Thinking about Leon because this new book just came out: ‘Leon Russell In His Own Words’, edited by Steve Todoroff and John Wooley. Todoroff has been working on a Leon book for at least 30 years that I know. Todoroff ambitiously had some conscripts go through the union logs in L.A. to find how many recording sessions Leon played on; there are probably thousands.
Leon is on dozens of hit records including Da Do Ron Ron, Monster Mash, several Beach Boys hits, all of Herb Alpert’s records: he’s even on Mr Tambourine Man. Not long ago, Leon finally presented Steve with some of his memoirs, about 60 pages. Todoroff and Wooley added more material taken from various interviews with Leon and his associates to make a bigger picture.
By the time I was playing in Tulsa bars, Leon was long gone from Tulsa, but the older guys I got to work with talked about him a lot, so we all knew what he was accomplishing. By then he was producing and arranging and had a studio in his house, which was rare in those days.
Herb Alpert called him a musical genius, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. He started playing when he was 4, studied classical piano and taught himself a lot. To write orchestrations, you have to not only know musical notation completely, but you have to know the range of each instrument and what keys to write their parts in. Horns, for example can be in F, C, Bflat or Eflat, so you have to transpose those parts. Alpert said Leon had an intuitive feel for the groove, and his band would work off of Leon’s piano parts. His time was so consistent that in the recent concert film, you may notice that everyone seems to have changed clothes in the middle of a song; because the editors were able to splice together sections from different performances.
Leon suffered from neurological difficulties early on. He described it as a birth injury or malformation at different times; the new book says he had cerebral palsy. At any rate, it affected his right side. He limped and he had less control over his right hand than his left.
If you’ll notice, he doesn’t really shred on solos as Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman do, but since he had large hands he used that asset as compensation. In the concert film, he does it a lot; playing a melody in four octaves. “Leon’s got Hands! He can play octaves” said Tommy Tedesco in The Wrecking Crew. This requires strength and coordination of a different kind.
His music in general is frankly not as simple as it sounds. He would write a simple melody and sneak in occasional odd jazz chords that most pop songs wouldn’t have. He understood the more complex harmonies of big band music and had worked with Sinatra, Streisand and Dean Martin.
He was legendary in musical circles before the public really knew about him. Case in point, on his first album, partly recorded in England, he is backed by Ringo, George Harrison, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, though un-credited.
Part of what constitutes what people consider the Tulsa Sound is keeping it uncluttered. Larry Bell said J.J. Cale always told him that “Less is more”, which is certainly true in Rock And Roll. This may have come through Leon from the likes of Phil Spector. Spector often had a room full of musicians; five guitars, three pianos, two basses, etc. Leon said Phil went around to each of them and said “Play dumb!”
I can’t say that I was friends with Leon, I only was with him a couple of times, but we had a lot of mutual friends. I do know, that although he knew how to have fun, he was a very disciplined and responsible person; the boss and the designated driver. He was gracious, considerate and philosophical. He was never involved in scandal or having to go to rehab, despite working in the fast lane. He was a profound influence on Oklahoma music directly or indirectly.
Tulsans are thankful to John Wooley, Steve Todoroff, Theresa Knox and The OKPOP museum for keeping the Leon legacy alive. It will certainly endure.
About the author: Jim Downing is a working Tulsa musician, writer and frequent contributor to Tulsa Today. This story first appeared in his email newsletter Zig Gazette.