One of his best-known songs was named after a science fiction novel. He sang while wearing a top hat and shades, and he sported a long, scraggly beard. His sound and look were unmistakable, but the music with his name in lights was only a portion of Leon Russell’s output. Russell (1942-2016) was one of the hardest-working musicians in rock and roll.
The Oklahoman made 33 albums, but that doesn’t include the many records he participated in as a session musician. Russell routinely got invited to the studio to back top names like Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. He started his music career as a pianist, and he must have been as good a networker as he was a musician, because he never lacked for big stars clamoring to collaborate with him.
Leon Russell, his solo debut, came out in 1970 on Shelter Records in the US, and A&M in the UK. It did well, with its biggest single being “A Song for You.” The album’s sound was a mix of rock and country, blended with a freedom in the lyrics and instrumentation that could only have happened after the experimentation of the 1960s.
Russell composed most of the album, including the wry heartbreak blues “Hurtsome Body,” which lays out its self-deprecating humor from the opening lurch of the piano chords. But the wailing chorus that enters (if you think you hear Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger, it’s not your imagination!) colors the whole enterprise with a backdrop of pain.
In the same year, Russell the workhorse released his second solo album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People. It went gold. The public was especially captivated by the honkytonk-tinged mournfulness of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the title of which Russell got from the best-selling Robert A. Heinlein space opera novel.
Asylum Choir II (the second of two collaborations with Marc Benno) was recorded in 1969 but not released until 1971. Benno is a guitarist and songwriter who co-wrote several of the album’s songs. Russell gets sole credit for a few, including “Ballad for a Soldier.”
Among Russell’s many idiosyncrasies was the fact that he invented an alter ego, Hank Wilson. This was his bluegrass persona, and an overview of his work is incomplete without including that aspect of his musical life. From 1973 to 2001, he released four albums as Wilson. It took special commitment to this side project to call the first of those Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. I, as if this Wilson character were well into his career.
That first Wilson album comprises covers of country and bluegrass artists’ songs, including one by the man who first attached the term bluegrass to hillbilly music, the great Bill Monroe. Here’s Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” with Russell wearing many hats as signer, pianist, bass player, guitarist, and producer. He’s joined by (among others) Jim Buchanan on fiddle.
In 1975, Russell married singer Mary McCreary, and they made an album together in 1977. Make Love to the Music serves as a testament not only to the marriage (which lasted until 1980), but also to a new musical influence in Russell’s sound. The title song belongs in the soul genre, in part thanks to the use of saxophone and dobro.
One of Russell’s most productive creative collaborations was with songwriter Douglas A. Snider. The duo sold their song “Love Is on the Radio” to Welsh crooner Tom Jones, who made it a hit. And in 1984, Russell and Snider released the co-written album Solid State.
The non-album track “Ain’t No Love in the City” was put out as the B-side of the hit single “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” Its driving bluesy piano beat is softened by busy organ and violin lines, a combination typical of an era that had no patience with simplicity in the recording studio.
Although he continued to tour and oversee remixes of his hits, Russell took an eight-year break from releasing new material in the studio. That hiatus ended with Anything Can Happen (1992), co-produced and co-written with Bruce Hornsby (interestingly, not credited on the front cover), who’d sat in on several of Russell’s earlier records.
Most of the tracks are new works. An exception, and one of the highlights, is this delightful rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”
As a native of Oklahoma, Russell had grown up on that mix of blues, country, and rockabilly known as the Tulsa Sound. Russell’s early session work on piano had helped craft this sound, along with the guitar styles of J.J. Cale, David Teegarden, and others.
During his long and prolific career, Russell sometimes strayed far from his roots. That fact must have been bothering him when he made Face in the Crowd (1999). Critics immediately noticed its rejuvenated Tulsa flavor.
The earth-stomping feel of “Down in the Flood” is a great example. There’s also a return to less complex, more traditional instrumentation.
It may be his piano playing that most defines Russell’s sound, but he was also an accomplished and passionate guitarist. Guitar Blues (2001) is exactly what it sounds like: Russell focusing on the guitar. No surprise, he also plays all the other instruments on the album, with the exception of drums. Those are handled by Teddy Jack, son of Leon and Mary Russell.
From Guitar Blues, the song “Dark Carousel” has an intriguingly Latin flavor. And Russell’s expressive and creative solos prove him to be in the upper echelon of blues-rock guitarists.
Russell remained an active musician until the very end. Released a year after his death, On a Distant Shore (2017) is the cherry on top of a life of delicious music. Russell wrote the whole album. And this is not the musical dregs of an old man who used to be great. The ballad “Just Leaves and Grass” is as stirring as it is heartbreaking. Russell’s voice, cracked by age, is as powerful as ever.