Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges; April 2, 1942 – November 13, 2016) was an American musician and songwriter who was involved with numerous bestselling pop music records over the course of his 60-year career. His genres included pop, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, standards, gospel and surf records. He was awarded six gold records.
Russell c. 1980
|Born||Claude Russell Bridges
April 2, 1942
Lawton, Oklahoma, U.S
|Died||November 13, 2016
Mount Juliet, Tennessee, U.S
|Other names||Hank Wilson & Leon Russell|
|Children||Blue, Tina Rose, Teddy Jack, Sugaree, Honey, and Coco|
|Genres||Country, rock, folk, rhythm and blues, folk rock, blues rock, Tulsa Sound|
|Instruments||Vocals, piano, organ, guitar, bass guitar, mandolin|
|Labels||Capitol, Shelter Records, Paradise Records|
His collaborations rank as some of the most successful in music history, and as a touring musician he performed with hundreds of notable artists. He recorded 33 albums and at least 430 songs. He wrote "Delta Lady", recorded by Joe Cocker, and organized and performed with Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour in 1970. His "A Song for You" has been recorded by more than 200 artists, and his "This Masquerade" by more than 75.
As a pianist, he played in his early years on albums by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. On his first album, Leon Russell, in 1970, the musicians included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. One of his biggest early fans, Elton John said Russell was a "mentor" and "inspiration". They recorded their album The Union in 2010, which earned them a Grammy nomination.
Russell produced and played in recording sessions for Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, and others. He wrote and recorded the hits "Tight Rope" and "Lady Blue". He performed at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 along with Harrison, Dylan and Eric Clapton. In 2011, he was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Russell was born in Lawton, Oklahoma. He began playing the piano at the age of four. He attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Also at Will Rogers High School were Anita Bryant, who was two years older, and in the same 1959 class, David Gates. Russell and Gates played and recorded together as the Fencemen. Another student at Will Rogers at the time was Elvin Bishop. During this time Russell was already performing at Tulsa nightclubs. He took the name Leon from a friend who lent him a fake ID to get into clubs he was legally too young to perform in.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1958, Russell became a session musician, working as a pianist on the recordings of many notable 1960s musical artists. By the late 1960s, he had diversified, becoming successful as an arranger and songwriter. By 1970, he had become a solo recording artist, but he never relinquished his other roles in the music industry. After performing country music under the name Hank Wilson in the 1970s and 1980s, he largely faded into obscurity.
Russell re-emerged in 2010 when Elton John called on him to record the album that became The Union. The album, which included contributions from Brian Wilson and Neil Young, brought renewed popularity to Russell, who later released a solo album and toured around the world.
According to his wife, Jan Bridges, Russell died quietly in his sleep at his suburban Nashville home on the morning of November 13, 2016, at the age of 74. He had had a heart attack the previous July, followed by coronary bypass surgery, after which he postponed shows while convalescing at home. He had hoped to return to his concert schedule in January 2017.
Russell began his musical career at the age of 14 in the nightclubs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his group, the Starlighters, which included J. J. Cale, Leo Feathers, Chuck Blackwell and Johnny Williams, were instrumental in creating the style of music known as the Tulsa sound. After settling in Los Angeles in 1958, he studied guitar with James Burton. He was known mostly as a session musician early in his career. As a solo artist he crossed genres to include rock and roll, blues, and gospel music, playing with artists as varied as Jan and Dean, Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Delaney Bramlett, Freddy Cannon, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, the Byrds, Barbra Streisand, the Beach Boys, the Ventures, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, the Band, Bob Dylan, J. J. Cale, B. B. King, Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Russell moved from Tulsa to Los Angeles in 1958. where, as a first-call studio musician, he played on many of the most popular songs of the 1960s, including some by the Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Bobby "Boris" Pickett, and Herb Alpert. He also played piano on many Phil Spector productions, including recordings by the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, and Spector's 1963 Christmas album. He can be seen in T.A.M.I. Show playing piano with the Wrecking Crew (an informal name for the top L.A. session musicians of the 1960s), sporting short, dark, slicked-back hair, in contrast to his later look. Soon after, he was hired as Snuff Garrett's assistant and creative developer, playing on numerous number one singles, including "This Diamond Ring", by Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
In the mid-1960s he wrote or co-wrote songs, including two hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys: "Everybody Loves a Clown" (which reached the Billboard Top 40 on October 9, 1965, remaining on the chart for eight weeks and reaching number 4) and "She's Just My Style" (which entered the Billboard Top 40 on December 18, 1965, and rose to number 3). In 1964 he appeared on various TV shows, performing songs by Chuck Berry and others.
