Leon Russell at the 2011 Songwriters Hall of Fame induction gala in New York (Photo courtesy of Songwriters Hall of Fame)
How significant was Leon Russell?
"My darling Leon Russell passed away last night," Elton John tweeted upon learning or Russell's death Sunday at 74. "He was a mentor, inspiration & so kind to me. I loved him and always will."
Fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Booker T. Jones tweeted: "RIP my friend of 50 years, generous trail blazer, Leon Russell, who rescued me and remained a gentleman throughout Hollywood's trials." Also via tweet, Jimmy Vivino hailed Russell by his "Master of Time and Space" designation, and as "one of my big guitar/keyboard influences along with Al Kooper and Steve Winwood singer, songwriter, bandleader and catalyst…big things happened when Leon 'rustled' up his Tulsa mob of musicians."
Adding by email, Vivino said, "Of course his piano flourishes on Darlene Love's 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' and 'Not Too Young To Get Married'--to name a few of many Wrecking Crew sessions--were record-defining moments."
Indeed, Russell, who was born in Lawton, Okla., went to high school in Tulsa and made a name in the club scene there, playing with musicians like J.J. Cale in developing the distinct blend of rockabilly, country, rock 'n' roll and blues that came to be known as the Tulsa Sound. After moving to Los Angeles in 1958, he became one of the top session players in the fabled Wrecking Crew of musicians who backed everyone from Frank Sinatra and Doris Day to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector's productions of artists like Love.
As a songwriter, Russell's credits included Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "Everybody Loves a Clown" and "She's Just My Style," Joe Cocker's "Delta Lady" (Russell organized Cocker's legendary 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour), his own 1972 No 11 hit "Tight Rope" and the much-covered standard "Superstar," most closely identified with the Carpenters' No. 2 hit version of 1971.
"Grammy recipient Leon Russell's passing leaves us with a profound sense of loss," said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. "He made an immeasurable contribution to our culture as a musician as part of Los Angeles' famed Wrecking Crew, as a songwriter whose 'A Song For You' was recorded by more than 100 artists, and as a recording artist himself with hits such as 'Tight Rope.' His inquisitive musical nature was a model to be emulated."
For producer Russ Titelman, Russell was "perhaps the greatest underappreciated genius in rock 'n' roll history. He was a great songwriter, a great musician and singer and a great producer. I was in the Shindig! band with him for almost a year in 1964-65, so I got to play with him every week. His piano playing was brilliant and so was his hysterical salty sense of humor. I saw him maybe eight-to-10 years ago at the old Cutting Room in New York and he rocked the house."
Speaking of the classic Shindig! '60s music TV show, Donna Loren was one of its regular vocalists.
"Leon played on many of my recording sessions, being one of the primary members of the Wreaking Crew," says Loren. "He also played on Shindig! as a member of the house band with Russ Titelman, Billy Preston and Glen Campbell. I had a soft spot in my heart for him due to his childhood bout with polio—but he was A-list all the way! He was a great pop pianist with a lot of Dr. John honkytonk blues."
Russell was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) in 2011.
"His acceptance remarks showed he was humbled by being inducted, and his performance brought everyone to their feet for a standing ovation," says SHOF president/CEO Linda Moran, who observed the universal reverence for Russell from his fellow inductees and honorees—as well as the evening's performers and attendees.
"He had a problem standing for long periods of time and walking, so he was in a wheelchair," she says. "At the cocktail reception before the dinner, everyone went over to him and paid homage to him, even though he had positioned himself in an out-of-the way corner. When the group photo of the inductees and honorees was taken, he sat in his wheelchair with his cane perched solidly in front of him, with Jimmy Webb and fellow inductee Garth Brooks kneeling on each side of him, and the rest of the group--including Hal David, fellow inductee Allen Toussaint and Johnny Mercer Award recipients Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil--surrounding him. It was all quite majestic!"
"I like to think of Leon as a Great Spirit," says music producer Leo Sacks. "He was magical, mythical and mystical. And of course his voice was otherworldly. I truly loved his authenticity. How he sang of sorrow but also turned it into a celebration of what it means to be human!"
Sacks centers on the mystical aspect of Russell's songs like "Tight Rope," "Bluebird" and "Pilgrim Land."
"I would imagine that Leon had more questions than answers, and that he may have intuitively known that those answers are unknowable. How does the tightrope walker manage his fear? Why does the bluebird fly away? How can a pilgrim be a stranger, too? These are universal questions, and Leon tapped into our struggle to find each other. Hopefully, he found a gentle kind of comfort in his own search."
Sacks recalls that Russell produced one of his favorite gospel albums, The O'Neal Twins, by the brothers Edgar and Edward O'Neal.
"They were outsize characters, men of God, just like Leon," Sacks says. "They had beautiful baritone voices and they sang about saints and sinners, hard rains and the family bible. I was 14 and a Hebrew school dropout from the Upper West Side. But in the brothers' voices--and Leon's sensitive production--I began my first real conversation about faith and family and our common journey."
"No doubt that Leon has a gig somewhere tonight," Sacks concludes, "maybe even two shows--early and late."