Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tight Rope, Leon Russell (1972)

"I was surprised by the success I had.  I was not surprised when it went away. I knew about show business." - Leon Russell, Nov. 11, 2010 Rolling Stone interview

In the music business, there are those who demand to be noticed, whether they deserve it or not, and then there is Leon Russell.

In a recent story about Elton John petitioning the Rock Hall on behalf of Russell, a commenter writes, "In his day he was the top grossing act on the road, put on an incredible show, is a first class musician who has not just sat in on but arranged some seminal records, worked across ALL genres successfully, is an incredible singer, and written some of the most beautiful songs in pop history." 

Boy, what an underachiever. And yet, I plead guilty to being relatively unaware of all of his accomplishments myself, until now. Elton John wasn't successful this time around getting Russell nominated to the Rock Hall, but he sure has lifted the blanket of obscurity off the man by masterminding a collaboration between himself and the self-effacing Oklahoman he idolizes and was the opening act for when he first came across the pond. The result is a new recording, "The Union," which I'm just now discovering.

Born Claude Russell Bridges, Russell began piano lessons when he was 6, but unlike so many of us who considered music lessons a chore, he flourished. And because Oklahoma was a dry state, there were no laws to prevent him from playing in clubs as early as the age of 14. After graduating from Will Rogers High School (that is so much better a name than Walnut Ridge, my alma mater), he and his band, the Starlighters, went on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis.

Making his way to L.A., the 17-year-old Bridges morphed into Leon Russell, an outgrowth of the borrowed IDs and musicians' union cards he used to get work, the one for "Leonal Dubrow" being one of the most frequently deployed. He became part of the legendary session band The Wrecking Crew, he played on the Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling and the Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man, as well as for Rick Nelson, Frank Sinatra and on the weirdo hit Monster Mash (to name only a few of hundreds).  He was part of the house band for Shindig!  He was known for bringing an eclectic flair to everything he did, and for having a talent for producing and arranging.

In 1969, Russell met a guy who would change the course of his life - Joe Cocker's manager, Denny Cordell. He played on and co-produced Cocker's second LP, which included Russell's song Delta Lady.  Then Cordell and Russell formed Shelter Records and Russell started putting out his own material the same year he famously led the ebullient orchestra and choir for Cocker's 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. (Brief interlude to boogie down to Cry Me A River ... )

Someone who suffered from stage fright, Russell was able, through his flamboyant Master of Space and Time persona, to become a live performer in his own right. Probably best known for the wistful Tight Rope, he also wrote and performed This Masquerade and A Song For You, although both are probably more associated with their famous covers. I've previously written that he co-wrote Karen Carpenter's breathtaking Superstar with Bonnie Bramlett.

Although he has never really stopped working, with no care and feeding from good management, he receded into the background for decades. That's something Elton John couldn't countenance, the more he thought about it.  He approached T Bone Burnett, and Russell and John put their heads together over a Mahalia Jackson song, igniting a fire that became The Union. John's manager is now Russell's. What happens next is anyone's guess.


KarmaSartre said...

Great artist, great choice, good memories. Thanks!

Perhaps I need more memory refreshing: I can't remember a cover of "A Song for You", just Leon's own unimprovable version!

wendy said...

Barry, if you look the song up on Wikipedia, there's an exhaustive list of recorded or performed covers.

Wade said...

Willie Nelson plays "A Song For You" solo on his guitar every show and has for nearly forty years--probably adds up to a few hundred thousand dollars in royalties for Leon. It's the main reason I know of Leon Russell (that and a duet album Willie did with him in the early eighties.) I think Willie first covered it on the Shotgun Willie album but I might be wrong. It's a beautiful cover--very weird chords.

Sorry to be a buzzkill, Wendy, but absolutely everything in Oklahoma is named after Will Rogers. It's all they got.

wendy said...

Haha - doesn't make it any less cool a high school name, though. To someone not from Oklahoma, anyway.

Chuck Vella said...

As ususal, you described many points in his career of which I was not aware. I would also mention his outstanding contribution to Mad Dogs and Englishmen with Joe Cocker, et al. Truly one of my favorite albums. Among the standout songs on which he sang with Cocker was "Girl From the North Country"
Signed, Your Humble Fan, Vella

Holly A Hughes said...

And let's not forget that he produced Gary Lewis and the Playboys' first album! (How many pre-teen hours did I spend mooning over that record!)

For years, Leon Russell's name on a project was like an imprimatur of quality. I have to wonder -- does he even need this HOF spotlight? But why not, honestly? Long, long, LONG overdue!