10 Great Leon Russell Moments

leonrussell2It’s almost as if this year’s run on Rock stars took a break for the election campaign and then started up again once it was over. Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell gone within a couple of days, christ, I would go through another nausea-inducing election campaign if it meant keeping our musical giants alive. Maybe.

Leon Russell was one of those Rock artists who reached their greatest fame and highest creative peak in the late 60s-early 70s. It was a time of such artistic freedom for songwriters and musicians before the big money moved in and changed a bunch of things. After that Russell found a low-profile roots niche for his creativity, until an unexpected career revival late in his life tied a lovely ribbon onto his complete body of work.

Here is a chronological look at some high points in an exceptional Rock career.

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1. Monster Mash – Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett (1962)

Leon Russell began playing classical piano at age four and was playing in legitimate Rock & Roll bands at fourteen. He passed the 10,000-hour threshold for mastering a craft very early in life. By 20 he was the in-demand session piano player on the L.A. scene and played on hundreds of songs, and I always picture him banging away with his lively chording style that breathed eternal life into this stupid song.


2. Jambalaya – Leon Russell (1965)

His obvious talents led him to perform as a solo act in the mid-sixties, and I can’t quite figure out why he wasn’t more successful at the time. Handsome with the slicked-back hair, a great voice and man could he play. This clip ends abruptly but good lord it Rocks for 1965.


3. Delta Lady – Joe Cocker (1969)

Russell’s first big success as a songwriter was this doozy written specifically for his friend Joe Cocker. Russell was one of the great Rock collaborators of all time. He and Cocker shared a similar soul-and-sandpaper vocal style and a love of brassy, barrelhouse Rock. This is a band absolutely on fire, and this album set both their careers on fire too.


4. The Homewood Session – Leon Russell And Friends (1970)

This video is an amazing cultural artifact, an unscripted and unrehearsed performance originally aired on the local Los Angeles public television station. Russell apparently believed network TV didn’t give contemporary music a fair hearing so he decided to go local. It’s a hilarious glimpse into community TV circa 1970, but more importantly, Russell’s incandescent talents are at their peak and on sometimes-astonishing display.


5. Young Blood / Jumpin’ Jack Flash – The Concert For Bangladesh (1971)

Leon Russell befriended George Harrison through Delaney and Bonnie, and ended up delivering one of the highlights of George’s groundbreaking benefit concert. And one of the greatest Stones covers ever. Check out this amazing rehearsal clip for the show which has Russell setting the tone on a sweet little jam with George, Eric and Ringo.


6. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Leon Russell (1971)

For a guy who was such a talented songwriter, Russell had no reservations at all about recording and performing great songs written by others. He could bring such a new feel to an old song. Compare his distinctive scratchy all-out vocal style here with the more restrained vocal approach he took back in 1965. Russell helped invent a unique style of singing that has influenced Rockers ever since.


7. This Masquerade – Leon Russell (1972)

Now this is how you write a song. A probing, soaring melody perfectly serving a deceptively simple lyric that says so much with so little. George Benson had a massive hit with it mostly because the song is just so goddam good.


8. A Song For You – Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles (2003)

A performance from Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday concert, and what a thrill it must have been for Leon Russell to watch The Father of Soul having a go at his masterpiece. You can’t tell if Leon was as moved as Willie was. “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time”.


9. Leon Russell Induction Into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (2011)

This is a must-watch, with Elton John giving a nice speech about how important Leon Russell was to him and to Rock music in general. Amazing to hear how many artists Russell played with, and there’s a good little film summary of his career. Leon’s a bit frail at this point, but boatloads of soul still come shining through in the live performance.


10. I Should Have Sent Roses – Elton John and Leon Russell (2011)

It was a beautiful, generous act by Elton to record a new album of original songs with Russell, who was suffering physically and financially due to illness. But Elton also made it clear he wanted to make sure everyone remembered what an important artist Leon Russell truly was. The album The Union was a fine coda to the amazing career of a bonafide Rock original who was there at the very start of it all. He shall be remembered as one of the greats.

Photo: By Carl Lender (Commons: File:Leon Russel April 2009.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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