In Defense of Leon Russell

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Posted August 10, 2011 by Jeff Prince in Blotch

I recently told somebody that blues guitarist B.B. King was coming to Verizon Theatre on October 8 and that I was excited about Leon Russell and Fort Worth native Delbert McClinton opening the show.

The guy I was talking to said,  “I saw Elton John and Leon Russell on that last tour. I love Elton but I don’t see what the big deal is about Leon. He doesn’t do anything but sit there. Can’t sing. Can’t play. Lose the guy already.”

I talked to other people of varying ages who saw the Elton-Leon concert and gave similar variations of the “Leon sucks” theme.

And that pisses me off (even though I’ve been saying the same thing about the Rolling Stones for 20 years).

ELTON AND LEON IN 2010

ELTON AND LEON IN 2011

Yes, Leon is old and not all that healthy looking. That’s why Elton plucked him from his past-prime obscurity, to remind the world of the greatness that was Leon before it’s too late and he’s gone.

And, yes, my friends, Leon was fan-fucking-tastic in his prime. Here’s a YouTube clip from George Harrison’s Bangladesh concert to remind the ill-informed or otherwise uninitiated that Leon deserves our love.

Leon begins singing in the middle of the song on “Beware of Darkness” — listen to the crowd go wild when they hear his voice:

Lyrics | George Harrison lyricsBeware Of Darkness lyrics

Here’s my favorite Leon song (I wore this album out playing this song over and over):

Leon’s full of passion on this killer love song he wrote:

And here’s a drunken Leon singing a Hank Williams song at an early Willie Nelson show, proving that he does have a personality beyond the “Mute Cousin It” act that he sticks to these days:


16 Comments


  1.  
    Rockelle

    I am always amazed that more people don’t remember Russell. My husband was one and we went to see Russell in Deep Ellum a few years back. His performance was truly the “Mute Cousin It” but he gave a solid show. He was a great song writer and pianist, performing with the creme de la creme in his prime. Though dated, I still listen to Asylum Choir and other early recordings and appreciate his music. His presence makes me want even more to go see the great B.B. King.




  2.  
    Maxx Flash

    Well just a little more background. Leon was Elton’s major influence when he was getting started. Leon invited Elton to tour with him in the early 70s and the rest is history. Elton took off like a rocket! And Leon wanted to stay behind the scenes and let Elton soar!

    Elton was vacationing and stumbled upon David, his partner, listening to Leon’s Greatest Hits and Elton broke down. He was upset with himself for not reaching put to Leon sooner.

    Elton made a call and they were back in the studio making THE UNION; Elton and Leon’s latest album. A true masterpiece of rock and roll!

    Elton also got Leon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame too! He’s got a new tour bus and he’s got some money in the bank!!

    I can’t wait to see what they do next!!




    •  
      JMartin

      We booked Leon twice and he played to a packed house and gave an amazing show-one 85 minute non stop set./ The only one never to leave the stage and he never stopped giving. In addition we had let a number of local young musicians in to hear this great legend- a few knew who he was and one said he thought he should probably have turned in at his age-That was before the show. Leon rocked the place out-never stopping-always with the right timing and energy and outstanding musicianship. The young guys were all floored and I had to point out to the one that has suggested Leon retire that while Leon went non stop with a great show he often tired after a few songs.He had been totally overwhelmed by the performance and had already revised viewpoint.




  3.  
    jenny

    Leon! geez! he’s the real fucking deal – genius all around. Old, young, stoned, stone cold sober, whatever. He’s terrific. Along with many other times, we heard him at the Ridglea about five years ago, a small venue and it was a great treat (but the somnambulant audience was a real buzzkill- BOO!). He was joined by his daughter and we were stunned. The Elton John combo was cool and we wouldn’t have missed it. But we have the luxury of a little age, a lot of experience and we know magic when we hear it.




  4.  
    Blake

    Leon Russell is an American icon! The man has been around for 50+ years from touring the rockabilly circuit when The Band was still billed as Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, to Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, to todays performances with Elton John. I hope I’m not the only one who remembers him performing two sold out shows at the now defunct Fairmount; I was there and he was brilliant even though he had to be helped on and off stage! So the man is old and yes, he is past his prime but just to be able to see a legend get up there and show he can still play should be enough for some of these nay sayers. Oh and The Rolling Stones fall into that category too! They may not have written anything cool in the last 25 years of so but go see them in concert and then try to tell me they’re past it!




