Leon Russell is driving to his home in Nashville, following an afternoon of recording new songs at a friend's studio, when he starts talking about Bob Dylan. Russell is describing a session on which he played bass "for that record about the boxer" — Dylan's 1975 single "Hurricane."
"We did a take — just running it down, I thought," Russell says, navigating the rush-hour traffic in large black sunglasses surrounded by a snow-white mass of hair and beard. "I said, 'Are you going to do the real thing now?' Bob said, 'Why? We're just going to make the same mistakes.'" Russell laughs — a deep, dry rasp, like someone shaking a bag of gravel.
It's like that all day, in the car, over lunch and at home in his living room — Russell casually telling stories that zigzag over his half-century of rock & roll adventure and star time as a songwriter, arranger and producer: doing sessions for Dylan, George Harrison and Frank Sinatra; singing backup on Ricky Nelson records and playing piano on Beach Boys and Phil Spector hits in the Sixties; writing songs that became standards for Joe Cocker ("Delta Lady") and George Benson ("This Masquerade"); and cutting solo projects with Eric Clapton and members of the Rolling Stones as sidemen.
For a long spell, in the Sixties and Seventies, Russell seemed to be everywhere at once with a rambunctious fusion of country grit, big-band soul and Pentecostal-church ecstasy, making every singer and player around him sound sharp and funky. He first shot to fame in the credits on other people's records, most notably as the leader of the mighty R&B orchestra on Cocker's legendary 1.970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. On the subsequent live album, Russell appeared on the sleeve as a wiry ringmaster with a top hat and a long mane of silver-gray hair, billed as the "Master of Space and Time." Russell was soon a big name in his own right, with a superstar-packed debut, 1970's Leon Russell, and a Top Five hit, 1972's Carney.
He disappeared as abruptly as he arrived: falling out of favor in the Eighties, making records in obscurity. That has changed just as suddenly. Russell has released one of his best albums, The Union, a collaboration with Elton John on which they recapture the roots and dynamics of their classic early-Seventies records.
"There are some people who are born to be leaders of musicians — and he is," says John, who became an ardent Russell fan after hearing his gospel-charged piano on Delaney and Bonnie's 1969 LP Accept No Substitute. John says that when he saw the 1971 film of the Mad Dogs tour, "It was Leon I was watching. He had the feel for that music. Joe was an amazing singer. But you could tell it was Leon's band."
"He was the straw boss of the outfit," confirms Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys, who was one of the nearly two dozen members in the Mad Dogs band, pulled together by Russell in four days after Cocker's previous group bailed on him on the eve of the tour. "Leon had very definite ideas about music and telling people what to play."
Russell describes himself and his gifts more modestly. "I was a jobber, like an air-conditioning installer," he says over a steak sandwich in a Nashville restaurant, in the same rubbery, pitted drawl that distinguishes his improbably poignant singing. "You need air conditioning? You call this guy. People called me to do what I did." Russell recalls that after he wrote the horn charts for "Live With Me" on the Stones' 1969 album, Let It Bleed, "Mick Jagger said, 'That sounds like 'Harlem Shuffle'" — the 1963 R&B single by Bob and Earl. "I said, 'I thought that's what you guys did.'
"I was playing with George Harrison one time, and George loves takes," Russell says with a gruff chuckle. "This song was up to Take 160. I said, 'George, do you want me to play the same thing or 160 different things?' It drove me crazy, because in general, I'm ready to play my part."
Many of Russell's best stories are 30 and 40 years old. By the late Seventies, he was exhausted by studio deadlines and the road. "I quit for two years," Russell says. But while he was gone, the stars moved on to other collaborators, and Russell's brand of Americana went out of fashion, shoved aside by punk and hip-hop. When he came back, Russell was playing in bars instead of arenas, as if his renown had suddenly evaporated.
"I haven't gone there with him, but I think there were bad business deals," John suggests. "If he'd had proper management, that never would have happened." By the time John called Russell last year, insisting they record together, Russell had been without a major-label deal for nearly two decades and was selling his records over the Internet. Still, John claims he saw the old Russell — the one he first met in 1970, when the two did some U.S. concerts together — come alive during the sessions for The Union: "He came to the fore, because he was making a record of the caliber that he should have been all along."
The lean hipster-Jesus look Russell had when he made the cover of Rolling Stone in the fall of 1.970 has given way to a portly figure with Santa Claus hair who walks slowly, with a cane. "My feet are giving out on me," he says. "But I have a wheelchair that folds out on my tour bus. I've also got this little tricycle, so if I want to go someplace, I get those out." Married to his second wife, Janet, since 1979, Russell has six children and a house full of small, excitable dogs belonging to two of his daughters. A couple of times during our interview there, he gets up from his chair and shouts through a door at the dogs to calm down. "At one point, we had 16," Russell says, shaking his head and laughing. "It drives me crazy."
