Passings: Leon Russell (1942 - 2016)

by VVN Music

Master singer, songwriter and pianist Leon Russell has died at the age of 74.

Russell's wife, Jan, said that he had died in his sleep last night. Russell had heart bypass surgery last July but there is no indication whether that contributed to his passing.

Russell was born in Lawton, OK where he took up the piano at the age of 4 and, by the time he was 14, was performing in nightclubs in the Tulsa area. His group the Starlighters included J.J. Cale and Leo Feathers while another group, the Fencement, was with David Gates.

In 1958, Leon moved to Los Angeles where he studied guitar with James Burton and became well known as a studio musician. As a member of The Wrecking Crew, he appeared on dozens of major hits and can be seen playing in the film The T.A.M.I. Show. He was later hired by Snuff Garrett and began writing more including two hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Everybody Loves a Clown and She's Just My Style.

He also started to record his own music in 1965 with the single Everybody's Talking 'Bout the Young but his career as a singer would really kick off with the 1968 album Look Inside the Asylum Choir. The next year, Leon and Denny Cordell created Shelter Records which would be his label until 1976 when he and Cordell separated as partners.

His second album, Leon Russell, put him on the musical map with songs like A Song For You, Dixie Lullaby, Hummingbird and Delta Lady which had already been an hit for Joe Cocker. Also during that year, he put together a group of musicians including members of Delaney and Bonnie's band, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge to mount the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour which introduced the world to the now standard Russell song Superstar.

In 1971, Russell produced for Bob Dylan, played on Badfinger's Straight Up and performed at the Concert For Bangladesh. He also released the albums Leon Russell and the Shelter People and Asylum Choir II.

Russell's commercial career would peak in 1972 with the release of the album Carney which went to number 2 and contained his first hit single, Tightrope (1972 / #11). He followed with Leon Live (1973 / #9), Hank Wilson's Back, Volume 1 (1973 / #28), Stop All That Jazz (1974 / #34) and Will O' the Wisp (1975 / #30) which included his second major hit, Lady Blue (1975 / #14). His This Masquerade also became a number 1 single for George Benson.

In the late 70's, Russell went on the road with Willie Nelson, and returned to the charts with 1979's One For the Road, hitting number 1 on the Country Singles chart with their version of Heartbreak Hotel. It was Leon's last trip to the top 100 for 31 years.

The foray into country music continued in the early 80's when he spent two years with the group New Grass Revival and recorded a second Hank Wilson album and his country blues set Solid State.

Between 1989 and 2010, Leon released twenty albums, none of which reached the Billboard 200 but, in 2010, his career was revived when he recorded The Union with Elton John, an album that went to number 3 and was the second highest charting album of his career. The two also toured behind the album and appeared on a number of national TV shows.

His final album, Life Journey, was released in 2014 and he continued to tour through this year.

Leon Russell's biggest hits as a recording artist and songwriter:

  • Everybody Loves a Clown - Gary Lewis and the Playboys (1965 / #4)
  • She's Just My Style - Gary Lewis and the Playboys (1965 / #3)
  • (You Don't Have to) Paint Me a Picture - Gary Lewis and the Playboys (1966 / #15)
  • Delta Lady - Joe Cocker (1969 / #69 U.S. / #10 U.K.)
  • Superstar - Carpenters (1971 / #2 Pop / #1 AC)
  • Tight Rope - Leon Russell (1972 / #11)
  • Bluebird - Helen Reddy (1975 / #35 Pop / #5 AC)
  • Lady Blue - Leon Russell (1975 / #14 Pop / #13 AC)
  • This Masquerade - George Benson (1976 / #10 Pop / #6 AC / #3 R&B)
  • Superstar / Until You Come Back to Me - Luther Vandross (1984 / #87 Pop / #5 R&B)
  • A Song For You - Ray Charles (1993 / #9 AC / #57 R&B)
  • Superstar - Ruben Studdard (2003 / #2 R&B)

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