Another Tulsa music master has passed. Leon Russell now plays in space and time beyond this world, but he will forever play in our memories. He was loved worldwide for his music and many credit careers to him, but in Tulsa, he loved and was loved as a friend and you can hear it in his musical tribute to Oklahoma which is the best state rock song ever written below.
There are more stories locally of Leon Russell than can be published, but any competent Rock and Roll Encyclopedia will include significant listings of his work.
Working musician and musical historian, Jim Downing said, “His resume is one of the longest. As a member of The Wrecking Crew, he played with virtually all artists in LA in the sixties. He’s on Monster Mash, Da Do Ron Ron (In fact, most of Phil Spector’s productions), many Beach Boys records, and Mr Tambourine Man. He produced Jan & Dean and Gary Lewis and The Playboys and Bob Dylan. He arranged orchestrations and conducted for Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.”
Herb Alpert on the BBC said “Leon is on all my records. He would say ‘Herb, what do you want me to do on this?’ I told him to just play what he felt was right. We usually built the arrangements around his parts. He had this great intuition of what the groove should be.”
“Leon knew that in rock and pop, less is more. Mad Dogs and Englishmen included 30 players, but it doesn’t sound cluttered, because it’s layers of simple parts,” Downing added.
Downing and this writer together crafted a remembrance of Johnny Cale posted here and the video of Cale and Russell is significant historically and rightly included below. While at bit long, in it you get a feel for the early 70s with the innovation and talent these Tulsans contributed to American music history.
Incredible natural musical talent, gifted creative composer, eager to play for joy of music even in heartbreak, Leon Russell was inclusive, loving, and loyal to his friends. He was “one weird dude” as some say, but he could and did play with everyone.
A decade younger I lived next door to his Church Studios for a time and, on the periphery of his life, Russell would not remember my name, but it didn’t matter. My crowd followed and admired his. One of my good friends was long his business manager, Buddy Jones (click here for profile with notes on Kay Poorboy-Jones and Carl Dean Radle ).
No, I am not going to write about the night a woman and her child had to crawl out a window to escape a house fire at Russell’s place on Grand Lake. (Cooking under the influence early in the morning is never a good plan.) At the Lake Place more politicians partied there than you will ever know and some still deny it. If you were there, no one needs to remind you and, if not, you don’t need to know.
Russell built three state-of-the-art studios in green country; The Church Studio, one at his house in Maple Ridge, and another on Grand Lake. He invested in the best equipment and had two rare Stephens 40 track tape machines.
Russell also understood marketing and the business side of music. He took the risks to move his music forward. There were several cycles to his career and Russell would admit that after his initial flush of fame, he took a break and his career lost it’s public momentum, but greatly talented players loved to work with him as noted in his introduction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Leon Russell wrote a goodbye song for us all which follows as we remember his many gifts and morn his passing. “I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine. And when my life is over, remember when we were together, we were alone and I was singing this song for you.”