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Rolling Away The Stone:  A Tribute to the Majesty of Leon Russell

Jesse Lauter | November 16, 2016

Photo by Linda Wolf

This week will forever be considered one of the darkest and strangest in recent memory. The election of Donald Trump has thrown the future of our nation into a bizarre state of uncertainty, we lost arguably the greatest songwriter in modern music with the passing of Leonard Cohen, and a certain troubadour who was a source of spiritual comfort for many entered the place where “there is no Space & Time.” Claude Russell Bridges, whom the world lovingly knew as Leon Russell, was a “Rainbow Minister & Ringleader” for the Hippie Generation, a “superstar” that shone very brightly but briefly. He was Modern Americana personified, carrying a deep understanding of all facets of popular music—rock, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, R&B, soul, funk, the Great American Songbook. The headlines bemoan the death of a “Southern Rock Legend” but Leon’s influence is palpable across the entire nation and beyond. He was loved in Red States and Blue States alike. He was the definition of the Purple State.

Genius is not a word that should be thrown around lightly but anyone who knew Leon or worked with him described him as such. He had perfect-pitch (where he could hear a car honk and identify what key it was in), a vast knowledge of history, and a keen awareness on how to direct a large school of musicians. He channeled his talents through his diverse songs-- which ranged from heart-rending ballads (such as his two most acclaimed originals, “A Song For You” and “ Superstar”) to high-energy rockers (“Delta Lady,” ”Of Thee I Sing”)-- a salt-of-the-earth voice (which he personally hated, telling me once that he thought “sounded like a cross between Tom Waits and Moms Mabley”), and a blistering style of stride & boogie-woogie piano-- a unique twist on the playing of his two heroes, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. He was a shy-man who managed to breakthrough his stage-fright with his “Cosmic Ecclesiastic” character, a persona he embodied only for a brief period (1970-1973). You can witness Leon at his prime by watching any of the following films-- Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Les Blank’s recently unearthed A Poem Is A Naked Person, 1970’s Leon Russell & Friend’s , or the very rare 1972 Long Beach concert video.

He was not only a solo artist, but an in-demand producer, arranger, and session-player, who worked with the “crème de la crème”—Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, The Band, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman, Doris Day, Gram Parsons, Dean Martin, Doug Sahm, Harry Nilsson, The Everly Brothers, BB King, Freddie King, and Joe Cocker. His impact lasted generations, giving Elton John “the recipe for his voice” and piano playing, as well as influencing The Black Crowes, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gov’t Mule, Bruce Hornsby, Widespread Panic, and the Zac Brown Band. He may have looked like an Old Sage (or even the Messiah himself), but he only lived to 74 and was to his dying day a working musician.