  5.  
    Anne

    Leon has played with, arranged for, or otherwise influenced Elton John, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Carl Radle, Bobby Keyes, The Band, Badfinger, Edgar Winter, Dave Mason, B.B. King, Shelter Records, Paradise Records, Freddie King, Don Preston, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, The Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Ike and Tina Turner, Rita Coolidge, David Gates, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Chuck Blackwell, Ringo Starr, Jesse Ed Davis, Graham Parsons, Barbra Streisand, Ricky Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Ann-Margret, Dean Martin, Jim Keltner, Marvin Gaye, Earl Scruggs, Don Nix, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Gap Band, Dwight Twilley, Jim Price, Phoebe Snow, Beach Boys, New Grass Revival, Steve Winwood, The Monkees, John Lennon, Charlie Watts, Marc Benno, Klaus Voorman, Herb Alpert, Tijuana Brass, Bill Wyman, Steve Cropper, Glen Campbell, Billy Preston, Matthew Moore, Pamela Polland, Bruce Hornsby, Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, The Tractors, The Flying Burrito Brothers, J.J. Cale, The Routers, Sam Cooke, Mamas & Papas, The Super Stocks, Bobby Womack, Don Costa, Bobby Darin, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, Wayne Newton, George Benson (on This Masquerade), Claudia Lennear, the Tulsa “Church Studios”, Barry Beckett, Spooner Oldham, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section “Swampers” (nicknamed by Leon) and The Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, film, and album.

    The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour was a quickly organized addition to a longer tour Joe Cocker was completing in 1970. He released With A Little Help From My Friends and Joe Cocker! in April and November of 1969 respectively and Cocker had spent the time since then in a grueling promotional tour. As the story goes, Cocker arrived in Los Angeles in March of 1970 for some rest and relaxation. He was planning to put together a new band. His management company had other plans for him. They’d arranged a seven week tour, to commence in eight days. Leon Russell, in an attempt to help out his old friend, makes some calls and forms a band, becomes the musical director, and directs the iconic group toward what would become The Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. After forty hours of rehearsal time with his new ten person band, Cocker and company record the single “The Letter/Space Captain” and hit the road, starting in Detroit.

    Leon has performed his gospel-infused Southern boogie piano rock, blues and country music for over 50 years. He is legendary in the music world. He’s a Grammy award winning musician and songwriter who has topped music charts, virtually stole the show at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, and in 2011 was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Check out the video of Leon Russel and john Mayer “A Song for You” on youtube.

    Leon’s earned every accolade ever bestowed upon him and remains humble to this day. He IS the Master of Space and Time and we are all better for having had the honor to witness his music and be touched by his genius. God be with you, Leon!




  6.  
    TulsaSound

    Leon must be 70 years old now. He’s probably as surprised to be alive as I am to read he’s touring with Elton John. Leon and fellow Tulsan, J.J. Cale are simply modern versions of Cole Porter. Great song writing which influenced and spawned too many to count big name stars. Thanks, Anne for your post outlining that.
    Caught Leon several times at Cain’s Ball Room early-mid 70′s while a student at U. of Tulsa. That gravel and marble filled voice which could also bow the walls out. He commanded the room without pandering to the audience. Never padded his 90 minutes sets with talk or introductions. The beautiful long fingered hands, laser blue eyes. Cryptic and mysterious to this day, never sold out for money and fame. Truly a creative genius. “Masquerade, A Song for You”—won’t find this caliber in current popular music.
    His wrought iron fenced Georgian house on Peoria Avenue in Tulsa was a popular late night cruise. When George Harrison came to town one weekend, my girlfriends & circled endlessly. We never saw anybody there though the house had a ballroom & recording studio. The ever mysterious Leon Russell.
    Jeff Prince, you plucked out a gem to write about.




  7.  
    Fred Overdorf

    If you didn’t get to see Leon on tour in the early 70′s you missed him in his prime. Truly a Deserved Legend of Rock and Roll ! And Anne…You said it all ! Listen to his first two Shelter Albums/CDs, Carney, Hank Wilson’s Back, and Will o’ the Wisp. Also catch Leon on “Indianola, Mississippi Seeds by BB King. You’ll recognize his piano in the background. And…Alone Together by Dave Mason. Ditto and you’ll hear him in the beginning of “Look at You, Look at Me.” You can hear him count off the time if you turn up the volume a bit. And of course the Classic: “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” Album with Joe Cocker. Fred




  8.  
    Karen the Quilter

    Well it’s amazing to see a piece with that title. Gosh, if there’s ever someone who needs no defense, it’s Leon Russell, he says it ALL with the music. His website even says that.

