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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,005

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This is the grave of Leon Russell.

The real-life version of Cousin It was born in 1942 in Lawton, Oklahoma. Russell grew up with the piano and proved more than a little adept at it. He was already playing in the active country music nightclub scene of Tulsa by the time he was 14. There was so much talent in that town. His high school band, Leon with the Starlighters also included J.J. Cale and David Gates, who later would be the lead singer and guitarist in Bread. This is a high school band with three guys who had tremendous success completely separately!

By the early 1960s, Russell was already one of the nation’s top session piano players, working particularly in rock and roll, but also the blues. He moved to Los Angeles and became a favorite of Phil Spector who brought him in to play on all sorts of sessions, including for the Ronettes. He started working a lot with Gary Lewis and the Playboys, not only playing with them but also writing some of the biggest hits, including “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She’s Just My Style.” He became one of the consummate musical professionals and insiders by the late 1960s. He wasn’t a hugely popular solo artist, though he did start releasing singles of his own in 1965. He was a session guy everywhere, including on Glen Campbell’s gigantic hit with John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” He had his own record label beginning in 1969–Shelter Records, which remained a going concern for over a decade. He wrote tons of songs that started getting recorded, including Joe Cocker’s big hit with “Delta Lady.” Working closely with Cocker, Russell took charge of the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of 1970, where he brought in most of Delaney & Bonnie’s band to provide Cocker that great sound he had in those days.

This finally led to solo success for Russell. Since he was a good songwriter with a good sound and knew everyone, he could put together a crackerjack band for his solo debut album. This was his self-titled 1970 album. That had one big hit on it, with “A Song for You,” which has since been recorded by everyone from The Carpenters and Ray Charles to Willie Nelson and Helen Reddy. Everyone wanted to be on the first Russell album, even if just a backing vocal for a track. Who was on this thing? Oh, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, Bonnie Bramlett, and tons of other people.

This shows how popular Russell was with the rest of the rock world. His barrelhouse piano and organ-fueled rock and roll church was always more popular with other musicians than the pop world, although he certainly had his moment there too, but there was a big space for him whenever other musicians showed up for something. And because of that, he continued to be everywhere in the 70s. Dylan called him up to play bass for his part of the Concert for Bangladesh, for instance. Russell brought the great bluesman Freddy King back to prominence by recording him for a group of albums on Shelter. He also signed Tom Petty to his first recording contract with Shelter. He had a whole country sidegig under a fake name–Hank Wilson–and was a regular doing that gig at Gilley’s Club, which you know as the club in Urban Cowboy. Russell’s live album, Leon Live, was a huge seller and his live show was considered something you had to see in the early 70s. Russell built his own recording studio back home in Tulsa and everyone wanted to cut some songs there, including Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, and J.J. Cale. Russell and Barbra Streisand wrote “Lost Inside of You” for the remake of A Star is Born. You bet Leon made a lot of money on that, maybe even enough to keep up on all that hair that was becoming his signature look. It was Willie Nelson who got Russell into the Nashville world. Willie loved him after he overheard his daughter playing Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen album. So they got together and Willie had Leon join him onstage in Nashville.

Now, the 80s….well, that wasn’t so great for Leon Russell or the type of music he played. For lots of these guys, a lot of years of hard living started catching up. Musical styles changed rapidly and the roots-based rock and roll didn’t have much place in the world dominated by Duran Duran and synthesizers. I mean, he was around–he was always around–but his big selling days were over and never to return. He still released albums and he produced other people’s albums. He had a nice best-of collection released in 1996. But he was pretty much out of the spotlight. However, in 2009, Elton John approached him about revitalizing his career. John and Bernie Taupin produced a duet record with Russell that brought him back to the charts. In fact, Russell was active all the way to the end. He was still recording and playing with his friends, and showing up here and there. But he died in his sleep in 2016, at the age of 74.

Let’s listen to some Leon Russell.

Leon Russell is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If you would like this series to visit some of Russell’s friends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. J.J. Cale is in Oceanside, California and Dr. John is in New Orleans. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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