king of leon

leon russell

It was on my 12the birthday that the music of Leon Russell first made itself at home in my head. Among my gifts that year was a 45 rpm record – you know, those two sided vinyl miniatures with the big hole in the middle – of Joe Cocker singing Cry Me a River.

The history of the song was unknown to me at the time. I knew nothing of its existence decades earlier as a hit for Ella Fitzgerald and Julie London. No, my introduction to Cry Me a River was through Cocker’s soul-blasted carnival version that transformed the tune into a brassy, gospel-tinged, psychedelic ragtime confessional.

While Cocker’s scorched vocals sold the arrangement, what hit me hardest was Russell’s piano work – specifically, the strides of boogie-woogie piano runs that served as the catalyst not only to this performance, but for Cocker’s entire Mad Dogs and Englishmen album, a chronicle of his ensemble tour with Russell earlier that year (1970).

Russell had enjoyed a hearty decade of recording studio work before the summit with Cocker. He played almost anonymously behind such pop stars of the day by The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys and even Glen Campbell. Another decade would pass before I would actually witness Russell in performance. That came by way of a 1979 Rupp Arena performance with Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. By that time, Russell’s fierce Okie-bred pop-soul charge was already showing signs of settling down.

So it was during the ‘70s – particularly, the first half of the decade – that Russell’s signature music surfaced. In rapid succession came three career defining albums: Leon Russell (1970), Leon Russell and the Shelter People (1971) and Carney (1972).

The first boasted the titan piano ballad A Song For You, which would live on through the years thanks to cover recordings by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles. Shelter People then pushed the Mad Dogs and Englishman sound to the forefront with gospel-singed rockers like Crystal Closet Queen and Alcatraz.

1971 also saw the release of another live recording where he again worked as a sort of hired hand. For George Harrison’s all-star The Concert for Bangla Desh, Russell provided some tent revival-style pop-soul for a medley of Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Youngblood. Harrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan sounded stately, regal and fine. Upon a renewed listening to the album last weekend, Russell’s set was positively primal in comparison.

Carney became the true breakthrough, though. Still perhaps Russell’s finest recorded work, it tempered his sound considerably. With exception of the rollicking Roller Derby, Russell’s new tunes were leaner, darker and vastly more contained. The modestly jovial Tightrope became a radio hit while the ballad This Masquerade would reappear four years later to redefine the career of pop-jazz star George Benson. But a fresh listen to Carney revealed the album-closing Magic Mirror as the most lasting highlight. It was a quiet portrait of lyrical (and perhaps personal) unrest recorded with only piano, a primitive electronic percussion beat and an atypically reflective variation of Russell’s by-now popular Okie drawl.

After that, the seemingly restless Russell began to experiment. He went country for a fine roots music cover collection, 1973’s critically lauded Hank Wilson’s Back, that, in retrospect, places the later Nelson collaboration in more appropriate perspective. 1974 brought a record of Mose Allison-style swing and blues, Stop All That Jazz, which triggered Russell’s first serious critical setback (“Stop all what jazz, Leon?” was the headline to Rolling Stone’s less-than-enchanted review). For 1975’s Will O’ The Wisp, he retreated to more streamlined pop pronouncements underscored by synthesizers and the multi-tracked backing vocals of soon-to-be wife Mary McCreary.

Russell was never a darling of the pop charts. Despite the popularity of Tightrope, Lady Blue and Back to the Island (the latter two came from Will O’ The Wisp), the closest thing he earned to a No. 1 hit was, curiously, a countrified cover of Heartbreak Hotel with Nelson in 1979 (it went as high as No. 2).

Following a wildly underappreciated foray into bluegrass with the New Grass Revival in 1981 (resulting in The Live Album and high speed string band readings of The Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen a Face and his own early ‘70s chestnut Prince of Peace), Russell went into a mode that would last for nearly 30 years. He recorded independently and toured constantly, content to play rock clubs instead of the arenas he headlined during the early ‘70s.

In the years to come, two other pop piano men stepped up to showcase the influence Russell has had upon their music. Bruce Hornsby co-produced 1992’s Anything Can Happen, furthering the fascination with electronic keyboard voices and creating at least one Russell classic in the process (No Man’s Land).

But the real renaissance began with 2010’s T Bone Burnett-produced The Union, a full, collaborative album with Elton John. It was not exactly a return to the wild, soul revival sound of decades past. After all, Russell turned 70 this year. But it was easily the finest recording either artist had put their name to in decades. The Union became a Top 5 hit, put Russell in front of TV audiences with John on Saturday Night Live and set the stage for a 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“I just play,” Russell told London’s Telegraph newspaper prior to the release of The Union. “When it comes natural, you don’t know what unnatural is.”

