When seminal musician and songwriter Leon Russell comes to town, it really is time to get down.
This year has been incredibly hard for music icons. With celebrity deaths including Prince, David Bowie and Lemmy Kilmister – as well a many other lesser-known but equally talented artists in his or her own right – here’s hoping the bleeding ceases. If anything, these deaths serve as ample warning to see the world's musical greats before they, ultimately, end their journey.
Seventy-three-year-old pianist, musician, songwriter and two-time Grammy winner Claude Russell Bridges (known to most as simply Leon Russell) started his career in Tulsa, Okla., in his early teens, Since then, he has made quite a name for himself.
His first group, the Starlighters (also featuring the late J.J. Cale among others) already were causing a stir around the Midwest in nightclubs well before he turned 21. However, it wasn’t until he moved to California (more specifically, Los Angeles) when his solo career took shape. After the timely release of his single "Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young" on the now-defunct Dot Records, Russell finally realized he was the focal point.
Eventually, Russell released his self-titled record in the States on his Shelter Records imprint. The U.K. soon followed suit and A&M records released his it again just one month later. And while sales of the album stalled – the album peaked at No. 201 in the U.S. – it also signaled bigger and better things ahead for Russell.
Like his ever-growing musical songbook, his popularity grew exponentially when English singer and musician Joe Cocker reinvented Russell’s “Delta Lady” track from the aforementioned album. In hindsight, the move brought Russell’s music to the masses and only helped grow his fan base to further include newer generations hungry for rock solid musicianship.
Russell’s most recent release, "Life Journey" (2014), came out rather silently. He worked tirelessly with veteran producer Tommy LiPuma whose resume is equally impressive and longstanding friend Elton John served as executive producer (the latter released "The Union" with Russell in 2010). Additionally, he covered songs by Robert Johnson, the songwriting team of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, Paul Anka and Billy Joel. The new record also featured two new songs dubbed "Down in Dixieland” and "Big Lips.”
"This is a record of my musical journey through this life," Russell said in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. "It reflects pieces of things that I have done and things I never did."
For a musician who started working for others as a hired gun, Russell seems quite content with his life choices. Even on his new album, he seems amazed at the talent that generously offered their time and services including Paul McCartney’s drummer/vocalist Abe Laboriel Jr. and bassist Willie Weeks, along with some big band and Dixieland jazz groups.
"I'm kind of an illusionist," he said. "I'm kind of an actor of sorts. I don't consider myself to be in the same league with those guys, so I was little bit rattled."
Doing something right
Whether he was playing blues, rock and roll or even gospel, this ambidextrous player has shown time after time he can accomplish most anything he sets his mind to. If the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Barbara Streisand, the Band, George Harrison and countless other name brands have worked alongside him or enlisted his services, this Midwest musician must have been doing something right.
Catch him at Harrah’s on Saturday to find out how just many songs he’s both written and performed on you already know and love.
Odds are he’ll have a story or hundred to tell.
And that’s always a good thing.