Leon Russell is a music legend and perhaps the most accomplished and versatile musician in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. In his distinguished and unique 50 year career, he has played on, arranged, written and/or produced some of the best records in popular music.
As a session musician, arranger, producer, singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, record company owner, bandleader, and touring musician, he has collaborated with hundreds of artists, including Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Edgar Winter, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, J.J. Cale, David Gates, Bruce Hornsby, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, B.B. King, Freddie King, Bill Wyman, Steve Cropper, Carl Radle, Chuck Blackwell, Don Preston, Jesse Ed Davis, Rita Coolidge, Gram Parsons, Barbra Streisand, Ike & Tina Turner, Ricky Nelson, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Ann-Margret, Dean Martin, Marvin Gaye, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood, and groups such as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, The Monkees, The Astronauts, The Accents, The Fencemen, The Ventures, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Rolling Stones, The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Tractors and on and on and on . . . .
Born in southwest Oklahoma in 1942, Leon began piano lessons at age four. He was playing in Tulsa nightclubs at the age of fourteen. After graduating from high school, Leon’s band, The Starlighters, went on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis for almost two months. Leon left Tulsa at the age of 17 for Los Angeles where he began playing in the L.A. clubs and eventually became one of the best session musicians in Hollywood. He worked with the best Hollywood producers and top musicians in the business.
Leon became part of an elite group of studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew and played on hundreds of hit records in the 1960s. He was part of such studio groups as The Routers and The Super Stocks. The Routers recorded the huge hit, “Let’s Go” and The Super Stocks recorded surf and hot rod tunes. In 1964, Leon was a member of the the house band on Shindig! on ABC television which showcased the top pop acts.
Leon built a recording studio in his home in 1967 where he and Marc Benno recorded songs which were released on two critically acclaimed records as the Asylum Choir. Leon co-produced, arranged, and played piano, organ, and guitar on Joe Cocker’s second album, Joe Cocker! in 1969. He also recorded and toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Leon founded Shelter Records with partner Denny Cordell and released Leon’s first solo album, Leon Russell in May, 1970. It included Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Klaus Voorman. The album contained classic Leon songs, “A Song for You”, along with “Hummingbird”, and “Delta Lady”. Shelter Records was home for not only Leon but many other artists, such as Freddie King, Don Nix, J.J. Cale, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Gap Band, Dwight Twilley and Phoebe Snow. Leon played on and produced three Shelter albums for blues guitarist Freddie King.
As a songwriter, Leon’s songs have hit the charts across all genres and have been covered by a diverse range of artists. Ray Charles recorded “A Song for You”, B.B. King had a hit with “Hummingbird”, The Carpenters with “Superstar” and Joe Cocker with “Delta Lady”. The Carpenters’ cover of “Superstar”, written by Leon and Bonnie Bramlett, went to Number Two on the pop music charts. George Benson won the “Record of the Year” Grammy in 1976 for his cover of Leon’s song, “This Masquerade”, and it became the first song in music history to hit Number One on the jazz, pop and R & B charts.
Leon organized and led the band behind Joe Cocker for the famous “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour of the U.S. in March-May, 1971. The huge eleven-member band included three drummers and a ten-member choir which played 65 shows in 48 cities. The tour was filmed for the movie “Mad Dogs & Englishmen”. The live double-LP album on A&M Records reached Number Two on the U.S. album charts and sold over a million copies.
On August 1, 1971, Leon joined George Harrison and friends for two performances of the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York to raise money for refugees. His “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley was considered the highlight of the show by some. The album earned a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Leon’s first solo album to earn a Gold record was Leon Russell and The Shelter People (1971). The Carney album, released in 1972, would be his best seller and included the single, “Tight Rope” which reached Number Eleven on the pop music charts. By 1972, Leon was a major concert attraction. Billboard Magazine named Leon the top concert attraction for 1973. His concert at Long Beach, California, on August 28, 1972 was recorded and released on the triple-LP album, Leon Live, which rose to Number Nine on the pop charts. Leon released the second Asylum Choir album, Asylum Choir II, in 1972 from songs recorded years earlier. The single, “Slippin’ into Christmas” rose to Number Four on the pop charts in 1972.
At the height of his popularity as a rock star, Leon released a country music album, Hank Wilson’s Back under the name Hank Wilson on August 31, 1973. His last Shelter Records studio album, Will O’ The Wisp (1975), included the hit single “Lady Blue” (Number Fourteen on the charts) and went Gold. The Best of Leon was released in 1976 and earned a sixth Gold Record. Leon founded Paradise Records, a Warner Bros. label, and released albums from 1976-84, such as The Wedding Album, Make Love to The Music, Americana, Life and Love, Solid State and Hank Wilson Vol. II.
Leon co-hosted with Willie Nelson, the first of Willie’s Fourth of July picnics. Leon has continued to be a regular performer at Willie’s picnics through the years. Leon joined Willie on tour and they teamed in 1979 for the country album, One for the Road, which earned a Gold record and was honored by the Country Music Association with a nomination for “Album of the Year”. The album included the song “Heartbreak Hotel” that won 1980 Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
In 1980-81, Leon toured with the New Grass Revival and released the Live Album from their performances. In 1984 Leon released his second country album under the Hank Wilson name, Hank Wilson Vol. II. Leon and Edgar Winter toured together in the late 1980’s. In 1992, he teamed up with Bruce Hornsby (producer) for the album Anything Can Happen, released on Virgin Records. In 2001, Russell played with Earl Scruggs and Friends on Foggy Mountain Breakdown, which earned a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
Leon joined a number of artists in honoring Willie Nelson on his 70th birthday celebration at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in April 2003. Leon performed his classic “A Song for You” with Willie and Ray Charles and also sang “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The show was filmed for the special “Willie Nelson: Live and Kickin’”.
In April 2006, Leon was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Bare Bones International Film Festival. In October 2006, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
Russell is back with an Okie stomp of rock and Southern-fried funk on his newest release, Angel in Disguise (2007). Blues and gospel provide a comfort zone amidst the tough and nasty strains of guitar and bass lines. Russell is riled up and wailin’, risen from his slumber and making up for lost time with a roaring welcome-home bash of his own creation. It’s not a surprise that Leon has said that Angel in Disguise (2007) is his best record in the last 25 years.
Leon continues to write songs, record, and thrill audiences on his non-stop tour across the U.S. In November 2005, he also toured Japan. Leon’s son Teddy Jack and daughters Sugaree Noel and Tina Rose have all been in his band and toured with him. His bass player, Jack Wessel, has been in his band for 26 years. Leon’s musical style is still resonating with his lifelong fans and is inspiring younger listeners who are discovering his music from either the Mad Dogs & Englishmen or Concert for Bangladesh DVDs.
Released by Universal in October 2010, and produced by T Bone Burnett, The Union marks the culmination of a mutual musical adoration that began in the late 1960s, ahead of Elton’s debut US performance in 1970 at The Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. The album is a collaboration between Elton and Leon Russell, with songs by Elton and Bernie Taupin; by Elton, Bernie and Leon; by Elton and Leon and by Leon alone.
The Union (2010) was recorded in Los Angeles, with guest musicians including Brian Wilson, Booker T, Don Was and Neil Young. Cameron Crowe has filmed the sessions for a documentary, creating too a moment of history as this is the first time that the genesis of Elton’s music has been recorded on film. Critics are united in praise for the work that Elton describes as a “Seventies record with a modern feel.”