Nov 13, 2016: Leon Russell, Musician and Songwriter—Obituary

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Leon Russell, April 2, 1942 - November 13, 2016

Leon Russell, April 2, 1942 – November 13, 2016

The string of classic rock deaths in 2016 continued with the news that legendary musician and songwriter Leon Russell died November 13, 2016, in his sleep at his Nashville home. The announcement was made on his website. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had suffered a heart attack in July of that year, in the midst of a summer tour. Prior to that, in 2010, he underwent surgery to stop leaking brain fluid. The cause of death was not disclosed.

His legacy is that of both a musician and songwriter. Russell was inducted into both the Rock Hall and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011. Among the many hit songs he wrote was “Superstar,” which he co-wrote and which became best known for the Carpenters’ version. “Rita Coolidge was the first person I ever heard use that word, ‘superstar,'” he said in the documentary, Singing This Song For You. “She was talking about Dionne Warwick, who was down in Memphis cutting a record, and Rita said ‘She was the first superstar I ever saw.’ So that kind of struck me, I was not familiar with the word, and I started trying to started trying to write [the song], and I ended up finishing it with Bonnie Bramlett.”

He was also a member of the collective of Los Angeles-based musicians known as the Wrecking Crew that performed the music on hundreds of successful 1960s songs by acts including Jan and Dean, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and The Byrds.

Many music legends paid tribute to Russell upon his passing. Elton John wrote, “He was a mentor, inspiration & so kind to me. I loved him and always will.” Cat Stevens called him “a great influence and songwriter.” And George Benson described him as “my musical brother.”

Related: Fellow musicians offer tributes to Russell

Russell became a member of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and organized Joe Cocker’s legendary 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. He also performed at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in New York, at which Russell performed a medley of  “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Young Blood” and sang a verse on Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness.”

As a solo artist, Russell earned five gold albums. His first album was Look Inside the Asylum Choir (along with Marc Benno and the Asylum Choir), in 1968, followed in 1970 by his first proper solo album (which was self-titled) and more than three dozen others. It was 1972’s Carney that proved his most successful, reaching #2 on the albums chart. The album included his biggest hit single, the #11 “Tight Rope,” as well as its B-side, “This Masquerade,” which George Benson covered and had a huge hit with in 1976. (It earned Russell a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.)

Russell also released four volumes of country standards under the pseudonym Hank Wilson, and several live albums, beginning with Leon Live in 1973, a top 10 hit. He released a collaborative effort, Make Love to the Music, in 1977 with his then-wife Mary Russell, one with Willie Nelson in 1979 called One For the Road and, in 1981, The Live Album with New Grass Revival. He also released a Christmas album, a set produced by Bruce Hornsby and a blues guitar album. His most recent studio release was 2014’s Life Journey.

Russell played with a who’s-who of musicians during his accomplished career, including fellow legends Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Glen Campbell and the Rolling Stones. He also co-wrote Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “She’s Just My Style” and “Everybody Loves a Clown” (and played piano on their first hit, “This Diamond Ring”), “Delta Lady,” a hit for Cocker, and many other songs.

He was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Okla., on April 2, 1941, and began playing piano at age 4. Russell  was slightly paralyzed on his right side due to a birth injury, causing a limp, but learned how to play trumpet, guitar and other instruments as well as piano. He took on the first name Leon and by age 14 was performing professionally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, nightclubs. His early band the Starlighters included future singer-songwriter J.J. Cale and Russell also played in a Tulsa band with David Gates, later of the group Bread. Russell and his own band were hired to back Jerry Lee Lewis on tour while Leon was still in his teens.

In the late ’50s, Russell moved to Los Angeles, where he found work as a session musician, arranger and songwriter, and by the mid-’60s he was in great demand, performing on dozens of hit records by other artists. He became a member of the house band the Shindogs on the mid-’60s rock music variety program Shindig!, where he was often given solo spots in which he sang as well as play. He also appeared in The T.A.M.I. Show, the all-star 1964 live concert film starring James Brown, the Rolling Stones and others. He cut his first solo single, “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young,” in 1965 for Dot Records.

Related: Our extensive 2014 interview with Leon Russell

In 1969, Russell launched Shelter Records along with producer Denny Cordell and, that same year, Russell served as co-producer, arranger and musician on Joe Cocker’s self-titled second album,  which included Russell’s song “Delta Lady.” Russell was then recruited by Cocker to put together an ensemble for a large-scale road tour and he assembled the aforementioned Mad Dogs & Englishmen, using many of the same musicians with whom he’d worked with Delaney & Bonnie.

A previously unreleased 1974 documentary film about Russell, A Poem Is A Naked Person, by filmmaker Les Blank, was screened at SXSW in 2015.

Watch a nearly unrecognizable, short-haired Leon Russell perform Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” in 1965 on Shindig! And yes, that’s Glen Campbell on banjo.

Related: Saying farewell in 2016 to so many rock greats

Best Classic Bands Staff

4 Comments so far

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  1. Karon
    #1 Karon 13 November, 2016, 13:59

    To lose Leon Russell and J.J. Cale was to lose the soul of Blues/Rock. Rest in peace my friends.

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  2. Friar Tuck
    #2 Friar Tuck 14 November, 2018, 10:42

    Leon was simply great, and he seemed to be everywhere and around everyone in music, much like Al Kooper.
    Many of his songs are funky/bluesy, and “This Masquerade” and “A Song for You” are simply beautiful and may last forever. Let’s hope so.

    Reply this comment
  3. Johnnie g
    #3 Johnnie g 14 November, 2018, 23:30

    Quicksilver Messenger Service.
    What ever happen to Gregg Elmore ?

    Reply this comment
  4. Rita
    #4 Rita 22 November, 2023, 23:37

    Love, love, love this man and his music I used to watch him on PBS did not know he was so well-known at the time got to see him twice live

    Reply this comment

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