(Photos: Dale Ernsberger / The Tennessean)
Juli Thanki , email@example.com 5:40 p.m. CST November 13, 2016
Songwriter and musician Leon Russell died Sunday morning in his sleep at his Nashville home, according to posts on his official website and Facebook page, The Southern Rock icon was 74 years old.
Russell, a member of the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, performed, toured and recorded with a wide-ranging roster of performers over his nearly six-decade career, including Elton John, Willie Nelson, George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Delaney and Bonnie, and the New Grass Revival.
Russell's "A Song for You" has been recorded by more than three dozen artists (Ray Charles won a Grammy for his version) over the years. His work spanned genres, and over the years several artists found chart success by recording his songs, including Joe Cocker ("Delta Lady"), The Carpenters ("Superstar," which Russell wrote with Bonnie Bramlett), B.B. King ("Hummingbird") and George Benson ("This Masquerade").
"Every time I play, I use something I got from Leon," said Barry Walsh, a Nashville pianist who counts Russell among his most important musical influences. "His style was accessible and he spoke to me in ways that other rock piano players of the day — Billy Joel and Elton John — didn’t. He was rootsy and wrote incredible songs...he had this persona that was mysterious and just so powerful."
Claude Russell Bridges was born in Lawton, Oklahoma on Apr. 2, 1942. He began learning piano at the age of four; by his early teens, he was playing in Tulsa nightclubs. Following his high school graduation, Russell toured with Jerry Lee Lewis for a few months, then moved to Los Angeles and found work as a session musician. As part of the Wrecking Crew, a collective of elite studio musicians, Russell played piano on a number of hit songs.
In 1967, he built a recording studio in his home where he made music with Marc Benno under the name "The Asylum Choir." Two years later, he co-produced, arranged, and played piano, organ and guitar on Cocker's album "Joe Cocker!," which also included "Delta Lady." Russell also assembled and led Cocker's super-sized "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" backing band on a tour of 48 cities. The subsequent live double-LP hit No. 2 on the charts.
Russell and Denny Cordell launched Shelter Records in 1969; the label worked with artists like Freddie King, J.J. Cale and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. After leaving Shelter, Russell started Paradise Records, and later, Leon Russell Records.
As a solo artist, Russell's most successful years came in the 1970s, beginning with his eponymous solo debut in 1970 and subsequent releases "Leon Russell and the Shelter People" and "Carney." He also made records with his then-wife Mary Russell and country star Willie Nelson and released the first of multiple country albums he made under the name "Hank Wilson."
"It was really on his solo work that he came into his own as a stylist," said Walsh.
With his flowing hair, top hats and unpolished voice, Russell was a captivating live performer. In 1971, he wowed crowds at the star-studded Concert for Bangladesh with a scorching medley of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Youngblood." Two years later, The Tennessean covered a concert Russell played at MTSU: “A Leon Russell show is inevitably more than an aural experience. The crowd provided strawberry incense, fluorescent Frisbees, and clouds of smoke, tobacco and otherwise. Excited fans standing in front of the stage bent double, (and) pounded their arms with the rhythm of the music.”
"He was the guy who was always second on the bill," said singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters, who saw Russell perform several times in the '70s, including the time he toured with the Rolling Stones. "He was really, really different than the (headlining) rock bands I was there to see. It was really rootsy: a lot of blues and country...he was outlandish and had this twangy kind of delivery. There was nothing else like it."
Though he continued to tour and record in the late 1980s, '90s, and into the new century, Russell's studio output didn't receive much attention outside of his dedicated fan base until he got a call from Elton John.
The pop legend, a longtime fan of Russell's music, asked him to collaborate on an album that would become "The Union." "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, not just musically, but emotionally," John told USA TODAY. "I fell in love with this guy all over again."
Released in 2010, the album produced by T Bone Burnett hit No. 3 on Billboard album chart and the Russell-penned opening track "If It Wasn’t for Bad" was nominated for a pop vocal collaboration Grammy. In 2011, John would go on to induct Russell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"I don't know a thing about charts and that stuff, largely because I was never in it," Russell told USA TODAY upon the album's release, acknowledging that he was overwhelmed by the attention. "I'm in this huge place, a place I've never been, even at the top of my success. ... They're interested in what I'm doing."
Russell released his last solo studio album, "Life Journey," in 2014.
"We thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this very, very difficult time," Russell's wife Jan Bridges said in a statement Sunday.
"My husband passed in his sleep in our Nashville home. He was recovering from heart surgery in July and looked forward to getting back on the road in January. We appreciate everyone’s love and support.”
Russell was scheduled to play at the Ryman Auditorium in March with the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Funeral arrangements are unknown at this time.