Leon Russell Biography

Claude Russell Bridges, 2 April 1942, Lawton, Oklahoma, USA. The many talents of Russell include that of singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, entrepreneur, record company executive and multi-instrumentalist. While he tasted great honours as a solo star in the early 70s, it is his all-round contribution, much of it in the background, that has made him a vitally important figure in rock music for more than 30 years.

Russell’s impressive career began, having already mastered piano and trumpet as a child, when he played with Ronnie Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis in the late 50s. He became a regular session pianist for the pivotal US television show Shindig as well as being present on most of the classic Phil Spector singles, including the Ronettes, Crystals and the Righteous Brothers. James Burton is reputed to have taught him the guitar around this time. He has appeared on hundreds of major singles across the music spectrum, playing with a wide variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert and Paul Revere. He formed his own unit, Asylum Choir, in 1968, together with Marc Benno, and formed a cultist duo that was a commercial disaster. He befriended Delaney And Bonnie and created the famous Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour, which included Joe Cocker. Cocker recorded Russell’s ‘Delta Lady’ during this time, with great success.

Russell founded his own label, Shelter Records, with UK producer Denny Cordell and released his self-titled debut in 1970, which received unanimous critical approbation. His own session players included Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Ringo Starr. Following further session work, including playing with Bob Dylan and Dave Mason, he appeared at the historic Concert For Bangla Desh in 1971 but was forced to rest the following year when he suffered a nervous and physical breakdown. He returned in 1972 with the poignant Carney. This US number 2 million-seller was semi-autobiographical, using the circus clown theme as an analogy for his own punishing career. The following year Russell delivered a superb country album, Hank Wilson’s Back!, acknowledging his debt to classic country singers. That year he released an album by his future wife, Mary McCreary, and in 1974 an excellent cover version of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’. By now Russell was concentrating on his own career more and more and, in 1977, was awarded a Grammy for his song ‘This Masquerade’, which made the US Top 10 the previous year for George Benson. A partnership with Willie Nelson produced a superb country album in 1979. The single ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ topped the US country chart, endorsing Russell’s acceptance as a country singer. An excursion into bluegrass resulted in the 1981 live set with the New Grass Revival. Following Hank Wilson Vol. II in 1984, Russell became involved with his own video production company.

Now white-haired, and resembling J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf, Russell returned in 1992 with the disappointing Anything Can Happen. He has already earned his retirement twice over and his place in the history books. If there were such a trophy, he would be a contender for the ‘most outstanding all-round contribution to rock’ music award, yet sadly in recent years his profile has been much lower, with a series of undistinguished new recordings on his own label.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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