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The ultimate rock & roll session man, Leon Russell's long and storied career includes collaborations with a virtual who's who of music icons spanning from Jerry Lee Lewis to Phil Spector to the Rolling Stones. A similar eclecticism and scope also surfaced in his solo work, which couched his charmingly gravelly voice in a rustic yet rich swamp pop fusion of country, blues, and gospel. Born Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1942, in Lawton, OK, he began studying classical piano at age three, a decade later adopting the trumpet and forming his first band. At 14, Russell lied about his age to land a gig at a Tulsa nightclub, playing behind Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks before touring in support of Jerry Lee Lewis. Two years later, he settled in Los Angeles, studying guitar under the legendary James Burton and appearing on sessions with Dorsey Burnette and Glen Campbell. As a member of Spector's renowned studio group, Russell played on many of the finest pop singles of the 1960s, also arranging classics like Ike & Tina Turner's monumental "River Deep, Mountain High"; other hits bearing his input include the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man," Gary Lewis & the Playboys' "This Diamond Ring," and Herb Alpert's "A Taste of Honey."
In 1967, Russell built his own recording studio, teaming with guitarist Marc Benno to record the acclaimed Look Inside the Asylum Choir LP. While touring with Delaney & Bonnie, he scored his first songwriting hit with Joe Cocker's reading of "Delta Lady," and in 1970, upon founding his own Shelter Records imprint, he also organized Cocker's legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. After the subsequent tour film earned Russell his first real mainstream notoriety, he issued a self-titled solo LP, and in 1971 appeared at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh following sessions for B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. After touring with the Rolling Stones, Russell increasingly focused on his solo career, reaching the number two spot with 1972's Carney and scoring his first pop hit with the single "Tight Rope." While the success of 1973's three-LP set Leon Live further established his reputation as a top concert draw, response to the country-inspired studio effort Hank Wilson's Back was considerably more lukewarm, as was the reception afforded to 1974's Stop All That Jazz. 1975's Will O' the Wisp, however, restored his commercial luster, thanks in large part to the lovely single "Lady Blue."
In June of 1975, Russell married singer Mary McCreary; the following year the couple collaborated on The Wedding Album, issued through his newly formed Paradise Records label. Also in 1976, the Russell-penned "This Masquerade" earned a Grammy Award for singer George Benson. He and McCreary reunited for 1977's Make Love to the Music, and upon completing the solo Americana, Russell teamed with Willie Nelson for 1979's Willie & Leon. He then spent the next two years touring with his bluegrass band, the New Grass Revival, issuing a live LP in 1981; although Paradise shut down later that year, the label was reactivated for 1984's Hank Wilson, Vol. 2 and Solid State. Russell spent the remainder of the decade largely outside of music and did not resurface until issuing the Bruce Hornsby-produced Anything Can Happen in 1992. The album appeared to little fanfare, however, and another long period of relative inactivity followed prior to the 1998 release of Hank Wilson, Vol. 3: Legend in My Time. Face in the Crowd appeared a year later. Moving into the new century, Russell issued Moonlight & Love Songs, an album of cover songs, in 2002, followed by Angel in Disguise five years later in 2007. A trio of releases, Almost Piano, Bad Country, and In Your Dreams, appeared in 2008.
Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges April 2, 1942) is an American musician and songwriter, who has recorded as a session musician, sideman, and maintained a solo career in music.
Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, he began playing piano at the age of four. Russell attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At this time he was already performing at Tulsa nightclubs. After moving to Los Angeles, he became a session musician, working as a pianist on the recordings of many notable musical artists from the 1960s. By the late 1960s, Russell diversified, becoming successful as an arranger and wrote and co-wrote songs. As a musician, he worked his way from gigs as a sideman to well known performers. By 1970 he had graduated to solo recording artist, although he never ended all his previous roles within the music industry.
Russell was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Monday, March 14, 2011, at a black-tie dinner at The Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan.
Russell began his musical career at the age of 14 in the nightclubs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his group The Starlighters, which included J.J. Cale, Leo Feathers, Chuck Blackwell and Johnny Williams, were instrumental in creating the style of music known as the Tulsa Sound. After settling in Los Angeles, he studied guitar with James Burton. Known mostly as a session musician early in his career, as a solo artist he has crossed genres to include rock and roll, blues, and gospel music, playing with artists as varied as Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Gram Parsons, Delaney Bramlett, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Ventures, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Bob Dylan, BB King, Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, and The Rolling Stones.
As a first call studio musician in Los Angeles, Russell played on many of the most popular songs of the 1960s, including some by The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Bobby "Boris" Pickett, and Herb Alpert. He can be seen in 1964's T.A.M.I. Show, playing piano with "The Wrecking Crew" (an informal name for the top L.A. session musicians of the 1960s), sporting short, dark, slicked-back hair, in contrast to his later look. Soon after, he was hired as Snuff Garrett's assistant/creative developer, playing on numerous #1 singles, including "This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. He wrote or co-wrote two hit songs for Gary Lewis and Playboys: "Everybody Loves a Clown" (which hit the Billboard Top 40 on October 9, 1965, remaining on the chart for 8 weeks and rising to number 4) and "She's Just My Style" (which hit Billboard's Top 40 on December 18, 1965 and rose to number 3). He played xylophone and bells on the 1966 single "The Joker Went Wild", sung by Brian Hyland and penned by Bobby Russell (no relation to Leon). He also worked sessions with Dorsey Burnette and Glen Campbell on Campbell's 1967 album Gentle on My Mind, where he was credited as "Russell Bridges" on piano.
Russell's first commercial success as a songwriter came when Joe Cocker recorded the song "Delta Lady" for his 1969 album, Joe Cocker! The album, produced and arranged by Russell, reached #11 on the Billboard 200. Russell went on to organize and perform in the tour supporting Cocker's album, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. "Superstar", co-written by Russell, Delaney Bramlett and Bonnie Bramlett, was sung by Rita Coolidge on that tour and later proved a success for The Carpenters, Luther Vandross, Sonic Youth and other performers.
Soon after the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour, Shelter Records released his 1970 solo album Leon Russell, which included the first recording of "A Song for You". This has become one of his best-known songs, with versions released by more than 40 different artists including The Carpenters, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, Helen Reddy, Whitney Houston, Elkie Brooks, Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, and Christina Aguilera. Both The Carpenters and The Temptations named an album after the song. Also in 1970, Russell played piano on Dave Mason's album, Alone Together, most notably on the song "Sad and Deep as You".
During the 1960s and '70s, Russell owned the Church Recording Studio on 3rd Street in Tulsa. Russell still records there frequently, while his former home on Grand Lake, in northeast Oklahoma, still contains the dining room table and chairs made from church pews from his Church Studio. On the property stands a private recording studio that has hosted many musicians, including members of The Beatles.
During the summer of 1971, at the invitation of George Harrison, Russell played piano on Badfinger's third album, Straight Up. The piano part complemented Pete Ham and George Harrison's dual slide guitars on Badfinger's "Day After Day". The Straight Up sessions were interrupted when many of the musicians left for New York City to participate in the Concert For Bangladesh, at which Russell performed a medley of the songs "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood" and sang a verse on Harrison's "Beware of Darkness." Russell (on bass guitar) and Harrison (on electric guitar and vocals) also played on a number of Bob Dylan's hits.
A busy year for Russell, 1971 also brought the Shelter release of Leon Russell And The Shelter People and Asylum Choir II (which was co-produced by Marc Benno). That same year, Russell played on recording sessions with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.
Russell helped blues guitarist Freddie King to revive his career by collaborating with him on three of his albums for Shelter during the early 1970s.
1972 was highlighted by a large-scale concert tour by Russell and his "Shelter People" entourage. A live performance was recorded in California at the Long Beach Arena on August 28, 1972, and was released as the Leon Live album. In November 1972, Billboard cited Russell as a top concert draw and reported the '72 tour gross at almost $3 million.
Russell's song, "This Masquerade", the B-side of his 1972 hit single "Tight Rope", went on to be recorded by numerous artists, including Helen Reddy and The Carpenters. George Benson's version of the song reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976 and gave Russell a Grammy Award nomination for Song of the Year in 1977.
In 1979, Russell and Willie Nelson had a number-one hit on the Billboard country music chart with their duet of "Heartbreak Hotel". Russell spent the next two years touring with the New Grass Revival, and released two more albums with Paradise before the label folded.
After a number of years of reduced prominence, Russell's career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him out for a new project. In November 2009, Russell worked together with John and Bernie Taupin on The Union, a double album record credited equally to both Russell and John. Recorded in February 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the CD was released on October 19, 2010. On April 2, 2011, Russell and John performed together as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. Rolling Stone placed the album in third place on its list of the 30 Best Albums of 2010. A couple of months later, Russell announced plans for a solo LP, although no specifics were given, and in October 2010 Russell and John embarked on The Union Tour.
Russell's current band line up includes long time bass player Jackie Wessel, Brandon Holder on drums, Chris Simmons on guitar, and multi-instrumentalist Beau Charron.