He played xylophone and bells on the 1966 single "The Joker Went Wild", sung by Brian Hyland and written by Bobby Russell (no relation to Leon). He also contributed to recording sessions with Dorsey Burnette and with Glen Campbell, whose 1967 album Gentle on My Mind credited him as "Russell Bridges" on piano, and arranged and conducted the 1966 easy-listening album Rhapsodies for Young Lovers, by the Midnight String Quartet. He co-produced and arranged hits by Tom Northcott, including "Sunny Goodge Street" in 1967, written by Donovan.
Russell released his first solo single, "Everybody's Talking 'Bout the Young", for Dot Records in 1965.
Russell and Denny Cordell established Shelter Records in 1969. The company operated from 1969 to 1981, with offices in Los Angeles and Tulsa. Shelter used Sound City Studios for recording in its early days.
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.
Russell's first commercial success as a songwriter came when Joe Cocker recorded the song "Delta Lady" for his 1969 album, Joe Cocker! The album, co-produced and arranged by Russell, reached number 11 on the Billboard 200. Russell went on to organize and perform in the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, using many of the musicians from Delaney and Bonnie's band. "Superstar", co-written by Russell, was sung by the Carpenters and other performers.
During the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, Shelter Records released his 1970 solo album, Leon Russell, which included the first recording of "A Song for You". This has become one of his best-known songs, with versions released by more than 40 different artists, including Billy Eckstine, the Carpenters, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, Helen Reddy, Whitney Houston, Elkie Brooks, Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, and Christina Aguilera. Both the Carpenters and the Temptations named an album after the song. Another song from the same album, "Delta Lady", was covered by Bobbie Gentry under the title "Delta Man" on her 1970 album Fancy. Also in 1970, Russell played piano on Dave Mason's album Alone Together, notably on the song "Sad and Deep as You".
In November 1970 Russell performed at the Fillmore East with Elton John on the same bill. Those performances have been bootlegged. Russell and John appeared on The David Frost Show with Fillmore owner Bill Graham at this time.
"Leon Russell and Friends" recorded the "Homewood Sessions", broadcast as an "unscripted and unrehearsed" one-hour TV special on KCET TV (Los Angeles) that aired in December 1970 and was later re-broadcast several times on the Public Broadcasting System.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Russell owned the Church Studio on 3rd Street (renamed Leon Russell Road in 2010 by the Pearl District Association) in Tulsa. His former home on Grand Lake, in Oklahoma, contained a dining room table and chairs made from church pews taken out of the church when it was turned into a studio.
Russell produced some tracks for Bob Dylan in March 1971 when Dylan was experimenting with his new sound. The sessions produced the single "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece", both of which prominently featured Russell's gospel-flavored piano.
At the invitation of former Delaney & Bonnie and George Harrison, Russell played piano on Badfinger's third album, Straight Up, in the summer of 1971. The piano part complemented Pete Ham's and George Harrison's dual slide guitars on Badfinger's "Day After Day". The Straight Up sessions were interrupted when many of the musicians left for New York City to participate in the Concert For Bangladesh, at which Russell performed a medley of the songs "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood" and sang a verse on Harrison's "Beware of Darkness". Bob Dylan surprised Russell by asking him to play bass for some of Dylan's portion of the show; Russell and Harrison sang harmonies on the chorus of "Just Like a Woman".
Russell was busy in 1971, as Shelter Records released Leon Russell and the Shelter People and Asylum Choir II (co-produced by Marc Benno) and recorded at Russell's Skyhill Studios. Leon Russell and the Shelter People went on to be Russell's first U.S. gold album. In the same year, Russell played on recording sessions with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.
Russell helped the blues guitarist Freddie King revive his career by collaborating on three of King's albums for Shelter Records during the early 1970s. During those same years, Russell helped himself to a share of what was then called the "country and western" market, recording and performing under the moniker Hank Wilson, and was a regular performer at Gilley's Club, a honkytonk in Pasadena, Texas, made famous by the movie Urban Cowboy.
Russell recorded the song "Get a Line on You" at Olympic Studios in October 1969, with contributions from Mick Jagger (lead vocal), Ringo Starr (drums), and probably also Bill Wyman (bass) and Mick Taylor (guitar). The recording was made during the recording sessions for the album Leon Russell (released in 1970), for which Starr and Wyman played drums and bass on some tracks, but was not included on the album; it was shelved until 1993, when it was issued as a bonus track on the 24K gold re-release by DCC Compact Classics (DCC Compact Classics GZS 1049). The Rolling Stones included the song, under the title "Shine a Light", on their 1972 album Exile on Main St..
Russell and his band hit the road in 1972 with a large-scale concert tour by Russell and his "Shelter People" entourage. A live performance was recorded in California at the Long Beach Arena on August 28, 1972, and was later released as Leon Live. In November 1972, Billboard cited Russell as a top concert draw and reported the '72 tour gross at almost $3 million. That same year, he released his Carney album, Russell's third solo studio album. The album peaked at number two on the Billboard 200. The album featured "Tight Rope" and "This Masquerade" (songs released on a 45 as the A side and B side respectively), and became his second Gold album.
Russell purchased multiple properties in the early 1970s in his home state of Oklahoma including the historic The Church Studio in 1972 located on the corner of 3rd Street and Trenton in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The church was also home to Shelter Records.
When Russell released Leon Live as a three-record set in 1973, it was his third US Gold album. The album was recorded live at Long Beach Arena, August 28, 1972.
Looking Back was released by Russell on Olympia Records in 1973, shortly after the success of his single "Tight Rope". It contains instrumental tracks recorded in the mid-1960s, featuring Russell playing the harpsichord.
Russell released Hank Wilson's Back! (Vol. 1), The album was recorded at producer Owen Bradley's barn studio in Nashville in 1973. The album made it into the Top Thirty Hits. Track one, "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms", was a minor hit.
Russell helped the group the Gap Band, a trio of Tulsa brothers, kick off their chart success in 1974. The group went on to produce several funk-disco hits. The Gap Band backed Russell on his album Stop All That Jazz.
Russell released Live In Japan on Shelter Records. The album was recorded live at Budokan Hall, in Tokyo, on November 8, 1973, and released in 1975.
Helen Reddy recorded Russell's song "Bluebird" as a single and on her album No Way to Treat a Lady, released in 1975. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in the issue of the magazine dated July 5 and reached number 35 over the course of six weeks. That same issue also marked its debut on the magazine's Easy Listening chart, where it spent eight weeks and peaked at number 5; on the RPM singles chart it reached number 51. Reddy commented on the tune, "I love Leon Russell's writing and I love this song. It was an integral part of my repertoire for nearly 30 years, and I never tired of singing it."
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 a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1977. As the writer of the song, Russell was nominated for Song of the Year but lost to Bruce Johnston, who wrote "I Write the Songs". Russell's version of "This Masquerade" Was used for the soundtrack for the psychological thriller film Bug, directed by William Friedkin (the director of The Exorcist). The Bug soundtrack was released on May 22, 2007. The song was also used in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness.
Russell released the Wedding Album, a studio album with his then wife, Mary Russell, otherwise known as Mary McCreary. It was distributed and released by Warner Bros. Records in 1976. Leon and Mary Russell were producers of the album, with the exception of the final track, "Daylight", which was produced by its writer, Bobby Womack. The Wedding Album was Paradise Records' first release.
In 1978, Russell released his Americana album on the Rhino/Warner Bros. label; the title is credited to the mix of influences that made Russell's unique musical style.
After touring with Willie Nelson, in 1979 Russell and Willie had a #1 hit on Billboards country music chart with their duet of "Heartbreak Hotel". They released their joint duet studio country pop-rock album,One for the Road, in 1979. One for the Road was his fifth Gold album.
Russell released Life And Love, an album on Paradise Records, in 1979 .
Following up on his country theme, he made a second Hank Wilson album, Hank Wilson Vol. II released in 1984, Hank Wilson being Russell's self-styled country music alter-ego since the early 1970s. Released on Leon Russell Records.
Russell released a country blues album, recorded in Hendersonville, Tennessee, at his Paradise Studios, called Solid State. It was released by Paradise Music in 1984.
Russell released Delta Lady on Del Rack Records in 1991. Many of the songs are remixes of early recordings.
Russell released a new album Anything Can Happen recorded at Paradise Studios, released on Virgin Records in 1991. Pianist Bruce Hornsby produced this comeback album. During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hornsby worked extensively as a producer and sideman with Russell.
In 1993, Paradise Records released the Leon Russell 24k Gold Disc album. It was a remix of recordings done at Olympic Sound in London in 1969.
Russell released his Hymns of Christmas, album with 10 instrumental hymns by Russell on Leon Russell Records in 1995.
