Throughout his lifetime of making music, Leon Russell glided effortlessly from rock & roll to blues and gospel. But the singer-songwriter-pianist, who died Sunday at home in Nashville at the age of 74, had a strong affinity for country music, a relationship that Russell fostered even while working in Los Angeles, far away from his native Tulsa, Oklahoma.
An integral part of the renowned Wrecking Crew, the cadre of L.A. musicians whose studio mastery was heard on countless recordings throughout the Sixties, Russell joined fellow Crew members, including guitarist Glen Campbell, playing piano in the Shin-diggers, the house band for the ABC Shindig! music series. Russell, uncharacteristically clean-shaven at the time, would get the chance to step into the solo spotlight occasionally, including a rambunctious performance from a February 1965 episode of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” that includes Campbell on banjo. (Watch the clip below.)
In 1973, Russell would even adopt a country pseudonym: the name “Hank Wilson,” under which he released Hank Wilson’s Back!, a superb collection of honky-tonk, bluegrass and country standards that included Lester Flatt’s “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and the George Jones weeper “The Window Up Above.” All of it was supplemented by Music City’s finest session players at the time, including Harold Bradley, Pete Drake, Grady Martin and Charlie McCoy. A sequel, Hank Wilson, Vol. II, appeared 11 years later and, by that time, Russell had teamed with Willie Nelson for the sprawling One for the Road, a double LP that, while not recorded live, captured the duo at their freewheeling best. The album also gave Russell (or Wilson), his only country Number One, with the pair’s rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Performed in the video above with Nelson’s full band, the players include drummers Paul English and Rex Ludwig; two bass players, Nelson’s longtime band member Bee Spears and Chris Ethridge; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; guitarist Jody Payne; and Russell’s sax man Marty Grebb. One for the Road marked Russell’s fifth gold album. In 1999, Hank Wilson returned for a third volume of country covers, including “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Crazy” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
Russell’s admiration for the Red Headed Stranger ran deep: Russell had the honor of being the first to sign Nelson’s signature-adorned guitar, “Trigger.” And their friendship was also long-lasting – Nelson and Russell team up one last time for a new duet set to appear on Nelson’s as-yet-untitled upcoming album, produced by Buddy Cannon.