Leon Russell and Tula perform at 8 p.m. April 29 at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom. 899 Manchester St. Tickets are $22 in advance, $25 day of show. Call (859) 368-8871.


The Boston Globe (Boston, MA) July 16, 2000 | Davis Bushnell, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT DRACUT – Even though Dracut residents voted overwhelmingly last month to repeal a longtime ban on self-service gas stations, service station operators are not exactly pumped up over the development.

These operators say they are pleased that, if the attorney general’s office goes along with the change, they will have the option to let customers pump their own gas, as do most of their counterparts across the state. However, they shy away from saying they’ll convert full-service pumps to self-service in short order.

Their equivocal responses raise a question: Why was the self- service ban, adopted probably before 1950 (no one knows exactly when), overturned after several previous attempts failed? The quick answer, suggested Jack DiTillio, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, “is that voters wanted to give gas stations a level playing field since other stations in the immediate area and across the border in New Hampshire have self-service.” Yet the appeal that full-service has here won’t disappear overnight, DiTillio and service station operators said, adding that the elderly in particular favor full service. About 4,000 of the town’s 22,000 residents are 65 years of age and older, according to the local Council On Aging.

“I’m not going to offer self-service because I don’t want to have to ask elderly people to pump their own gas in freezing weather,” said Jim Xinidakis, who has owned Jim’s Service Station, selling Sunoco products, for 35 years. in our site adp self service

Xinidakis said he’s not worried about his three competitors in Dracut. “I now have the lowest prices in Dracut, and I’ll be able to match any price changes at other stations,” he said. He currently charges $1.69 a gallon for regular.

The proposer of the bylaw repeal measure, Jay E. Calkins, owner of Jay’s Service Center since 1981, said he’s going “to talk to customers” before going the self-service route.

“I proposed that the ban on self-service be lifted because I felt it was a restraint of trade – that I and others should at least be given the opportunity to offer self-service when everyone around here offers it.” Only Kal Hamze, owner of Dracut Shell, said he’ll definitely provide self-service down the line. “Now I have a choice, and I’m going to convert six of my eight pumps to self-service. The other two will remain full-service.” The other service station operator in town, Tony Karouz of Dracut Citgo, couldn’t be reached for comment. web site adp self service

Last week, Town Clerk Gary McCarthy notified the state attorney general’s office of the June 12 Town Meeting vote repealing the prohibition on self-service stations. The AG’s office, which reviews all new bylaws and bylaw changes, has 90 days to make a ruling.

Only 16 of the state’s 351 cities and towns still prohibit self- service stations, according to the Massachusetts Petroleum Council. Arlington is among them, having had a self-service ban since 1983.

“Three years ago, there was an unsuccessful effort by some of the more than a dozen service station operators to repeal the bylaw,” said John Maher, Arlington town counsel. Fears about safety and that the elderly would be inconvenienced carried the day, he said.

However, over the last 10 years, when there has been the most dramatic increase in the number of self-service stations, their safety records “have been good,” state Fire Marshal Steve Coan said. “More advanced fire-suppression equipment has proved to be effective.” Fire safety was an issue, though, when he was Dracut’s fire chief, said Gerard Carle, who retired in 1985 after 19 years in the post. “And there were a lot more gas stations then – 12 to 14, at least.” If he hadn’t been away, he would have attended Town Meeting “and spoken against” doing away with the self-service ban, Carle said. “There are still issues such as serving elderly drivers and those with handicaps as well as preventing people from driving away with gas nozzles in their tanks.” The current fire chief, Joseph DiRocco, said that he had decided before last month’s Town Meeting “to let people decide what they wanted. But I still think it’s safer when service stations only offer full-service.

“Gas prices might be cheaper at first under self-service, but in the end, they’ll all be the same.” Noting that about 80 percent of his customers have told him they would line up to pump their own gas, Hamze said he figures he can offer them a price of $1.65 a gallon for regular gas, or 6 cents less than he is now charging. “I’ll then be competitive with dealers a mile away in Pelham [N.H.] and those in Lowell,” the Shell dealer said.

Calkins, who pushed hard for lifting the ban on self-service, said he could be persuaded to convert two of his 10 pumps to self- service. “As an independent – I buy my gas from Best Petroleum – I can do a lot of things. But I also want to do the right thing for my customers.” And he has changed his mind before, said Calkins, a director of the 600-member New England Service Station and Automotive Repair Association. “I started out being for self-service, but then, in the early 1980s, I fought to keep the self-service ban in effect in Dracut. I worried about the number of people who would be put out of work. However, times change – self-service stations are everywhere – and fire-prevention techniques today are much better.” Davis Bushnell, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT

Comments are closed.

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright