Although he was mostly known as a superstar sideman and a musical master of ceremonies, the late Leon Russell left behind a body of work that elevated him well beyond the role of support musician and session player. A talented and tenured journeyman, his early albums initiated a lingering legacy courtesy of songs and standards that became an indelible part of modern music’s collective catalog. He came into his own during rock ‘n’ roll’s infancy, playing a role as part of Phil Spector’s legendary “wall of sound” musical stable before going on to write and produce any number of signature songs that formed the buffer between the sounds of the ‘50s and those of the ‘60s, including multiple hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys, among many others.
Nevertheless, it was his own stellar solo work, first released in the early ‘70s, which nurtured his image as a genuine rock legend. Russell recruited some heavy-duty associates when he launched his solo career with his eponymous debut album. Indeed, few other musicians could not only have inspired interest early on from various Beatles, Stones, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker, but then also enlist them to lend their support.
Russell’s subsequent relationship with Cocker would be the bond that would bring both men widespread recognition. It began with Cocker’s first solo album, and continued with the launch of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the ragtag big band that supported Cocker on his epic U.S. tours. Russell played the role of musical director and the flamboyant showman that reigned in this troupe of disparate rock ‘n’ roll gypsies. He later formed core musical relationships with George Harrison and Bob Dylan that came to fruition at the superstar summit known as The Concert for Bangladesh. In honor of the late musician, here are the songs for which Russell will be best remembered.
A jaunty little number, “Tight Rope” was culled as a single from one of Russell’s most successful LPs, his third, entitled Carney. (The album reached No. 2, while the single peaked out a respectable No. 11). For an artist that generally found no middle ground between the punchy and the poignant, this song boasts a lyrical twist that’s rather unusual given Russell’s usual regimen. “I’m up on the tightwire / One side’s ice and one is fire.” In other words, it’s tough to tow any middle ground, especially as far as romance is concerned. That’s a lesson we can all use.
Russell’s country phase found him adopting the guise of Hank Wilson, a sturdy country crooner that served as a front for four albums of mostly traditional tunes. This track, a sentimental standard extracted from the first album in that somewhat strange series, put him on the charts and gave him credibility as a legitimate country crooner.
Not many people are aware of the fact that in his early days, Russell was involved in the West Coast version of New York’s Brill Building, both as a writer and as part of that legendary band of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. Russell was one of a team of writers that penned this mega hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys, a song that Lewis once claimed was his most memorable. It reached No. 3 in the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1966, and its Beach Boys vibe still makes it remarkable today.
Before he took a turn towards Americana and asserted his ties to the Heartland, “Dixie Lullaby” laid out the course Russell would follow for most of his life and career. This rollicking number is mostly made up of piano and little else—little surprise considering the fact that it was co-written by Chris Stainton, an Englishman who provided piano duties for Joe Cocker immediately before Russell came on board. As simple as it is, it aptly conveys that Southern spirit in a great barrelhouse barroom style.
Although it wasn’t a major hit (it barely hit the top 30), this song remains one of Russell’s most heartfelt paeans to life and love. Its fast paced rhythm belies its tender sentiments, but the catchy melody provides an instant attraction. The lyric “Bluebird, why did you go away?” conveys a sad final farewell.
Another of the classic tracks included on that self-titled debut album, “Hummingbird” kicks off with an ample dose of heartfelt emotion before cascading into an irrepressible refrain. It’s easily one of Russell’s most expressive efforts, and yet another reason why he was such a superior songwriter.
Famously covered by George Benson, who turned it into a major crossover hit, this song wasn’t nearly as smooth when rendered by Russell in its ragged original incarnation. Nevertheless, “This Masquerade” was a contender for No. 1 in the summer of ’72. While some might have accused Russell of churning out sentimental fodder that could be reconfigured for commercial purposes by others, the fact remains that Russell’s original renditions rarely came across as inherently saccharine.
One of Russell’s most robust rockers, it was reprised to great effect on Leon Live, his live triple-disc extravaganza. There may be no better example of Russell in full flight, given its gospel-like chorus and unbridled exhortation. Russell’s use of back-up singers added to the urgency on this and his other upbeat efforts, one of the reasons why a live concert often sounded like nothing so much as a riveting revival.
Sung with equal aplomb by Joe Cocker, who helped make it into a timeless and memorable standard, “Delta Lady” is a masterful example of how tone and tempo can be varied within the structure of a single song. The refrain is impossible to shake, yet, the middle break where the singer longs to be home again in England, adds a sentimental touch that’s rarely revealed in a song with such rollicking intents.
“A Song For You” is the work that stands out above all in Russell’s repertoire. It’s been covered by hundreds of artists since its release, making it the composition for which Russell is most remembered. A classic love song and sentimental standard, it stands among the best offerings of all time. End of story.