stack of playlist music at the campus radio station one night. As I prepared my late night, progressive rock show, I placed the stylus at various places on the LP to get a quick fix on the style and sound of the record. The music hooked me instantly. I ended up airing two cuts that night. The next day, I bought myself a personal copy from the neighborhood record shop.
Claude Russell Bridges was born on this date in 1942 in Lawton, Oklahoma. He was somewhat of a child prodigy because he started his piano playing at age four. As a high school student, he was already popular in Tulsa, Oklahoma nightclubs. His combo was “The Starlighters” it included J.J. Cale in the lineup. The Starlighters were largely responsible for creating “The Tulsa Sound”.
In the 1960’s Leon Russell was a first rank studio musician in Los Angeles. His musicianship can be heard on a good share of the most popular music of the day. Some of the most noteworthy jobs included work with Herb Alpert, The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Jan & Dean, The Rolling Stones and many others.
If you are casually familiar with Leon Russell’s solo work, you might be surprised to know that he worked with Glen Campbell in 1967 on the LP “Gentle On My Mind”. The album notes list him as “Russell Bridges”. You might remember that Joe Cocker’s, Top 20 single, “Delta Lady” was arranged and produced by Leon Russell in 1969. In fact, Russell managed and performed in Cocker’s “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” tour. His co-authored song, “Superstar” was released by Rita Coolidge and figured in the success of artists Luther Vandross, The Carpenters, and “Sonic Youth”.
George Harrison invited Leon Russell to play keyboards in the 1971 recording of Badfinger’s third record, “Straight Up”. He accompanied Pete Ham’s and Harrison’s fingerings on “Day After Day”. Russell and Harrison teamed up to perform some Bob Dylan music on the “Concert For Bangladesh” set. Russell’s solo work included “Leon Russell And The Shelter People”.
The next year saw the release of the “Carney” album that I love. “This Masquerade” was remade by several singers, including, The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, and later, George Benson. Benson’s cover version reached the Top Ten and brought Russell a 1977 Grammy nomination.
Willie Nelson fans might fondly remember Leon and Willie on “Heartbreak Hotel”. In 2009, Russell, Elton John and Bernie Taupin collaborated on the double disc set, “The Union”.
As if all of these accomplishments aren’t enough, just a couple of years ago, March 14th, 2011 Leon Russell was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He was lauded as a “rock and roll Renaissance man”.
The Blue Jay of Happiness has a bit of novelty music trivia today. Leon Russell plays piano on the Hallowe’en standard, “Monster Mash” by Bobby Pickett.