Capitol/EMI Records in 1996 released the album Gimme Shelter! The Best of Leon Russell, a two-CD album set with 40-tracks covering 1969-1992.
Capitol/Right Stuff Records released in 1997 the album Retrospective, an album with Russell's 18 all-time best-selling songs.
Blues: Same Old Song CD was released on Paradise Records in 1999.
Signature Songs was released in 2001 on Leon Russell Records. It was re-released in 2007 by MRI Associated Labels.
Russell returned as Hank Wilson, but this time with a twist of bluegrass, in Rhythm & Bluegrass: Hank Wilson, Vol. 4, released in 2001 on Leon Russell Records.
Moonlight & Love Songs, an album of Russell's standards was released on Leon Russell Records in 2002.
At age 65, Russell made the new Okie rock album Angel in Disguise, which was released by Leon Russell Records in 2007.
Russell played at Diversafest, Tulsa's Music Conference and Festival in 2007. From 2002 to 2010, Dfest was an annual live event that showcased independent and emerging artists and hosted educational music industry panels and a tradeshow. Over its last four years, Dfest was held in the historic Blue Dome District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In Your Dreams was released on CD by Leon Russell Records in 2008.
Bad Country released on Leon Russell Records in 2008, with 12 original songs by Russell.
After a number of years of reduced prominence, Russell's career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him out 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. Recorded in February 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the CD was released on October 19, 2010. The Union was Russell's sixth Gold album. The recordings were interrupted in January 2010 by a health scare: Russell was hospitalized and underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak, as well as treatment for heart failure and pneumonia. On April 2, 2011, Russell and John performed together as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. Rolling Stone placed the album in third place on its list of the 30 Best Albums of 2010. A couple of months later, Russell announced plans for a solo LP, although no specifics were given, and in October 2010 Russell and John embarked on The Union Tour. Elton John and Russell also appeared on Late Show with David Letterman.
In 2011, the film The Union was released, a documentary film by Cameron Crowe exploring the creative process of musicians Elton John and Russell in the making of the 2010 album The Union. Russell played in Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth, Texas in 2013. He first played at the picnic in 1976.
On March 16, 2015, a restored version of a previously unreleased 1974 documentary about Russell, A Poem Is A Naked Person, by filmmaker Les Blank, was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The film features concert footage of Russell in New Orleans and Anaheim, and footage of the recording sessions for the album Hank Wilson's Back.
In 2015 he played at Virginia's Lockn' Festival and the Wildflower! Arts and Music Festival in Richardson, Texas. On September 11, 2015, Russell joined alumni, Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Chris Stainton and other members of the 1970 Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour for a special tribute concert to Joe Cocker organized by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Original tour photographer Linda Wolf documented the reunion and performance.
Russell extended a nationwide concert tour to enthusiastic crowds in 2016 and was planning to tour into 2017.
Death and legacyEdit
Russell died in his sleep at his suburban Nashville home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, on November 13, 2016, at the age of 74, his wife said in a statement on his website. In 2010, he had undergone surgery, and in July 2016 he suffered a heart attack. He was recovering from heart surgery. Leon Russell's funeral was on November 18 at Victory Baptist Church, in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, and a public memorial was held at The Oral Roberts University Mabee Center on November 20.
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." On hearing of Russell's death, he said: "My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me." John once recalled:
When Mr. Russell's "Greatest Hits" album came on one day during the trip, I started to cry, it moved me so much. His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, and it makes me so angry that he's been forgotten.
Pixies vocalist Black Francis credits Russell with influencing his vocal style: "I realize there's a certain kind of vocalizing I do that takes its cue from Leon Russell. He sang in a southern accent but it was very blown-out and exaggerated, very free and loose."
Leon had six children. His oldest daughter Blue was with Carla McHenry. She was born February 20, 1972 and was named Blueagle after Oklahoman and Native American Artist Acee Blue Eagle. Leon married Mary McCreary on June 20, 1975. Mary was a musical partner. They had two children, daughter Tina Rose and son Teddy Jack. Leon and Mary divorced on October 3, 1980. He married Janet Lee Constantine on February 6, 1983. They had three daughters together, Sugaree Noel (born October 9, 1982), Honey (born January 19, 1986), and Coco (born April 29, 1990).
Russell was not allowed to see his son Teddy for 10 years following his divorce from McCreary. Teddy visited his father upon reaching 18.
