Only a few names are revered in the Rock & Roll world as those of Leon Russell. Recognized as one of the genre’s greatest contributors, Russell wrote and recorded several songs that made it to the top charts and were recognized at Grammy Awards. As a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Leon Russell has recorded music from a variety of genres including Rock & Roll, Pop, Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Gospel, and R&B. His influence is so great that his 1970 single A Song for You was performed and covered by over 200 artists in various genres. The song is also in the Grammy Hall of Fame!
Leon Russell’s Fact Card
The story of Leon Russell began in the US state of Oklahoma. He was born as Claude Russell Bridges in the city of Lawton but spent many of his formative years in the big city of Tulsa. Born on April 2, 1942, he studied classical piano at the age of three and began playing at the age of four. He attended Will Rogers High School together with the American songwriter, musician, and producer David Gates. Together they began to play and record as the Fencemen. When he was 14 years old, Russell got his first gig after lying about his age in a nightclub in Tulsa. With a fake ID given to him by a friend, the Hall of Famer started to run under the name of Leon.
When he performed in a nightclub he played behind Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. He continued to play in high school and was recruited by Jerry Lee Lewis to join his touring group when he graduated. When he was sixteen years old, Leon Russell moved to Los Angeles and received guitar training from the legendary James Burton. During his stay in LA, he quickly rose through the ranks of the nightclubs and became one of the most sought-after session musicians in town.
Inside His Music Career
After settling in Los Angeles, Russell built his recording studio in 1967 and began recording his music. Together with guitarist Marc Benno, he released the critically acclaimed LP Look Inside the Asylum Choir. In 1969 he released his first solo LP, Leon Russell, which featured the highly acclaimed A Song for You. In the early 70s, Russell continued his influential roles outside the spotlight.
Russell appeared as a member of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends on their 1969 and 1970 tours, playing guitar and keyboard. In 1971 he was part of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. Focusing on his solo career, Russell released Leon Russell and the Shelter People in ’71, followed by Carney in ’72, and Carney took second place on the US billboard. Russell further cemented his place as a top performer with Leon Live, a set of three LPs released in ’73.
Leon further cemented his place in history with Stop All That Jazz (1974), Will O’ the Wisp (1975) and The Wedding Album (his collabo with his wife Mary McCreary in 1976). From 1980 to ’82 Russell toured the USA with his bluegrass band, the New Grass Revival. They released the live album in 1981. For the rest of the ’80s, Russell stayed out of the music business and reappeared in ’92 to release Anything Can Happen. It was not as well-received as his earlier work, and the Hall of Famer became idle again until Hank Wilson, Vol. 3: Legend in My Time, was released in 1998.
In the early 2000s, Leon Russell released projects with more in-between; Moonlight & Love Songs (2002), Angel in Disguise (2007) and Almost Piano, Bad Country and In Your Dreams, all in ’08. Russell stepped out of the limelight again until long-time admirer Elton John reached him for a duet album. The project, entitled The Union, received positive reviews and recorded strong sales, reviving interest in Leon Russell’s sound. The star restarted his solo career and released Life Journey in 2014. In 2017 his last album On a Distant Shore was released posthumously.
The Multi-Instrumentalist’s Musical Legacy and Awards
A Song for You has received various versions from artists such as Ray Charles, Andy Williams, Donny Hathaway, Freda Payne, The Carpenters, and several others. The Temptations and The Carpenters have both named an album after this song. In 1993 Charles’ interpretation of the song won the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. In 2005, a duet version by Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera was nominated for a Grammy.
Russell scored his first hit in songwriting after working as songwriter, performer, and co-producer for Joe Cocker’s Joe Cocker! LP. He was also responsible for the orchestration of Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. After writing This Masquerade for singer George Benson, the song won a Grammy Award in 1976.
In his career spanning more than five decades, he has worked with some of the biggest names in the world, including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stone, and George Harrison. Leon Russell has won two Grammy Awards out of seven nominations, and his discography has earned him six gold records. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2011 and into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2011.
As an instrumentalist in what is now known as the Tulsa sound, he has been named the Master of Space and Time. Leon Russell’s musical style has become a major influence for several musicians over the years. Black Francis, a lead singer of the alternative rock band Pixies, has given Russell credit for his vocal style. Elton John also attributed Russell’s influence on his singing, piano playing and songwriting to Russell.
How Did Leon Russell Die?
In 2010 Leon Russell’s health began to deteriorate. Recording for his Collabo LP with Elton John was interrupted earlier this year after the multi-instrumentalist was hospitalized and operated on for a brain fluid leak while undergoing treatment for heart failure and pneumonia. Following a heart attack in July 2016, Russell had to undergo heart surgery again. During this time, the songs for the album On a Distant Shore were recorded and the album is scheduled to go on a nationwide tour from 2016 to 2017.
Leon Russell was recovering from heart surgery in July when he died at his home in Nashville on November 13, 2016. According to his wife, Jan Bridges, he died in his sleep. In a statement on the award-winning singer’s website, she thanked fans everywhere for their love and support. Elton John expressed his heartfelt appreciation to Instagram and showed his gratitude for being able to do The Union with him.