We’ve lost another one. In a year that has seen the exit of far too many artistic elders (and a few younger ones, too), we now must add the name of Leon Russell, the piano-pounding Okie who was a living rock ‘n’ roll contradiction.
In performance, especially during his early ‘70s heyday, Russell was a Midwestern variation of Jerry Lee Lewis, blending blues and barrelhouse piano with a distinctive vocal howl that was as primal as it was celebratory. But the songs he will forever be best known for – “A Song for You” and “This Masquerade” – were ballads covered by scores of stylistic disparate artists. Likewise, the fearless, festive abandon of his early performance years was balanced by a scholarly music reputation, one forged by extensive studio session work behind artists as far ranging as The Monkees and Frank Sinatra.
I first became enamored of Russell’s music not through his own recordings or even his own songs. One of my first album purchases as pre-teen was Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishman,” a chronicle of a traveling rock and soul circus that, even with top-billing going to Cocker, was built around Russell’s direction and, more overtly, the joyous drive of his piano work. Listening to it again this morning, it was remarkable how fresh and vital the recording still sounds.
Russell’s first six studio albums, released yearly between 1970 and 1975 are classics. The first three, “Leon Russell” (1970), “Leon Russell and the Shelter People” (1971) and “Carny” (1972) should be considered essential listening. But the country covers collection “Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1” (1973), the Mose Allison-inclined swing set “Stop All That Jazz” (1974) and the gloriously produced and engineered “Will o’ the Wisp” (1975) were royal sleepers that challenged audience perceptions of Russell by stretching his stylistic reach. He paid a price for the latter three records, though. By altering his musical course, Russell interrupted the commercial momentum of a career that never fully recovered.
Russell slipped into touring purgatory not long after that. It seemed like he was forever on the road, a fact reflected in his often perfunctory concerts. Every so often you would catch him on a good night, though. A 2012 concert here at Buster’s, done in the midst of a career renaissance triggered by the hit 2010 collaborative album “The Union” with Elton John was one of his stronger local outings.
But to experience Russell in his primal prime, search out his near show-stealing performance in George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangla Desh.” Better yet, give a spin to the Okie soul that runs rampant through Russell’s early records – specifically songs like “Prince of Peace,” “Delta Lady” or “Crystal Closet Queen.” They contain a rock ‘n’ roll presence as jubilant as it was distinctive. No one, not even Russell himself in his later years, has been able to summon such a spirit since.