While his flowing silver locks and gnarly beard created his countenance and contributed to his image as a rock ‘n’ roll renegade, the fact remains that Leon Russell was one of modern music’s most talented and tenured journeyman. Russell was a valuable utility man in every sense, whether in the studio or on stage, easily adaptable to piano, guitar, bass, or whatever the scenario called for. He got his start in the days of rock’s infancy, originally as part of Phil Spector’s legendary “wall of sound” musical stable before going on to write and produce any number of signature songs that formed the buffer between the sounds of the ‘50s and those of the ‘60s, playing on multiple hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys, among dozens of others. Nevertheless, it was his own stellar solo work, first released in the early ‘70s, followed by his seeming omnipresence throughout the decades that followed which ingrained his image as a true rock legend. Here then, is a list of some of his most notable collaborations:
Russell’s first band The Starlighters marked the initial entry in what would be a long and prosperous musical career. Russell was only 14 at the time he joined the other members of the band, which included J.J. Cale and Chuck Blackwell, the latter being another musician that Russell would continue to work with later on. The group played a significant role in what would later become known as “The Tulsa Sound.” Shortly thereafter, Russell had a brief partnership with David Gates, later of the band Bread, in a group they called The Fencement.
A partnership between Russell and guitarist Marc Benno, the duo released two albums during their brief tenure together. Most of their notoriety came later, after Russell scored his own solo success. Regardless, both Look Inside the Asylum Choir and Asylum Choir II are notable curiosities, valuable precursors to Russell’s individual output.
After moving to Los Angeles in the mid ‘60s, Russell established a prodigious career as a go-to session player. In addition to his work with Phil Spector (he contributed to tracks by the Ronettes, the Crystals and Darlene Love), he also played with the legendary Wrecking Crew and penned a pair of hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys (“Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She’s Just My Style”). His list of credits expanded once again when he moved back to Tulsa and became an integral part of the Shelter Records studio stable. J.J. Cale, Bonnie and Delaney, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and the Byrds were but a few of those that took advantage of Russell’s extraordinary skills.
First Solo Album:
For an artist who had yet to garner massive recognition, Russell scored some heavy duty sidekicks when he launched his solo career with his eponymous debut album. After all, few other musicians could inspire interest from several Beatles, Stones, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker and find them lending their support. Still, it was little wonder considering the calibre of the songs — “Delta Lady,” “Shoot Out at the Plantation,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “Hummingbird” and “A Song for You” — that all showed up on that initial outing, ensuring that it would be the album he’s best remembered by.
Joe Cocker and Mad Dogs and Englishmen:
Russell’s relationship with Cocker began with the latter’s first solo album, and continued with the launch of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the ragtag big band that supported Cocker on his epic U.S. tour. Russell played the role of musical director and the flamboyant showman whose job it was was to reign in this troupe of disparate rock ‘n’ roll gypsies. He was often seen sporting an Uncle Sam-type top hat while grandstanding at the piano and lending Cocker and the entire entourage steadfast support. The expanded version of the live album recorded during that tour ought to be considered an essential acquisition.
Hank Wilson and Country Collaborations:
Not exactly a collaboration in any actual sense, Hank Wilson was actually a pseudonym for Russell himself, allowing him to revisit his love of country music with supposed anonymity. The four albums recorded under that handle were the first indication that Russell was ready to re-embrace his roots. A live album recorded with bluegrass revisionists New Grass Revival, a pair of solo efforts deftly titled Americana and Solid State, and an album recorded with Willie Nelson called One for the Road all helped reaffirm Russell’s early affinity for early Americana.
Bob Dylan and George Harrison:
Russell continued to keep company with the biggest stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, showing up as a key support player for George Harrison’s epic Concert for Bangladesh, while also taking a solo spotlight with a medley that included “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Youngblood,” In addition, he played bass during Dylan’s guest appearance. Earlier that year he shared a studio with the Bobster, producing two songs — “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” — each of which would make an appearance on Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II.
Leon and Mary Russell:
Lennon and McCartney weren’t the only rockers that enlisted their wives in their later work. Russell’s marriage to the former Mary McCready spawned the aptly titled Wedding Album. Each had a hand in the production, while ceding the final track, “Daylight” to the man that wrote it, Bobby Womack. While the union might have seemed a strange detour at the time, it’s worth remembering that as the writer of such songs as “A Song for You,” “Delta Lady” and “This Masquerade,” Russell had already revealed he was a romantic at heart.
Inspired by Russell’s signature style, which influenced his own efforts to a great degree, Bruce Hornsby produced another album of Russell reinvention, Anything Can Happen. It was the start of a partnership that found the two working together regularly throughout the late ‘80s and into the early ‘90s.
With executive producer Elton John showing his own reverence for Russell, the latter made a comeback of sorts with their 2010 collaboration, The Union. Produced by T Bone Burnett, it offered John the opportunity to show his gratitude for Russell’s influence while also reintroducing his mentor to a world with which he had largely lost touch. The result is a set of songs that ranks among the best of the later efforts of either man’s career.