Studio and live albumsEdit
|Year||Album||Peak chart positions||Certifications
|US||US Country||CAN||CAN Country||NZ|
|1968||Look Inside the Asylum Choir (with Marc Benno)||201||—||—||—||—|
|1971||Leon Russell and the Shelter People||17||—||14||—||—||US: Gold|
|Asylum Choir II (with Marc Benno)||70||—||—||—||—|
|Leon Live||9||—||9||—||—||US: Gold|
|Hank Wilson's Back Vol. I||28||15||85||—||—|
|1974||Stop All That Jazz||34||—||43||—||—|
|1975||Live in Japan||—||—||—||—||—|
|Will O' the Wisp||30||—||72||—||—||US: Gold|
|1976||Wedding Album (with Mary Russell)||34||—||—||—||—|
|1977||Make Love to the Music (with Mary Russell)||142||—||—||—||—|
|1979||One for the Road (with Willie Nelson)||25||3||28||1||11||US: Gold
|Life and Love||204||—||—||—||—|
|1981||The Live Album (with The New Grass Revival)||187||—||—||—||—|
|1984||Hank Wilson, Vol. II||—||—||—||—||—|
|1992||Anything Can Happen||—||—||—||—||—|
|1995||Hymns of Christmas||—||—||—||—||—|
|1998||Legend in My Time: Hank Wilson Vol. III||—||—||—||—||—|
|1999||Face in the Crowd||—||—||—||—||—|
|Blues: Same Old Song AKA Guitar Blues||—||—||—||—||—|
|2000||Live at Gilley's||—||—||—||—||—|
|Rhythm & Bluegrass: Hank Wilson, Vol. 4 (with The New Grass Revival)||—||—||—||—||—|
|2002||Moonlight & Love Songs (with The Nashville Symphony)||—||—||—||—||—|
|2003||In Your Dreams||—||—||—||—||—|
|2005||Live but Digitally Reworked||—||—||—||—||—|
|2006||A Mighty Flood||—||—||—||—||—|
|Angel in Disguise||—||—||—||—||—|
|2010||The Union (with Elton John)||3||—||7||—||24|
|2013||The Montreux Session||—||—||—||—||—|
|2015||Prince of Peace: Radio Broadcast 1970||—||—||—||—||—|
|Riding the Northeast Trail: The New Jersey Broadcast 1979 (with Willie Nelson)||—||—||—||—||—|
|2016||The Homewood Sessions||—||—||—||—||—|
|Live and Pickling Fast (with The New Grass Revival)||—||—||—||—||—|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart.|
|Year||Album||Peak chart positions||Certifications
|1976||Best of Leon Russell||40||US: Gold|
|1996||Gimme Shelter: The Best of Leon Russell||—|
|2001||Best of Leon Russell||—|
|2009||Best of Hank Wilson||—|
|2011||The Best of Leon Russell||—|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart.|
|US Country||CAN||CAN Country||CAN AC||AUS
|1970||"Roll Away the Stone"||109||—||—||—||—||24||Leon Russell|
|1970||"A Song for You"||—||—||—||—||—||24||Leon Russell|
|1971||"A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"||105||—||—||—||—||11||Leon Russell and the Shelter People|
|1972||"Tryin' to Stay 'Live"||115||—||—||—||—||—||Asylum Choir II|
|1973||"Queen of the Roller Derby"||89||—||—||—||—||—|
|"Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms" (as Hank Wilson)||78||57||—||30||—||—||Hank Wilson's Back, Vol. 1|
|"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (as Hank Wilson)||78||—||—||—||—||—|
|1974||"A Six Pack to Go" (as Hank Wilson)||—||68||—||76||—||—|
|"If I Were a Carpenter"||73||—||87||—||—||97||Stop All That Jazz|
|1975||"Lady Blue"||14||—||44||—||18||—||Will O' the Wisp|
|1976||"Back to the Island"||53||—||—||—||33||—|
|"Rainbow in Your Eyes"||52||—||—||—||—||—||Wedding Album|
|1978||"Heartbreak Hotel" (w/ Willie Nelson)||—||1||—||1||—||—||One for the Road|
|1984||"Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues"||—||63||—||—||—||—||Solid State|
|"Wabash Cannonball" (w/ Willie Nelson, as Hank Wilson)||—||91||—||—||—||—||single only|
|1992||"Anything Can Happen"||—||—||—||—||—||—||Anything Can Happen|
|"No Man's Land"||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|2010||"If It Wasn't For Bad" (with Elton John)||—||—||—||—||—||—||The Union|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart.|
|1992||"Anything Can Happen"||Sherman Halsey|
|"No Man's Land"|
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