Leon Russell, 1942-2016: Southern-Rock Titan Dead at 74
The Master of Space and Time has taken his last bowPhoto by Frazer Harrison/Getty Music News Leon Russell
Singer, songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell has died at the age of 74. According to posts on the musician’s website and Facebook page, Russell’s wife Jan Bridges said he died in his sleep in his Nashville home.
Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Okla., in 1942, he first learned to play the piano at the age of four, and as a teenager, he was already performing in Tulsa nightclubs. After moving to Los Angeles in the late ‘50s, Russell became a highly sought-after session musician, playing the piano on numerous noteworthy recordings by Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, B.B. King and many more.
In 1970, Russell struck out on his own as a solo artist, releasing his eponymous debut album. Featured on the album was perhaps his best-known song, “A Song for You,” which has since been recorded by dozens of artists, including Ray Charles, who won a Grammy for his rendition.
In more recent years, Russell collaborated at length with Elton John, and the pair released an album together titled The Union in 2010. “He is a better piano player than I am,” John told NPR. “As far as gospel and stuff like that, that’s why I wanted to make this album. He is my idol.”
Russell was named to both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2011, and released his last studio album, Life Journey, in 2014. “Leon Russell’s voice sounds like parched earth, cracked and its essence crawled out: raw, blistering, molten to the touch and savory in all the right places,” Holly Gleason wrote in her review for Paste.
In July of 2016, Russell suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. He was still in the process of recovering from that at the time of his death, and had resumed playing live shows, with his next scheduled for Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla.
Watch Russell & Friends perform “A Song for You” live circa 1971 below, and beneath that, watch John induct Russell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.