Our heroes are dropping like flies – and it hurts. These are the people that built the pyramids and the train tracks within and to popular music. They shaped the way it works. And Leon Russell, 74, is the latest in a long line of names from this year alone. There’ll be so many more to come. And it’s getting harder to take, not easier. Russell hadn’t been well. For some time. But he managed one final rather brilliant album in 2014. It more than made up for the rather dud pairing of him and Sir Elton John in 2010.
There was Russell – a Dr-John-meets-Merlin mad wizard of the keyboard – resplendent, flamboyant, top-hatted and controlling the giant band and chorus behind Joe Cocker for his seminal Mad Dogs & Englishmen live album and tour. We saw and heard them on George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh too.
Before all of that Russell had played the piano on The Byrds’ version of Mr Tambourine Man, and Live With Me by The Rolling Stones. He was on Pet Sounds and worked with Herb Alpert – he was one of the go-to guys for Phil Spector; one of the building bricks then in the Wall of Sound.
But Russell also wrote killer tunes. You know B.B King’s version of Hummingbird and George Benson’s take on This Masquerade. These are Leon Russell songs. You maybe knew them – too – as Leon Russell songs because from 1970 onwards he continued to release his own albums and put on shows as the marquee name, not merely as musical director.
There were, in the end, more than 30 albums and no serious music collection should be
without a small handful of those great 1970s albums – Leon Russell and The Shelter People, Carney, his Wedding Album (w/ Mary Russell) even One For The Road (w/ Willie Nelson). Just to start.
He would go on to record versions of some of his own songs after they’d been big hits for other artists. Joe Cocker scored first with Delta Lady, for instance. But it was – and is – a Leon Russell song. Something magical in that sound, the flow of the fingers and the rasp of the voice – his music a genre-less swamp of all the murk and magic that counts, touches of blues and jazz and the full flavour of R’n’B.
Russell is one of those voices in music – very much a Guy Behind The Guys (and Gals) but also such an authoritative voice as bandleader or solo act. Something of a magician. Someone who helped to make the good music really shine, who created some of the very best music of the last 50 years whether out on his own or hiding deep inside the sound of the band. A legend. A hero. One of the true all-time greats.