2016 has been a helluva year. You know: the list of musicians and music-related people who have passed, in any one year, would be too much; David Bowie, Paul Kantner, George Martin, Prince, all of them giants; now Leonard Cohen, who went the day before the election.
But this past Sunday came, for me, the hardest departure of the year: Leon Russell. Most of these deaths are really too big to write about. I’ve tried to say something about a couple of them, but this one is very difficult — mostly to feel adequate to the task. He’s not the reason I play – that’s due to the Beatles and George Harrison. But he was the first act I saw at the first big show I went to — watching him, it all came together; he and his band made it all make sense to me. I can, at the very least, try to give you a sense of what aroused me so much.
It was at a Ten Years After concert, in November of 1970 (at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where the 76ers and the Flyers played). TYA were very big after the documentary film Woodstock, and their phenomenal performance there, and I think they were great – at least I think so. The other “support” act was Procol Harum, who were also terrific — I think. But the truth is that after seeing the opening act I could barely remember them. What Leon Russell and his band did was so extraordinary to my ears — not only hadn’t I ever heard anything like it, I didn’t even know it existed.
Maybe he came out unannounced. I don’t remember that detail. But he sat down at a (real) piano, I think a 9-foot Steinway, and despite my 13-year-old seen-it-all (but really nothing of course) mind, quickly overcame my cynicism. He did four or five songs by himself. And then his band came out: Don Preston on guitar, Chuck Blackwell on drums, Claudia Lennear and Kathi McDonald singing, and the amazing Carl Radle on bass. I had just started playing — all I really knew was Jack Casady, which is plenty; but to see Radle play before I knew who he was… well, I definitely learned that night.
And watching Claudia Lennear move, well — I was 13, and what I felt watching her has lasted a lifetime — I learned about that, too. It’s rumored that it’s she who “Brown Sugar” was written about, before she took up with David Bowie.
But Leon: I learned a bit later on that he and Delaney Bramlett were primarily responsible for infusing gospel music into white people’s rock and roll. I had never heard it, and never heard of it, but the people I loved and admired certainly did. (George famously went on the road, as L’Angelo Misterioso, with Delaney and Bonnie in England when they went over there)
It was utterly astonishing, in the first year of my playing, to hear Leon’s gospel-inflected piano — its rolling left hand, its skipping right hand. I feel incredibly fortunate to have just stumbled across his extraordinary music when I knew so little.
He came to Hollywood from Tulsa, and fell rapidly into what we’ve called, in recent years, “The Wrecking Crew”. A YouTube search brings up so much stuff; these are just a few highlights. A little background:
During the period when I first saw him:
(I assume Radle is off being a Domino, at the time).
And of course, from The Concert for Bangladesh:
In the years since, my circle of friends has grown to include Jim Keltner, who says he owes his career to Leon — I’ve heard stories about him from time to time, and a little bit about his health. He was famously “rescued from a ditch by the side of the road of life” by Reg Dwight. Some of us knew of the connection, which is most audible on the first (US) album, Elton John.
So many of us owe Leon so, so much.