How Leon Russell got his groove back

Leon Russell was hanging out at his home in early 2009 when he got a surprising phone call. It was Elton John calling from a safari vacation in Africa, suggesting they collaborate on an album.

The two musicians had first met in 1970 when Russell attended John’s American debut at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. The meeting heralded the beginning of a long friendship and a mutual appreciation between the two artists.

“In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the one piano player and vocalist who influenced me more than anybody else was Leon Russell,” John said in a press release. “He was my idol.”

After years of being out of touch, while listening to Russell’s “Greatest Hits” album in Africa, John was so moved he decided to reconnect with his idol.

“I was quite surprised to hear from Elton, as we hadn’t spoken in about 35 years,” Russell explains. “We had originally tried to get Elton for Shelter (Records), but missed him by about two weeks. I was quite taken by his style. There were not that many white soul singers in that period.

“Working with Elton was exciting for me. He was extremely supportive and encouraging. I had no idea that I had made such an impression on him. Bernie Taupin (John’s lyricist) told me that Elton seemed to be working in a way that he had never seen. He said, ‘I’ve been with him for a long time and I’ve never seen him let anyone watch him write.’ It was fascinating.”

The British superstar told USA Today: “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, not just musically but emotionally.”

Russell felt so grateful for John’s support that he composed the beautiful song “The Hands of an Angel” that closes “The Union,” as a gift to his friend.

“I appreciated what he was trying to do for me,” Russell continues. “He thought that I had not received the recognition that I deserved and decided to personally correct the problem. When I mentioned this to Olivia Harrison (George Harrison’s widow), she commented that ‘Elton is spiritually correct.’ As I considered what he was doing for me, I wondered what I could possibly give him that he didn’t already have. I decided it would have to be a song. I was explaining this to my wife and realized that I was reciting the lyrics to the unwritten song. When I got to the studio the next day, I was anxious to record the song before I forgot it. The mind is a terrible thing. The first take was in the wrong key, and I did it one more time and that was the keeper. When I came out he gave me a Yamaha grand piano. He’s very generous.”

The resulting album, the Grammy-nominated “The Union,” entered the Billboard chart at number three, marking Russell’s highest showing since 1972’s “Carney,” and John’s highest charting studio album since 1976’s “Blue Moves.”

Raised in Oklahoma, at the age of 17, Russell spent a year backing one of the kings of rock and roll – Jerry Lee Lewis. Before he hit it big on his own, Russell had developed a glowing reputation for his session work in the studios of Los Angeles, working with legendary producer Phil Spector, and musicians like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra.

This legendary artist rose to fame in 1970 as the driving force on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. A charismatic piano player and singer, he commanded the stage imbuing his songs with passion and fervor, enthralling audiences with fiery gospel-tinged rock and roll.

“The first rock and roll shows I saw were reviews with big bands,” he says about his love for playing in large ensembles. “The Alan Freed show of stars, etc. They had Little Richard, Clyde McFatter, Ruth Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. To me, that was a rock and roll show.”

Introduced to Cocker in 1968, Russell recorded his song “Delta Lady” with the British singer. Traveling to London a year later to work on an album with Cocker, Russell ended up recording his historic, self-titled album.

The glittering roster of musicians who dropped by to help out included The Beatles’ George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood, the The Rolling Stones’ rhythm team of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton and Cocker. On the expanded gold version of the album, Mick Jagger is heard joining Russell on “Get a Line on You.”

How did he get so many greats on board?

“I happened to mention that Eric Clapton would be great on a song, and (producer) Glynn Johns called him up and he came, along with all the other stars that he asked. Johns was responsible for all the stars playing on the record.”

In one year, he organized Cocker’s legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen U.S. tour, released his “Leon Russell album,” and played with Bob Dylan (on “Watching the River Flow”), Eric Clapton (he co-write “Blues Power”), and The Rolling Stones. In 1971, Russell joined Harrison for the historic “Concert for Bangladesh.”

Fusing gospel, blues, country and rock in a unique way, Russell went on to produce the albums “Leon Russell and The Shelter People,” “Leon Live,” “Carney” and “Will O’ The Wisp.”

An innovative musician poured out a stream of classic songs from “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “Delta Lady,” and “Roll Away the Stone,” to “Tightrope,” “This Masquerade” and “A Song for You,” which has been recorded by more than 120 artists.

Then in 1973 he surprised many by releasing “Hank Wilson’s Back,” a country album featuring standards such as “Battle of New Orleans” and “Am I That Easy to Forget.”

What sparked his interest in country?

“When I played in the studios in California, the guys were always talking about how the studio people in Nashville were always ready to play, they were fast,” he explains. “As I was taking a car back to Tulsa, I noticed there were at least a thousand hillbilly cassettes in every truck stop. They were $3 apiece, so I bought about $100 worth and made a list of the songs that I knew. I had never sung them before, but I wanted to have the Nashville experience.”

From that point on, Russell began including country-orientated material in his recordings. On his 1974 album “Stop All That Jazz,” Willie Nelson joined in on “Wabash Cannonball,” and a few years later the two music greats teamed for a series of concerts and an album. At the close of the ’70s, Russell scored a number one county hit with “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Russell’s acclaimed teaming with Nelson for the double album “One for the Road” earned a Country Music Association award for Best Album of the Year.

After a relatively fallow period, Russell has re-emerged in the 21st century creatively recharged. In the last decade the self-described “master of space and time” has released a stream of albums on his own label including the instrumental collection “Almost Piano,” a “Moonlight & Love Songs” standards recording, and “Signature Songs,” an acoustic re-recording of his hits. Then there’s “Guitar Blues,” “Bad Country,” “In Your Dreams” and the gospel album “A Mighty Flood.”

And at 71, this veteran artist can still thrill audiences.

“Even though Russell was playing the same old repertoire he’s offered for decades, it seemed like a whole new Leon,” praised the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The Oklahoma native focused on the heyday of his career, and paid tribute to some stars he’s performed with, by Dixie-ing up Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, taking the Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ at a full gallop and re-imagining the Beatles’ ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ as a gospel boogie.”

As to what’s up next for this revered artist, Russell concludes, “I don’t think far enough ahead to know what I’m doing next. I’m barely aware of what I’m doing now. I’m just happy to be alive and have a job.”

* Leon Russell and his band perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. Randall Rospond will open. Tickets are $40, $45, and $55 (plus applicable fees), available at the MACC’s box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.

Two virtuoso musicians, Indian sitar master Shubhendra Rao and Dutch cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas will perform at 7:30 tonight in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Studio Theater.

A protege of world-renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar, Rao has gone on to establish himself as one of the distinguished instrumentalists of his generation.

“Rao’s style is reminiscent of his guru’s music, yet introspective and soothing,” praised India Today. “He combines technical finesse and innovative creativity to take the audience to a spiritual plane.”

Trained by legendary Indian flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Rao-de Haas modified the cello to play Hindustani classical music. She has composed works for dance, film and theatre. Her first solo album, “The India Cello,” was released in 2012.

Their concert program, “East Marries West,” combines the rich texture of classical Indian music with Western classical and folk traditions from different parts of the world.

* Tickets are $22 (plus applicable fees), available at the MACC’s box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)