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Relix Revisted: Leon Russell’s Life Journey

November 14, 2016

The great Leon Russell passed away over the weekend. As we reflect on his passing, we share this article which originally ran in the July_August 2014 issue of Relix following the release of  his final studio album, Life Journey.

Leon Russell is answering questions about his half-century career when he stops mid-sentence. “I love it how you guys think that I know what I’m doing,” he says with a chuckle. He’s not being or evasive, just pointing out the seeming randomness of his trajectory—from a young rocker in Oklahoma to the inner circle of the heady Los Angeles studio scene of the ‘60s, onward to mega-stardom as a solo artist in the ‘70s, followed by years of relative obscurity and then, in 2010, a call from Elton John that ultimately threw him back in the spotlight.

Russell had a tremendous influence on John, and the global superstar was disheartened to learn that this once-prominent singer/songwriter/pianist was now playing 500-seat clubs instead of the larger venues that he once inhabited. Together, they recorded The Union, which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard—not only Russell’s highest-charting album since 1972’s classic Carney but also John’s best-seller since 1976.

For Russell, the album’s success wasn’t all that surprising. “Elton sells about 20,000 seats seven days a week around the world, so what kind of surprise is that?” he asks. Which is why Life Journey, Russell’s new release on UMe, is so important to him. Although John is credited as executive producer—“He paid for it,” Russell says—the recording is all about Leon, and it’s his best work in decades.

Produced by Tommy LiPuma, who Russell has known since the ‘60s and whose recent projects include Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom, Life Journey showcases Russell on a wide variety of covers and two new originals. Here, he traverses through everything from Robert Johnson (“Come on in My Kitchen”) to Billy Joel (“New York State of Mind”), to standards such as “Georgia on My Mind,” “Fever” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” For some of the tracks, Russell sticks to the basic rock band configuration, while on others, he uses the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra for full-on, big band arrangements. “This record costs more than all the records I did in my life put together,” Russell says.

At age 72, Russell’s singing and playing are as vital as ever, even if the rest of him isn’t. He’s experienced a number of health scares in the past few years, while the resurgence of interest in his music has finally scored him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As for that, it’s absurd that it took this long. Leon Russell’s contributions to music are abundant and significant.

His story starts in Tulsa at age four when he first put his fingers to a piano. Like many, he played classical music at first. “I had a birth injury that kind of paralyzed me on one side and I was having a hard time learning that music,” he says, “so I mostly had to figure out stuff that I could play myself.” By his teens he was playing with local rock-and-roll bands, but it all really came together when he moved to LA in the early ‘60s. Russell’s piano can be heard on countless recordings from the era—by everyone from The Beach Boys and The Byrds to Frank Sinatra. “I played with a whole bunch of great singers,” he says understatedly, ticking off names like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Johnny Mathis  

As a member of the storied Wrecking Crew, Russell worked with the greatest producers in the business. When the topic turns to Phil Spector, he says, “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.’ Brian Wilson, on the other hand, was a musical genius. 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.” Russell was also in the house band on TV’s weekly rock showcase Shindig! and on The T.A.M.I. Show, the all-star 1964 live concert film starring James Brown, The Rolling Stones and others. By the end of that decade though, he was ready to strike out on his own as a performer and songwriter. It was during Russell’s tenure with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen that he started placing his songs with other artists prolifically—Cocker cut his “Delta Lady,” Ray Charles and others interpreted his “A Song For You,” and there were dozens more.

In 1971, while Russell’s star was on the rise, George Harrison recruited him to take part in the Concert for Bangladesh, which further boosted his profile.

“Ravi Shankar asked George to help raise some money for the  starving people over there and George asked me to help him,” Russell recalls. Later that decade, jazz guitarist/singer George Benson had his major commercial breakthrough with Russell’s  “This Masquerade,” but by the '80s, Russell started to recede from the scene.

Russell never stopped though, and he bristles when the word  “comeback” is invoked. “People just say what they’re aware of,” he says, “but I’ve been playing constantly my entire life. I just like to keep moving forward. I’m just happy to have a job!”