New Leon Revival

It’s 20 years late, but this week Tulsa’s own Leon Russell was finally inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.  Politics and back door deals are part of these things.

Percy Sledge had one hit and he’s in. Al Kooper was involved with many hit-makers and he isn’t. Leon was inducted in what used to be called the ‘Sideman’ category, though he’s been that, producer, arranger, conductor, Grammy-winning songwriter, rock star in his own right, and #1 concert draw.

There are only a couple of people who have played on as many hit records as Leon Russell. The first was The Ventures’ version of Telstar. He played piano on Herb Alpert’s biggest album, Whipped Cream which contained the huge hit A Taste Of Honey. He has played on top ten hits by The Crystals, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, Garry Lewis & The Playboys, The Byrds, Delaney & Bonnie, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and countless others.

In fact when he met Willie, they were listening to Willie’s first album and Leon asked “Who’s on piano? The guy is stealing all my licks.” It turns out Leon had played on it without ever meeting Willie.

Leon worked for Jack Nitzche, Herb Alpert and Phil Spector as a session man and arranger, thereby learning how to produce records.

Alpert said “Leon would show up in a suit and tie, maybe looking perplexed – ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I gave him complete freedom; ‘If you think of something that fits, put it in’. Leon has this great groove.  He’s in his own time zone.  He’d play a simple accent and then the band just filled in around him.  He’s one of America’s greatest musicians.”

His early productions were Jan & Dean and Garry Lewis. Marc Benno, whom he also first produced, said that “Leon played everything on “This Diamond Ring” – he knew how to assemble all the parts to make a pop hit.” Benno goaded a reluctant Russell into “Doing something you want to do.” And they became Asylum Choir.

Shortly after that, the studio legend moved into the spotlight with Delaney & Bonnie, then Mad Dogs & Englishmen, which contained many of the same people and the future Dominoes. He recorded part of his first album in England and the stars were clamoring to play with him. Chris O’Dell asked George Harrison if Ringo might do a Leon session. He said he’d ask, “If I can play too.”

“Roll Away The Stone” is one of the rockingest songs ever.  The band on that track is Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger,  Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood.  How’s that for credentials?

Sadly, the general public didn’t know this for years because Leon couldn’t credit them .

“At the height of my popularity I was tired and took a couple of years off.  When I came back, it wasn’t there.”  Asked why he isn’t better known he replied “I just didn’t pursue that.  I’m not drawn to television and the press.”  This is why Benno calls him “The Howard Hughes of rock.”

In 1973, Leon was back in Tulsa and built three state-of-the-art studios; one at his home in Maple Ridge, one on Grand Lake, and the famous Church Studio. Shelter records produced Tom Petty, Dwight Twilley, Willis Ramsey, Phoebe Snow, J.J. Cale and Freddy King.

Two years ago Elton John was listening to Leon’s Greatest Hits and started to cry, because Leon was so under-appreciated.  Elton was petrified in 1970 at The Troubador when he saw ‘his hero’ sitting in the front. “No one plays piano like him, and he writes these beautiful melodies.  The Ballad Of Mad Dogs & Englishmen is as good as anything ever written.”  Leon’s songs have been covered by literally hundreds of artists.  “The last few years, he’s been driving the bus, playing small gigs and putting food on the table.” said John.

So Elton and Leon have a new album out; “The Union”, produced by T-Bone Burnett.  Leon even wrote a song for Elton. When they finished, Leon said “Thank you for saving my life.” His wife added “You got to him just in time.” It moved Elton to tears again. “In my whole life, it was the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced. He needs to be in the Hall Of Fame; we’ll see if that happens.” Echoing Alpert: “He’s one of America’s greatest musicians.”

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