Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges, April 2, 1942) is an American musician and songwriter, who has recorded as a session musician, sideman, and maintained a solo career in music.
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, he studied guitar with James Burton. Known mostly as a session musician early in his career, as a solo artist he has crossed genres to include rock and roll, blues, and gospel music, playing with artists as varied as Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Gram Parsons, Delaney Bramlett, 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 and the Rolling Stones.
As a first call studio musician in Los Angeles, Russell 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 can be seen in 1964’s 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/creative developer, playing on numerous #1 singles, including “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. He wrote or co-wrote two hit songs for Gary Lewis and Playboys: “Everybody Loves a Clown” (which hit the Billboard Top 40 on October 9, 1965, remaining on the chart for eight weeks and rising to number 4) and “She’s Just My Style” (which hit Billboard′s Top 40 on December 18, 1965, and rose to number 3). He played xylophone and bells on the 1966 single “The Joker Went Wild”, sung by Brian Hyland and penned by Bobby Russell (no relation to Leon). He also worked sessions with Dorsey Burnette and Glen Campbell on Campbell’s 1967 album Gentle on My Mind, where he was credited as “Russell Bridges” on piano, and arranged and conducted the 1966 easy listening album Rhapsodies for Young Lovers by the Midnight String Quartet.
In 1969 and 1970, Russell worked as a member of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, playing guitar and keyboards on their albums and as part of the touring band. Here 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 #11 on the Billboard 200. Russell went on to organize—using many of the musicians from Delaney & Bonnie’s band—and perform in the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. “Superstar”, co-written by Russell, was sung by Rita Coolidge on that tour and album. It later proved a success for the Carpenters, Luther Vandross, Sonic Youth 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 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. Also in 1970, Russell played piano on Dave Mason’s album, Alone Together, most notably on the song “Sad and Deep as You”.
In December 1970 “Leon Russell and friends” recorded the “Homewood Sessions”, broadcast as an “unscripted and unrehearsed” one-hour TV special on KCET TV (Los Angeles) and later re-broadcast several times on the Public Broadcasting System.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Russell owned the Church Recording Studio on 3rd Street (renamed Leon Russell Road in 2010 by The Pearl District Association) in Tulsa. http://thislandpress.com/05/09/2012/the-making-of-leon-russell-road/?page_num=1. His former home on Grand Lake, Oklahoma, contained a dining room table and chairs made from church pews taken out of the church when it was turned into a studio.
In March, 1971, Russell produced some tracks for Bob Dylan, who was experimenting with his 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.
During the summer of 1971, at the invitation of former Delaney & Bonnie band-mate George Harrison, Russell played piano on Badfinger’s third album, Straight Up. The piano part complemented Pete Ham 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.” Russell (on bass guitar and vocals) and Harrison (on electric guitar and vocals) also backed up Bob Dylan’s set.
A busy year for Russell, 1971 also brought the Shelter release of Leon Russell and the Shelter People and Asylum Choir II (which was co-produced by Marc Benno). That same year, Russell played on recording sessions with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.
Russell helped blues guitarist Freddie King to revive his career by collaborating with him on three of his albums for Shelter during the early 1970s. During those same years, Russell helped himself to a nice share of what was then called the “County and Western” market, recording and performing under the moniker Hank Wilson, and was a regular performer at Gilley’s Club, the Pasadena, Texas, honkytonk made famous in Urban Cowboy.
Russell in 2009
1972 was highlighted by 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 released as the Leon Live album. In November 1972, Billboard cited Russell as a top concert draw and reported the ’72 tour gross at almost $3 million.
Russell’s song, “This Masquerade”, the B-side of his 1972 hit single “Tight Rope”, went on to be recorded by numerous artists, including Helen Reddy and The Carpenters. George Benson’s version of the song reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Leon and then-wife Mary Russell were musical guests on the May 15, 1976, episode of Saturday Night Live in its first season, hosted by Dyan Cannon. In 1976 Russell was Grammy Award nomination for Song of the Year in 1977.
In 1979, Russell and Willie Nelson had a number-one hit on the Billboard country music chart with their duet of “Heartbreak Hotel”. Russell spent the next two years touring with the New Grass Revival, and released two more albums with Paradise before the label folded.
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 together with John and Bernie Taupin on The Union, a double album record credited equally to both Russell and John. Recorded in February 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the CD was released on October 19, 2010. 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.
Russell’s current[when?] band line-up includes long-time bass player Jackie Wessel, Brandon Holder on drums, multi-instrumentalist Beau Charron, and grandson Payton Goodner on percussion.