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Leon Russell obituary
Published in Guardian on 2016-11-14T15:21:54+00:00
3 days
Topicmusic uk hongsocial uk chinasocial uk england

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Autospell turned my "produced" into "forced" - the last word to describe the disc!

Er, Leon did not dress in the stars and stripes and top hat for the Bangla Desh concert, at which he played throughout. He wore a vest, not the most sartorial garment, and all the more visible when he accompanied Dylan's acoustic guitar on bass while George played elegant electric guitar, with Ringo on tambourine. A neat ensemble, with their added vocals to the chorus of "Just Like a Woman". Russell was a multi-instrumentalist, and a man of great humour: a small example of this is his riffing a bar of "Yellow Submarine" on the piano when George introduced Ringo at the concert. I recommend Elton John's essay on the cover of The Union as an elegant, and moving, account of the way in which they reunited to create a splendid disc (forced by T-Bone Burnett whom Elton John had not known but realised would get them a Southern tone) - what's more, it is a disc on which they began work shortly after Russell had undergone an operation of more than five hours. Meanwhile, the almost-Gospel piano on Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" will feel all the more plangent this year.

I'm terribly saddened by the death of Leon Russell. On hearing the news earlier today, I went to Leon's homepage and there was just a picture of him with white coat, white shirt, white hat, white hair, white beard and white moustache. Next to the picture were the words: "I love you in a place where there's no space or timeI love you for my life you are a friend of mineAnd when my life is overRemember when we were together We were alone and I was singing this song for you". It struck hard to realise that this voice is no longer with us. Leon R not only wrote a number of songs that are deservedly considered standards but he was also unique in the way he played and voiced piano (similar to, but different from, Mac Rebennack) and he had the knack for writing arrangements that could breathe life into old songs and big bands. He also had great taste as an accompanying musician. I've always enjoyed his work with Joe Cocker and Bob Dylan but the albums he cut for Freddie King also hit a high mark. Right now I'm gonna sit back and listen to Leon backing Delaney Bramlett as he sings an old country standard, Faded Love. The performance is masterful and it makes me glad that, despite the loss of Leon and Delaney and others, they have left behind such a great legacy of recorded music.

One of my very favorite entertainers. More than a musician, more than a showman, he was, in a word, Leon. Saw him many, many times at the Armadillo and elsewhere, and most recently, playing in a dive bar in Marble Falls, Texas a couple of years ago. Nice chap, very approachable. RIP my friend.

Controversy Analysis

Leon Russell obituary
Published in Guardian on 2016-11-14T15:21:54+00:00

In 2010, Elton John surprised his fans by releasing an album in collaboration with the pianist, singer and songwriter Leon Russell, whom he described as my biggest influence. Russell had been out of the limelight for three decades, but in the early 1970s he had been at the heart of some of pop musics biggest events. He led and organised the touring ensemble Mad Dogs and Englishmen, headlined by the soul singer Joe Cocker. Then, he was featured at the Concert for Bangladesh, set up by George Harrison and others to raise funds for the victims of severe flooding.

In his trademark top hat with stars and stripes decoration and with flowing hair and long straggly beard, Russell performed a medley of the Coasters Young Blood and the Rolling Stones Jumpin Jack Flash, in what Rolling Stone magazine called his driving, lurchy, churchy style.

Russell, who has died aged 74, first made his mark as a songwriter by co-writing, with Bonnie Bramlett, Delta Lady for Cocker. He subsequently supplied The Carpenters with their 1971 hit Superstar, and George Benson with This Masquerade, a Grammy winner in 1977. Russells most widely recorded composition is A Song for You, of which there are more than 40 versions, by singers as varied as Andy Williams, Whitney Houston and Willie Nelson. Prior to these achievements, Russell had excelled as a studio musician in Los Angeles, as a member of the Wrecking Crew, a team of versatile instrumentalists who added lustre to hit records by the Ronettes, the Byrds and many others.

He was born Claude Bridges, in Lawton, Oklahoma. He began piano lessons at the age of four and played the trumpet at high school. At 17, his band, the Starlighters, were appearing in Tulsa clubs when he was presented with a stark choice: study for entrance exams to university or go on the road in support of Jerry Lee Lewis. The group went on tour, following which the renamed Leon Russell decided to try his luck in Los Angeles.

He found work in nightclubs and was soon in demand as a pianist for recording sessions. Russell found himself working alongside such figures as the guitarist Glen Campbell and the drummer Hal Blaine. Among the tracks on which he can be heard is the Ronettes Be My Baby, produced by Phil Spector, Mr Tambourine Man by the Byrds, California Girls by the Beach Boys and A Taste of Honey by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

Russell took the role of arranger on This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Feelin Groovy by Harpers Bizarre. In 1968 he struck out on his own, building a studio at his home in the Hollywood Hills. There he worked with the guitarist Marc Benno on an album released as the Asylum Choir.

Next he worked on Cockers eponymous album, released in November 1969, and set up Shelter Records with Cockers manager and producer Denny Cordell. When Cockers backing group disbanded, Russell took charge of rehearsals for a 68-concert American tour in 1970 using a 10-piece band and the same number of singers.

We all lived at Leons house, Cocker recalled. We ran round in the nude and had some pretty wild times. Leon was into this revivalist thing. Before a meal he would say a little prayer. According to Russell, Mad Dogs and Englishmen was designed as a mobile commune of musicians, friends and family members.

The tour was a great success, spawning a film documentary and earning Russell an invitation to join the star-studded line-up of the 1971 Bangladesh events. In the same year he recorded with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Proof of Russells promotion to the pop worlds A list came when numerous superstars including ex-Beatles and Rolling Stones members made guest appearances on his 1970 debut, self-titled, solo album.

Russell was now at the height of his popularity in live performance and on record. Carney (1972) reached No 2 in the US album charts and the following year Leon Live, a triple-album recorded in front of a 70,000 crowd at Long Beach Arena in California peaked at No 10.

By the end of the decade, Russell had also turned his attention to country music. Using the pseudonym Hank Wilson, he had recorded the first of four albums of classic country songs in 1973 and became a regular guest at Nelsons annual music picnics, collaborating with Nelson on the album One for the Road (1979).

By then, he had returned to Tulsa and in the 1980s he established a pattern of issuing low-key records of his own compositions and touring sporadically. This continued until 2009 when Elton John persuaded him to make the album The Union. A film documenting this process was directed by Cameron Crowe. The renewed interest in Russells career triggered his election to both the RocknRoll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011.

Russells first marriage, to the singer Mary McCreary, who duetted with him on The Wedding Album in 1976, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Janet Lee Constantine, and their children, Sugaree, Honey and Coco; by two children, Teddy Jack and Tina Rose, from his first marriage; and by a daughter, Blue, from a previous relationship with Carla McHenry.

Leon Russell (Claude Russell Bridges) musician and songwriter, born 2 April 1942; died 13 November 2016