In January, shortly after he and John started work on The Union, Russell underwent brain surgery to correct a spinal-fluid leak. Three weeks later, he was in the studio with John and the album's producer, T Bone Burnett. "You could see the music starting to wire him back up," Burnett says of Russell. "Every day he got stronger and more involved."
John worries about Russell's health. "That's one of the reasons I'm pinning my hopes on this record," John admits. "I want him to be in a position where he can pick and choose what he does, where he doesn't have to drive around on the bus and play so many shows." Russell is now handled by John's own manager, John Barbis.
That afternoon in Nashville, at the home studio of engineer Mark Lambert, Russell is writing material for the pop singer Michael Buble — "except he doesn't know it yet," Russell cracks. After listening to some Pro Tools demos from an earlier session, Russell turns his attention to an instrumental ballad with a Latin-inflected shuffle and barroom-piano flourishes. Lying almost horizontally on a lounge chair, Russell types lyrics on a PowerBook perched on his belly and sings into an overhead mic, in that trademark growl, stretching the notes with rough, soulful affection. When he finally gets a complete take, Russell smiles, pleased with the results.
"Actually, doing the album with Elton spoiled me," he confesses as he gets ready to leave. "Now's the time when I'd like to bring in $100,000 worth of musicians to finish the song."
Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, on April 2nd, 1942, the younger of two sons. His father was a clerk for an oil company who moved the family to Tulsa when Russell was in the seventh grade. He was soon playing piano in nightclubs, often with a local friend, singer-guitarist J.J. Cale. "Oklahoma was a dry state," Russell says. "It didn't mean there wasn't any alcohol — it just meant there wasn't any laws, which allowed me to play at 14."
Russell believes his distinctive piano style — low-end blues power with high-note sparkle — is partly the result of a malformation at birth of the bones in his head. "It made me slightly paralyzed on one side of my body," he says, leaving his left hand stronger than the right. To compensate, when he started writing and arranging music, "I was trying to find stuff that my right hand could play." Russell notes that when he was doing sessions in Los Angeles, "writers hired me when they wanted classical parts. They counted on me to make the arrangements easier."
He became Leon Russell after moving to California. He was 17, borrowing IDs and musicians'-union cards to get work, most often from a guy named Leonal Du-brow. Russell never legally changed his name. "It's handy," he admits. "I can be a different person for a while."
Guitarist James Burton was playing with Ricky Nelson when he met Russell, shortly after the pianist's arrival in L.A. Burton introduced Russell to the session scene there, and the two worked together on records for artists such as Nelson, the Beach Boys, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. "Leon would change things up," Burton recalls. "He put a bluesy touch on the country records we played on. He'd give something a different flavor, rather than sticking to the normal grind."
In 1969, Russell met Denny Cordell, a British producer-manager who wanted Russell to work with one of his acts, Joe Cocker. Russell and Cordell soon founded Shelter Records, with Russell doing much of his writing and recording at a studio in his Los Angeles home, on Skyhill Drive. "Leon would disappear down into the garage," Keys remembers. "He would go and contemplate things for periods of time. People thought that was a bit unusual."
"Leon was somewhat of a recluse," says singer Rita Coolidge, the inspiration for "Delta Lady," who sang on many Russell projects, including the Mad Dogs tour, and was Russell's girlfriend for a time. When the two drove cross-country in 1968, shortly after they met, Coolidge did all the driving, signed in at motels and got food. "Leon looked so different from anybody else, with the long white hair and beard," she recalls. "It threw people, and made him paranoid — especially in Texas." At the same time, Coolidge says, many of the images in Russell's songs, such as his 1972 Top 20 hit, "Tight Rope," "are about the spotlight, the circus, about him being the ringmaster. He has that Jerry Lee Lewis in him."
Russell concedes that even at the peak of his celebrity, he envied performers like John, "who could show up with a big pair of sunglasses with E-L-T-O-N spelled on them. He has no fear. I had huge stage fright." Russell's Mad Dogs threads — the top hat and the basketball jersey that said HOLY TRINITY on the front — came from a used-clothing shop near Skyhill Drive. "I was just trying to make a show."
Coolidge remembers Russell showing up for the first Mad Dogs rehearsal in that get-up: "I had lived with him for a year and never seen that side of him. He got out of the car, strutted across the parking lot, and that was the persona that lasted through the tour. His way of overcoming stage fright was to be bigger than life."
In a way, after his stardom passed, Russell went back to the way he was before it came: a working musician. "I was on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis when I was 15 — I can't imagine not doing it," he says of touring. "That's what I do." But there is a new baby grand piano in Russell's Nashville house — a gift from John, who hopes The Union is a fresh start for his idol. "I want him to have wings," John says. "I want him to make his own record. I also want him to be part of what I do in the future. He's come back to life. And I don't think he's going to let it go this time."
"It's a funny thing about fame and music," Russell says, relaxing in his living room after that demo session. "People have to have somebody like Elton that says it's OK. And when he does, suddenly it's OK!
"I'm so grateful to Elton for saying I was OK. Because it could have been any body."