by Robert Wilkinson
Today’s the birthday of one of the most versatile musicians in the history of rock, Mister Leon Russell.
Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges April 2, 1942) has been around a very long time and has played on some of the most famous cuts in history. He was a member of "The Wrecking Crew," a group of LA session cats who included Hal Blaine (the most recorded drummer in history), Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco, Billy Strange, James Burton (yes, THAT JB of the TCB band!), Steve Douglas, Nino Tempo, Gene Cipriano, Roy Caton, Slyde Hyde, Lou Blackburn, Dr. John, Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon, and Jack Nitzsche, to name several of the main "first call" musicians.
These outstanding musicians played on every type of recording, from TV theme songs to film scores, and across every type of American music. They backed Bing Crosby, the Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, the Beach Boys (including "Good Vibrations", "California Girls", and the revolutionary album Pet Sounds), the Mamas and the Papas, the 5th Dimension, the Byrds, Nat King Cole, Simon and Garfunkel, and were the crew Phil Spector used for his "Wall of Sound."
And Leon was in the middle of it all! During his career he's also performed with some of the greatest in history without the Wrecking Crew, including Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, the Band, Badfinger, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Herb Alpert, and the Rolling Stones, and more than a few more. In the late 60s and early 70s, he wrote some tunes that became major hits for him, done by dozens of others, including "Delta Lady," "A Song For You," and "Tightrope."
It was during this period that he organized the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour with Joe Cocker as the front man, which also produced some of the most memorable hits of the era. Without further ado, here's Leon!
I won't link to the studio versions of the groups I listed a couple of paragraphs back, since they're all over the place, and I really want to put the focus on Leon, rather than the entire Wrecking Crew. To that end, here are some of his more famous contributions!
From relatively early on, here's Leon doing his major hit, "Delta Lady."
Here's Leon front and center with one of the great musical interpreters of our time, Joe Cocker! The following clips come from the remarkable "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in 1970, where we hear some of the greatest songs of our time!
“Something” (audio only)
A real treat! From 1971, here’s the entire 1 hour 59 minute live video concert of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Live at the Fillmore East”
From the Leon Russell and Friends "Homewood Sessions" in 1971, "A Song For You"
From the pioneering Concert For Bangladesh, here's Leon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and a bunch of other greats in an audio-only clip doing "Jumpin' Jack Flash/Young Blood"
Here's Leon live doing "Delta Lady"
Here are three early treats featuring the Shindogs! The Shindogs were Leon, James Burton, Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell and a few more greats in a group with rotating members playing as the house band for the TV show "Shindig." Here's Leon (sans beard!) with a young James Burton in November 1964 with Leon taking the lead on a grand piano doing "Roll Over Beethoven,"
Also from Shindig, we'll close this blast from the ancient past with the Shindogs featuring Leon on piano and Glen Campbell on banjo doing the Hank Williams classic, "Jambalaya On The Bayou" and “Truck Drivin’ Man” from February 1965.
From who knows when, a live performance of “Stranger in a Strange Land”
Here’s Leon, Saint Willie, and the immortal Ray Charles offering up a great live performance of “A Song For You”
From 1971, here's Leon Russell & The Shelter People doing the Bob Dylan standard, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
We'll close these live performances with Leon doing a solo of his best-known hits! From the 1972 album "Carney," "Tight Rope."
And now, studio versions of two of his best known songs.
For our closer, here’s Leon and the great JJ Cale in a live 80 minute video recorded in Leon’s Paradise Studios in LA! JJ Cale & Leon Russell at the Paradise Studios - 1979
For our encore, Leon in a 1981 performance of a classic! “Over the Rainbow”
Happy 72nd, Leon! May you be around many more years to play, wail, and have a blast!
© Copyright 2014 Robert Wilkinson