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 during his 60-year career. His genres included pop, country, rock, folk, gospel, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, folk rock, blues rock, surf, standards, and Tulsa Sound.
Russell c. 1970
Claude Russell Bridges|
April 2, 1942
Lawton, Oklahoma, U.S.
November 13, 2016 (aged 74)|
Mount Juliet, Tennessee, U.S.
|Other names||Leon Russell, Hank Wilson|
|Children||Blue, Tina Rose, Teddy Jack, Sugaree, Honey, and Coco|
|Genres||Pop, country, rock, folk, gospel, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, folk rock, blues rock, surf, standards, Tulsa Sound|
|Labels||Capitol Records, Shelter Records, Paradise Records, Warner Bros. Records|
|Associated acts||J. J. Cale, Marc Benno, New Grass Revival, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Elton John, Rita Coolidge, Joe Cocker|
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", added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2018, 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 an "inspiration". They recorded their album The Union in 2010, which earned them a Grammy nomination.
Russell produced and played in recording sessions for, among others Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, and The Rolling Stones. 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 Clapton.
Russell attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, alongside Anita Bryant, who was two years older, and in the same 1959 class as power-pop musician David Gates. Russell and Gates played and recorded together as the Fencemen. Also attending Will Rogers at that time was guitarist and singer-songwriter 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, the 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.
In Los Angeles, Russell played as a first-call studio musician on many of the most popular songs of the 1960s, including some by The Byrds, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Bobby Pickett, and Herb Alpert. He also played piano on many Phil Spector productions, including recordings by The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love and in the 1963 A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector album. He can be seen in the 1964 concert film T.A.M.I. Show playing piano with The Wrecking Crew (an informal name for the top Los Angeles 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 & 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 (playing either piano or lead guitar) 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.
"Leon Russell and Friends" recorded the "Homewood Sessions", broadcast as an "unscripted and unrehearsed" one-hour TV special on KCET (Los Angeles) that aired in December 1970 and was later re-broadcast several times on the Public Broadcasting Service.
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 profited from what was then called the "country and western" market by 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 film 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  In November 1972, Billboard cited Russell as a top concert draw and reported the 1972 tour gross at almost $3 million.
Also in 1972, he released his Carney album, which was his 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 released the album Hank Wilson's Back! (Vol. 1), which 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 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 1975 album No Way to Treat a Lady. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in the July 5th issue of the magazine and eventually peaked at number 35. 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 said, "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 Record of the Year at the 1977 Grammy Awards. As the song writer, Russell was nominated for Song of the Year in 1977 but lost to Bruce Johnston, who wrote "I Write the Songs". 
In 1976, Russell released the Wedding Album, a studio album with his then wife, Mary Russell, otherwise known as Mary McCreary. It was the first release by Paradise Records, and it was distributed by Rhino/Warner Bros. Records. Leon and Mary were the album producers, except for the final track "Daylight", which was produced by its writer Bobby Womack.
After touring with Willie Nelson, Russell and Nelson in 1979 had a #1 hit on Billboards country music chart with their duet of "Heartbreak Hotel". This single was nominated for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group at the 1979 Grammy Awards (presented on February 27, 1980), with the award going to the Charlie Daniels Band for "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". They also released their duet country pop-rock studio album, One for the Road, that year. It was Russell's fifth gold album. The album was nominated for 1979's Album of the Year awarded by the Country Music Association, which went to Kenny Rogers for The Gambler. The track "I Saw the Light" was nominated for Best Inspirational Performance at the 1979 Grammy Awards, which instead went to B. J. Thomas for his album You Gave Me Love (When Nobody Gave Me A Prayer).
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.
Russell and the others who played on the "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" tract each won Grammy Awards for Best Country Instrumental Performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards, which were presented on February 27, 2002.
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 years of reduced prominence, Russell's career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him 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 when 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. John and Russell also appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Russell and John were nominated for their tract "If It Wasn't for Bad", from their The Union album, for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals at the 2010 Grammy Awards, which were presented on February 13, 2011.
In 2011, the documentary film The Union by Cameron Crowe was released. It explored the creative process of 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 had 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 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 Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Chris Stainton, and other members of the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour for a tribute concert to Joe Cocker organized by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Original tour photographer Linda Wolf documented the reunion and performance.
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. 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. I loved him and always will." 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 realise there's a certain kind of vocalising 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."
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|
|U.S.||U.S. Country||Canada||Canada Country||New Zealand|
|1968||Look Inside the Asylum Choir (with Marc Benno)||201||—||—||—||—|
|1971||Leon Russell and the Shelter People||17||—||14||—||—||U.S.: Gold|
|Asylum Choir II (with Marc Benno)||70||—||—||—||—|
|Leon Live||9||—||9||—||—||U.S.: 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||—||—||U.S.: 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||U.S.: 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)||—||—||—||—||—|
|2017||On a Distant Shore||—||—||—||—||—|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart.|
|Year||Album||Peak chart positions||Certifications|
|1976||Best of Leon Russell||40||U.S.: 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.|
|U.S. Country||Canada||Canada Country||Canada AC||Australia|
|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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