Many, Many Leons
American music's handyman is headed our way.
By Brian Perry
NOVEMBER 17, 1997: SEVERAL VERSIONS OF Leon Russell have made it to the top of the music business. There's the multi-instrumentalist who lent his skills on the piano, trumpet and guitar to hundreds of recording sessions throughout the 1960s and '70s. He played with everyone from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra; from the Rolling Stones to Herb Alpert; and he made music with Ike and Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, The Byrds, Paul Revere and the Raiders and on and on.
Then there's the mad prophet of blues-rock, who organized Joe Cocker's famous/infamous "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, hit the charts as a soloist and became nearly as recognizable for his long white mane and dark shades as he did for those storms of memorable music.
Finally, there's the country boy who calls himself Hank and has been on the road (again) with Willie Nelson, topped the country charts and broken bluegrass traditions with New Grass Revival.
Leon Russell's very first career move was a good one: He was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on April 2, 1942, to parents who both played the piano. Although his genitors had music in their blood and hands, they didn't have a flair for names--saddling their son with the very plain Hank Wilson. (He wasn't named Henry. Remember, he was born in Oklahoma, so it was Hank from day one.) Musical studies began just three years later when Hank began learning how to play, appropriately enough, the piano. He struggled with the classics until he turned 13, when he quit trying to master Beethoven and Bach.
"I didn't really have the hands for classical stuff," he has said of those early days. "And my teachers discouraged me from making up my own music."
By 14 he had formed his own band, learned the trumpet, and was playing nightclub gigs around Oklahoma. (He lied about his age in order to be allowed into the bars.) Within a year he was backing touring acts passing through, including Jerry Lee Lewis and Ronnie Hawkins. (Hawkins went on to form the Band.)
Soon the teenager was Los Angeles bound, hunting for bigger names and brighter lights. "I'd borrow a friend's ID to get a job, then I'd return the card and work until I was stopped by the police for being underage and out after curfew."
Even L.A.'s finest couldn't stop the word from getting 'round: There was a new piano man in town. He quickly became a sought-after session player, working with Phil Spector on a regular basis; helping Spector build his famous "Wall of Sound."
Spector was about the same age as Russell, but from the other end of the universe: the Bronx. The young New Yorker was changing the very sound of rock and pop by overdubbing five or more guitars, three or four pianos, multiple drum kits, tambourines, bells, whistles and just about anything that made music, onto his recordings. He called it "a Wagnerian approach to rock and roll."
Spector had an ear and eye for talent; Some of the other session men he hired to work on the scores of hits he produced for a variety of early-'60s artists included Glen Campbell and Sonny Bono.
Soon Russell's session-résumé grew beyond Spector; he played on, and arranged the music on hits for Garry Lewis and the Playboys, played on The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man," and Alpert's "A Taste of Honey," among many, many others.
By 1968, he was eager to make a mark on his own and recorded an album of swampy blues, folk and rock, called Asylum Choir. It lead to instant oblivion and he found himself right back where he had been: a sought-after sessionist. In 1970, his multiple talents came to the attention of Joe Cocker, the spasmodic British soul singer who had recently come to the attention of America with a stunning performance at Woodstock. (Cocker made Russell's "Delta Lady"--written for Rita Coolidge--a staple of his live performances for years.)
Russell was signed up to organize the band for Cocker's impending "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour. The name of the tour nearly said it all: The ensemble contained more than 40 musicians, all whirling around the stage with instruments, intoxicants, hangers-on, and yes, dogs and other critters. The cliché "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" may well have been born on this tour, chronicled in the documentary Mad Dogs and Englishmen and the best-selling album of the same name. Russell was the ringmaster of the bedlam, his long hair flying around as he raced from the piano to the guitar and back, leading the band in thunderous, soulful rock that catapulted Cocker to greater fame (and exhaustion requiring hospitalization) and himself, finally, into a starring role on the rock soundscape.
As an "official rock star" he was invited to play at George Harrison's "Concert for Bangla Desh" in '71, where he promptly stole the show from Harrison, Ringo Starr, Dylan and Eric Clapton with an apocalyptic medley of "Young Blood" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
That same year, his album Leon Russell and The Shelter People (on his own Shelter Records label), a mixture of Dylan covers and his own bayou-blues-rock, was played on "underground" FM stations across the country and went gold (signifying sales of over 500,000).
A year later Russell was on the singles and album charts with "Tight Rope" (which made it to No. 11) and the gold Carney. It's a bit of a shame that "Tight Rope" was his biggest rock/pop hit--it's a pretty forgettable, though hummable dittie. (His ballad "This Masquerade," from Carney was a major hit for soft-jazz artist George Benson a few years later.)
He had another successful album in 1973: Leon Live, which was also certified gold. Russell was, by now, a major figure in rock and roll, which was why his next move puzzled so many in the industry. His second release of '73, Hank Wilson's Back, was a turn away from rock and roll and toward country, complete with standards such as "The Battle of New Orleans," "Am I That Easy to Forget," "She Thinks I Still Care" and "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms" (the last was a country hit).
A year later Russell wandered off in yet another direction, with a fairly dismal foray into another genre by way of the appropriately titled Stop All That Jazz. The latter part of the '70s found him playing mostly country music, including a legendary tour with Willie Nelson. In '79, his One For The Road double-album, made up of recordings from the Nelson tour, was awarded "Best Album of the Year" by the Country Music Association. His cover of "Heartbreak Hotel," on the album, went to number one on the country charts.
In the early '80s he ventured briefly into tradition-breaking bluegrass with the band New Grass Revival, but as the decade wore on, his recordings became few and his name recognition faded. He made a "comeback" rock album in '92 that received little in the way of attention from critics or the public.
Expect all of the Leons to show up for his concert this week, along with Hank Wilson. Expect thunder, expect lightning, expect country and blues and rock and expect him to offer the unexpected, too.
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