The storied musician Leon Russell passed away in his sleep on Sunday at the age of 74. It was a quiet passing for a musician who made an audible impact on American music. Though you're more likely to have heard of his peers and collaborators—Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan among them—few musicians had as deep an understanding for so many different facets of music and the cultures they spoke to. His unique blend of Southern rock, blues, soul, and gospel drew large audiences, both black and white, to his shows—it did not escape notice, at the time, that he was among the first Southern musicians to openly include black members in his band. Russell wasn't just a talented musician; he embodied the open-mindedness, eclecticism, and steadfast conviction that so many artists strive to capture.
I met Russell one time, last summer, in the offices of the Criterion Collection. I was there to interview him about the release of the 1975 documentary Les Blanks made about him, A Poem Is a Naked Person. Russell was led into the room by wheelchair, his trademark wide-brimmed bucket hat, sunglasses, and Santa Claus beard gave him a larger than life stature. My intimidation was exacerbated by Russell's hard hearing—I am soft-spoken, and I had to be loud and clear with my questions. He would wait before answering as he looked back in my direction. His responses came either at length or in a couple of words, and each ended with "did I answer your question?" I was afraid I was offending him, but when we finished the interview, Russell gave my hand a rigorous shake. "Good job, son." And then he wheeled out.
Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1942, Russell was a natural performer, so driven to do so that he used a fake ID to perform piano underage at various Tulsa nightclubs. In 1958, at the age of 15, Russell made his way to Los Angeles. He spent his late teens and early twenties as a session keyboardist for big names such as Frank Sinatra to Phil Spector, throughout it all steadily honing his own songwriting skills. Through his connections to the music community, Russell was introduced to the counterculture movement, soon embracing it as his own and exploring its musical potential. In 1967, with fellow studio musician Marc Benno, he formed the short-lived psychedelic duo The Asylum Choir. After their first album received a lukewarm reception, Russell joined a proto-version of the Kronos Quartet called the Midnight Strings.
Still, it wasn't until Russell returned to Oklahoma to record and release his eponymous debut that he would find his voice as a rock and blues influenced singer-songwriter. Where he was the Oklahoma child in Los Angeles, he was in turn the Los Angeles hippie in Oklahoma. Leon Russell is album is that fully embraced this contrarianism: it's full of lush nods to the Delta music of his youth, the music studios of Los Angeles, and the free-spirited psychedelic rock of the late 60s. Russell, now a formidable pianist, never tired in searching for new sounds, and it would be a newfound appreciation for gospel that served as the key element to making signature his mix of influences.
A string of charting albums that included Leon Russell and the Shelter People (1971) and Carney (1972) saw Russell rise up to the heights and ubiquity of rock stardom. Carney became the number two album in the country. As the cover suggests, Russell plays with a carnival theme throughout the album, an ostensible exploration of a man trying to work with disparate genres. Even on the first single "Tight Rope" Leon confesses: "I'm up on a tight rope / one side is hate and one is hope / but the top hat on my head is all you see."
Around this time, Russell conceived of a film that would visually give his audience an insider's look into his life. He hired then up-and-coming filmmaker Les Blank to film him in performance, in the studio, and at home. After two years of filming, Blanks presented Russell with A Poem Is a Naked Person—an acid-filtered snapshot of the songwriter's animated personality, his vivacious live shows, his quirky inner circle, and Russell's odd and folky rural Oklahoma community. It has since been hailed as one of the greatest rockumentaries of all time.
Russell hated it. He strongly felt Blanks had overstepped his artistic boundaries and felt that he was a character rather than the focus of the film. After several court battles, an agreement was made the Blanks could only screen it if he himself were in the audience. Screenings, consequently, were rare, and the two never spoke again.
Meanwhile, by the 80s, major label interest in his work had dried up and Russell's prolific output went from a flow to a trickle: After putting out an album every year in the 70s, Russell only released three over the following decade, including a collaboration with country singer Hank Wilson and a new, cassette-only, self-titled album. The country music revival of the early 90s helped Russell find his footing again, and he had a burst of writing, producing, and performing up through the 2000s. His resurgence culminated with The Union (2010), a collaboration with Elton John, whom he called his friend and mentor.
The Union brought together Russell's drawl and John's flair into impassioned harmonic piano balladry. It was Russell's first album to chart since 1975, and it revived popular interest in his work. Among its admirers was Herrod Blank, who reached out to the Russell in 2013 to praise the album and notify him that his father Les was ill. Les's dying wish, Herrod wrote, was to see A Poem Is a Naked Person released. The timing couldn't have been better—Russell's newfound success had given the songwriter a chance to reexamine his career, including the unreleased documentary. Russell wrote back, and the film was released: He had come to accept this portrait of himself, one that highlighted his folk heroism, his idiosyncratic rural lifestyle, and quite rightly, a man who did things his own way, preferring to drift into obscurity rather than attempt to catapult into commercial stardom.
The purest, rawest example of Russell's sound and personality can be heard on Leon Russell Live (1972). His set list is a menagerie of styles that threatens to break loose and wild. You can hear the ringmaster at work, barking out from his piano, then jumping around the stage, directing each instrument like a whip crack as they emerge from a psychedelic mist into a stomping blues rock rhythm before erupting into a glorious gospel-like chorus. It is the sound of Russell tearing the lid off of a musical pandora's box and leaving in his wake the possibility for further bands to explore sounds without prejudice.
Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns
Michael Barron is a writer, editor, and dormant musician living in New York. He plans to someday visit Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter.