Leon Russell’s death, at age 74, on November 13, serves as a reminder of just how monumental, and ubiquitous, he was throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Following those years, Russell stepped out of the limelight but he almost never stopped making music.
In 2010, after many years of lying low, Russell collaborated on a new album, The Union, with longtime fan Elton John. It was Russell’s most successful album since 1972, reaching #3 on the Billboard chart, and he followed it in 2014 with Life Journey, a set of covers of songs by everyone from Robert Johnson to Billy Joel.
Upon the release of that album, Russell spoke with Best Classic Bands’ editor Jeff Tamarkin. Most of the career-spanning conversation has never before been published. Here it is in its entirety.
Best Classic Bands: What was the first music you remember hearing when you were growing up in Oklahoma and thinking, I want to do this?
Leon Russell: I heard a Sam Cooke record of “Summertime,” which was actually a B-side of “You Send Me.” I was really taken with that. I knew that song but I’d never heard it sound like that before. There were so many.
What did you play when you first started on piano?
LR: I started with classical music when I was 4 and I studied for 10 years. But I had a birth injury that kind of paralyzed me on one side and I was having a hard time learning that music, so I mostly had to figure out stuff that I could play myself.
You played with [future singer-songwriter] J.J. Cale when you were coming up. What did you do together?
LR: We didn’t actually play much together. I first saw him on television when he played with an Elvis imitator. I thought he was quite spectacular. Then he was hired to play a show at the Rose Room one time, which was a black nightclub. He asked me to help him with the band. That’s the only time I can remember playing with him back in Tulsa.
What stands out to you from your days with [the studio musicians known as] the Wrecking Crew?
LR: I played on an Aretha Franklin record at Columbia one time. After she got done singing, all the violin players tapped their stands with their bows, which was quite an aggressive move for string players. And I got to play with Sam Cooke on one of his records. I played with Johnny Mathis. I played with a whole bunch of great singers.
Was playing in the house band on [the ’60s rock TV show] Shindig! fun for you?
LR: Yeah, I guess so. It was something I’d never done before. Jack Good was the producer and he had, in my opinion, odd taste in music. He wanted to make me a star and wanted me to sing every week and he wanted to film me walking up a ramp so the audience could see my limp.
You played on a recording by the Byrds, correct?
LR: I played on their first record. That was a studio band except for the 12-string player [Roger McGuinn] when they were first starting out.
What do you remember about working with Phil Spector?
LR: He really didn’t have much faith in the ability of his audience to appreciate music. When I first met him he made a cross with his fingers and said, “Play dumb.”
What about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys?
LR: Brian, on the other hand, was a musical genius. I’ve played with him on records where there’d be 20 musicians in the room sitting around in a huge circle. He’d start at one end and sing the first musician their part, and then go to the second one and sing their part, all the way around the circle, and by the time he got around to the first one they had forgotten their part and he’d do it all again. That’s the way he taught those parts. Amazing.
After doing all these sessions, you went off on your own. What was behind that decision?
LR: I love it how you guys [journalists] think that I know what I’m doing. (laughs) I don’t know—I played a lot of sessions and I played on Joe Cocker’s sessions and I thought this was a good opportunity to get some tunes. So after the session I played a couple of tunes for [record producer] Denny Cordell and he was quite taken by the different persona that I exhibited when I was playing than when I was playing on the records. I always kept my mouth shut when I was playing on the records and when I was playing songs it was a different feeling.
What do you remember about Cocker and the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour?
LR: He listened to records and he made a list of the people that he heard on the records that he liked, and he’d have somebody dig ’em all up and put ’em all in a room and say, “Let’s make a record.” (laughs) Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Joe apparently had fired his band [the Grease Band] in England and he had 50 shows to do. The musicians’ union was giving him some problems so him and Denny came over to my house and asked me to put a band together for him, and a lot of my friends were out of work so I put it together.
After a while your songs started to become hits for other artists. Ray Charles had a hit with “Song for You.”
LR: Yeah, I wrote that song for him in the first place. I was trying to write a song that both Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra could sing.
Do you have a favorite cover of that song?
LR: Donny Hathaway had a very nice one.
How did “This Masquerade” get to George Benson?
LR: [Producer] Tommy [LiPuma] cut it. He used to talk about George Benson—“He’s a great singer, he’s a great player. I can’t understand why he’s not a huge star.” So Tommy ended up cutting that song with him and that started his career.
How did you come to be involved with the Bangladesh benefit concert with George Harrison?
LR: Ravi Shankar was from Bangladesh and Willie Nelson told me years later that the United States government convinced them to stop growing hemp, which was their main product—they made baskets and blankets and everything out of it. So they quit making it and when they got rid of their hemp crops, the topsoil all washed away and there was a huge famine. So Ravi asked George Harrison to see if he couldn’t help raise some money for the starving people over there. George asked me to help him.
Watch a rehearsal of the 1971 concert. That’s Russell singing lead on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” He can be seen briefly, behind Eric Clapton…
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Tell me about your first country album, Hank Wilson’s Back.
LR: There’s four volumes. I have an album out [from 2009] called The Best of Hank Wilson. I was taking a car back to Tulsa and I went into a truck stop and there were thousands of hillbilly cassettes in there. They were three dollars apiece and I bought a hundred dollars’ worth and listened to them on the way home. I knew some of the songs so I said, I think I’m gonna go to Nashville and cut some of these songs.” I cut 26 songs in two-and-a-half days.
Why did you start your own label, Shelter Records?
LR: That all came from my meeting with Cordell on the Cocker record. I told him I’d always hoped to have a record company some day and we ended up forming Shelter Records.
Technology aside, how has the process of making records changed for you over the years?
LR: Not for me. I spent all my money on studios. I’ve had studios in my house the last 45 years. I spent so much money on the studios I didn’t have a chance to spend any money on musicians, so on most of my records I played everything myself. This new record [Life Journey] costs more than all the records I did in my life put together. The big bands cost a lot of money, and the big studios.
Why did you call the album Life Journey? Do you feel it represents where you’ve been throughout your career?
LR: Well, it didn’t even come up until about halfway through the project. It just kind of popped into my head that I was saying some stuff that I’d always done and some stuff that I’d always wanted to do and never had. It struck me as a life journey.
Why did you choose Tommy LiPuma to produce it?
LR: I met Tommy 45 years ago when he was a promotion man for Liberty Records. He had always wanted to produce records but at that time he was a promotion man and I was making demos for Jackie DeShannon and I just happened to meet him at the Liberty offices. He eventually cut one of my songs that launched George Benson’s career and he cut many great Diana Krall albums and tons of stuff. I ran into him at the Montreux Festival and Elton John was kind of insisting that I have a producer—although I always made my own records—and he was there so I asked him if he had time to do it and he said, ‘I’ll make time.’
You first worked with Elton on the previous record, The Union , which was a duets set with him. How did that come about?
LR: Well, I’d had an operation right before The Union. I was lucky to be there at all. I was in a little bit better shape when I did this record. Elton had asked me to do that and I really didn’t want to get in the way. I make my own records. I’m used to running the sessions, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to do that because I felt he had such specific ideas in mind.
Were you surprised when The Union sold as well as it did?
LR: Well, Elton sells about 20,000 seats seven days a week around the world, so what kind of surprise is that? (laughs)
Did it bother you when people called that album your comeback?
LR: No. People say what they’re aware of. I’ve been playing constantly my entire life. I did take off two years at the height of my success. It was getting hard on me. But in general I’ve been playing the whole time, just for 500 people instead of 30,000.
You’re finally in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you?
LR: I don’t usually get invited to join anything. (laughs) But that was all Elton’s deal. He got me in there. I was very thankful.
What’s left for you to do?
LR: I just like to keep moving forward. I’m sure some stuff will come up. I’m happy to have a job!
Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.