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Russell, Leon (2 April 1942-13th November 2016)

Leon Russell was a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, who was a true crossover artist who fashioned a career for himself through artful collaboration and learned to play classical piano at the tender age of three.

At fourteen, he took up the trumpet and formed his first band, lying about his age to sit in on bar sessions.  The Starlighters enjoyed some early success touring with Jerry Lee Lewis.  Russell emigrated to L.A. at seventeen and found work on the club circuit.  He also turned out to be a valuable session man, sitting in with Dorsey Burnette and Glen Campbell.  An ABC television gig followed when he was asked to join the house band on a music variety program called Shindig!.

In 1969, Russell scored his first songwriting success when Joe Cocker recorded “Delta Lady”.  A year later, he unveiled his eponymous solo debut, founding his own record label to do so.  Shelter Records would go on to ink deals with an eclectic mix of artists, including The Gap Band, Tom Petty, and Phoebe Snow.  Russell’s cohorts on this solo outing included one Who’s Who of a back-up band: Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, and Bill Wyman.

In 1971, Russell and Harrison collaborated again on Badfinger’s “Day After Day”, with Leon providing those colourful piano flourishes and George tossing in his signature slide-guitar riffs.  It was a short-lived session, as George bailed out midstream and asked Leon to take part in the now legendary Concert For Bangladesh, where Russell gave The Rolling Stones a run for their money with his cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.  Ironically, he would wind up touring with the Stones before releasing his second solo album, Carney.  It provided Leon with his first hit, “Tightrope”, which peaked at #11 on the pop chart.  The album itself went to #2 on the Billboard Top 200.  One of the tracks, “This Masquerade”, was later recorded by George Benson, who won a Grammy for his soulful rendition of it.  The song made history by becoming the first song ever to go #1 on Billboard’s Jazz, Pop, and R&B charts.

Russell’s solo success continued with 1975’s Will o’ the Wisp, which went gold and yielded the top-twenty hit, “Lady Blue”.  The object of his affection was Mary McCreary, a background vocalist for Sly & The Family Stone.  They wed and subsequently released the aptly titled LP The Wedding Album and 1977’s Make Love to the Music.

Russell’s career took a turn towards country in 1979 when he hooked up with Willie Nelson for a tour and a subsequent LP, One for the Road.  The album went gold and their remake of “Heartbreak Hotel” won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.  It was not Russell’s first foray into country music.  He had already recorded an album of country music under the pseudonym Hank Wilson, an album that was coolly received but nevertheless had several follow-ups.  Around this time, Russell formed The New Grass Revival, a bluegrass outfit that released a live album circa 1981. Twenty years later, Russell joined forces with Earl Scruggs for a cover of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, which won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

He continued to tour, often with his children, Sugaree, Teddy Jack, and Tina Rose.  In 2006, he was honoured by The Bare Bones International Film Festival with a lifetime achievement award, and was also inducted into The Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.

Leon Russell had an extremely devoted fan base, including the Internet group LeonLifers, for whom he performed on 4th April, 2004.

In 2009 he worked on The Union with Elton John and Bernie Taupin which was released in 2010 and gave him his sixth gold album.  In 2014 he released the solo album Life Journey.

He was touring in 2016 with plans to extend the dates into 2017 but he had a heart attack and surgery in July of that year and died in his sleep in Nashville in November when he was 74 years old.

Leon Russell recordings
Lady Blue (Leon Russell)