    I’ve been a Leon fan for decades. I had the good fortune to see Leon at the Fillmore East in NYC, Elton John was the OPENING ACT; I was 14 yrs. old.

    I saw him again at CW Post (Old Westbury?) with Tina Turner as the Opening Act.

    Whoever commented above likening him to Cole Porter of our times makes a good point, I might even say more Gershwin-like in his multi-facetedness. He played guitar, piano, wrote, sang, directed, arranged, orchestrated choirs, some gospel, composed… That’s so far beyond even the most established musicians’ abilities, never mind that most musicians play AN instrument, maybe two.

    I saw Leon & Elton last November at the Beacon Theatre in NYC; to feel the love for him in that Hall when he came on stage was amazing. Excellent representations of Leon’s performances above in the article, but if you just have a few minutes to take a quick listen for something a bit different, try listening to his cover of Dylan’s ‘It’s a Hard Rain Gonna Fall’.

    I just learned 2 wks ago he’ll be in New York in late November, I’ll be there with bells on!

    Karen the Quilter




  9.  
    Jimmi in Austin

    Saw Leon with Mad Dogs & Englishman at TCU, Daniel Meyer Coliseum. Fabuloso! Then a few months later, as part of one of the most incredible shows I ever saw at Univ. of Texas, Clark Field: Pacific Gas & Electric, The Allman Brothers Band (wow, who are these guys? we said), It’s a Beautiful Day. Even Moreso! His first solo album has been worn out, and possibly would make my all-time top 10.
    Saw him a few years ago at a little place in Pflugerville called Hanovers. SoSo! However, I will give him a break for his endless string of great songs, ruined as same-sounding medleys. It was still nice to see him, knowing I witnessed him in his prime. Age does have it’s advantages. Let’s see if any of today’s “artists” hold up. Love ya Leon.




  10.  
    pam

    Leon Russell may be older,less agile…
    But to truly understand why we all LOVE THE MAN so much-just go back to old videos of his from the early 70′s or watch the documentary, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell and 40+ great musicians and oddballs …great energy, honest fo-real.
    And the fellow who kept the glue together was Leon Russell.
    And YES, from my old memories-Leon was not only talented on piano and guitar but lovely to look at-(and I know I ain’t the only one who says so!)
    I saw him in concert over 40 years ago-the entire show was fantastic-great musicians,sort of carny-like and thenthere was that good lookin man with those green
    eyes looking very laid back…and that’s that




  11.  

    I just came across this piece, hell yeah!!! I LOVED this article and great comments. More artists should take a cue from Elton and honor those that time has forgotten. Leon Russell is a genius. One of the greatest artists, musicians, songwriters that has ever graced this planet. Rock, Country, Soul, Jazz, Funk he merged it all. His influence on others (Elton is just one of many) has affected Music as a whole in an unmeasurable way. “A Song For You” is one of the greatest songs EVER. I like Elton well enough, certainly respect his immense talent, but when he brought Leon back out into the forefront and got him into the Hall of Fame, he jumped to the highest regard in my eyes.




  12.  
    John M Welsh

    I saw Leon back in the 70′s at the Civic Arena, without a doubt the best performance I have ever seen from an artist, the show was filled with energy from beginning to end. In Leon’s own words, “Those songs take a lot of energy, and I’m an old man now” Those who criticize Leon, never saw him back in the 70′s, if they did, they would change their view of Leon.




  13.  
    thomas

    I am 58 and grew up listening to Leon and today I live in Brazil and the only CDs I have in my car are Leons’. Do I need say anything else?




  14.  
    Jeffrey

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you.




  15.  
    Leon Fan

    I would like to add that Leon Russell’s prime LASTED a WHOLE lot longer than most of the of the people you think are great!!! And this is not to mention all the people that he played for as a sessions musician. He deserves more than Rock ‘n Roll HOF. How humble he is/was when accepting the award! Yes he is fan-FUCKIN-tactic!!! It’s your loss if you can’t see it!!!





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