One afternoon in the early Nineties, singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby was visiting his friend and hero Leon Russell at the latter’s home near Nashville. The house had a three-car garage and the doors “were wide open,” Hornsby recalls, with “all sorts of things strewn all over: old mixing boards, awards tossed in a box, gold records, all this detritus. I said, ‘Leon, what is all this?'” Hornsby affects Russell’s slow gritty drawl. “He said, ‘Residue from the fast lane.’
“That line said it all,” Hornsby claims. Russell – who died on November 13th at 74 after years of ill health, including a heart attack in July – “grew up in an era where pop stardom was an ephemeral notion. If you achieved it, it didn’t last long. Maybe he thought his four-or-five-year run as a top-drawer touring artist and record seller – as a rock star – was pretty damn good.”
That winning streak actually ran longer: from the mid-Sixties – when the Oklahoma-born Russell emerged as a first-call pianist, arranger and producer in Los Angeles, working on sessions for Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Ricky Nelson and the Byrds – until 1977, when jazz guitarist George Benson’s Top Ten cover of Russell’s ballad “This Masquerade” won a Grammy for Record of the Year. In between, Russell applied a unique, instinctive blend of wheatfield-country music, down-home rhythm & blues and black Pentecostal-church elation to classic early-Seventies records by Bob Dylan, Dave Mason and the Rolling Stones while cutting his own solo LPs with Eric Clapton and the Stones as his sidemen.
But Russell was best known for his immortal turn as the musical director of English singer Joe Cocker’s 1970 U.S. tour with a cosmic-R&B big band of more than 20 singers and players, dubbed Mad Dogs and Englishmen after a Noel Coward song. Russell assembled and rehearsed the troupe in just a week – after Cocker abruptly split with his previous group, the Grease Band – and co-produced the Top Five double album Mad Dogs and Englishmen, recorded at shows in New York and L.A. With his firm command of the music and entourage, set off by his trademark top hat and Jesus-like mane of silver-gray hair, Russell became the breakout star of the 1971 tour documentary of the same name – the so-called “Master of Space and Time” after one of his credits on the live record.
Russell “was a control freak,” says Jim Keltner, one of the drummers on that tour. “But the control was about making a potentially chaotic thing into a fantastic revue with great singing, great playing, great grooves.” Keltner, who worked with Russell in L.A. studios in the Sixties and became a close friend, says Russell was a “low-key, steady guy” who did not “go up and try to share the stage.” In the Mad Dogs shows, Russell “was just there, and people knew that it was his baby.”
Four decades after the Mad Dogs tour, Russell looked back at his commercial peak and packed workload for other rock stars with modest realism. “I was a jobber, like an air-conditioning installer,” the pianist said in a 2010 interview. “You need air-conditioning? Call this guy. People called me to do what I did.” And Russell was not shocked when his stardom waned as he pulled back from that fast lane in the Eighties. “I knew that about show business. I was surprised by the success that I had. I was not surprised when it went away.” Until his 2010 comeback, The Union, a Top Five collaboration with lifelong fan Elton John, Russell had not been on Billboard‘s album chart in three decades.
“He’s a tough one to place,” says guitarist Derek Trucks, who acknowledges that he and his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, were inspired to form their twelve-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band after watching the Mad Dogs film. “To people of a certain generation, Leon was a star, a total badass. Then he got lost in the mix a bit. But young musicians know him. In the last five, 10 years, he became a cult hero again. He was definitely behind the curtain. You don’t remember the first time you heard him. But he was always there.”
Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma on April 2nd, 1942, the younger of two sons. His father, an oil-company clerk, moved the family to Tulsa when Russell was in the seventh grade. He took classical piano lessons as a boy; in Tulsa, Russell was soon playing in local clubs, often with his friend, singer-guitarist J.J. Cale. By 17, Russell was in Los Angeles, borrowing IDs and musician’s-union cards to hustle work. He was using the name Leon Russell but never legally changed it – an early sign of his taste for enigma. “It’s handy,” he confessed. “I can be a different person for a while.”
Keltner, a Tulsa native who moved to L.A. when he was 13, first worked with Russell on Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ 1966 hit “She’s Just My Style,” co-written and arranged by Russell. After the studio band cut the basic track, everyone listened to the take – which Russell “directed just right,” Keltner says, “with this good Beach Boys sound” and “a wonderful, sophisticated guitar solo.” But after the playback, “without saying a word,” Russell went into the studio, grabbed a guitar and wiped the original break, replacing it with a simple, catchy burst of country-blues twang. “Leon had that thing,” Keltner says, “that all great producers had. They know what they want, and they already hear it.”
In 1968, Russell released an album with guitarist Marc Benno under the name Asylum Choir but largely stuck to guiding from the sidelines – appearing as an arranger and pianist on a 1969 album by the white-soul duo Delaney and Bonnie; writing “Delta Lady” for Cocker that year – before getting the emergency offer to form the Mad Dogs ensemble. Russell’s impulse to direct a song or band to perfection hid what he later admitted was “huge stage fright.” But Keltner says Russell demanded rapt concentration during the Mad Dogs rehearsals: “He would get my attention by throwing his hat at me. I’d be grooving like crazy, not looking at him, and I’d see this hat sailing across the room. He’d given me some signals. I thought, ‘OK, I gotta watch.'”
Russell’s biggest solo single, the dark, funky march “Tight Rope,” which went to Number 11 in 1972, summed up his ambivalence about celebrity: “I’m up in the spotlight/Ooh, does it feel right/Oh, the altitude/Seems to get to me.” Yet Russell leveraged his rush of visibility and success – a show-stopping segment during George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh; the Top Ten albums Carney and Leon Live in 1972 and ’73 respectively – into a series of willfully experimental records, including a country project under the pseudonym Hank Wilson and a 1974 LP, Stop All That Jazz, that featured the Gap Band, then an unknown funk group from Tulsa.
Hornsby calls Russell “a huge reason I got into the piano” but also believes that Russell’s “deep well of American roots” has been overlooked. When Hornsby produced Russell’s 1992 album, Anything Can Happen, the former got a close-up lesson in Russell’s music, especially “the black-gospel side of things. If you listen to the old Soul Stirrers records with Sam Cooke, you hear that early version of what became rock & roll piano. But Leon turned it into his own thing. He put it into warp drive.”
Russell also showed who was really running things during the sessions. After one vocal take, which Hornsby thought was near perfect, he asked Russell if he wanted to fix one small glitch. “No, sir,” Russell replied. “On a Picasso level, that performance was my art. Any changes to it would be dishonest.” Hornsby laughs – in awe. Russell had a “unique way of thinking,” Hornsby says, “and how he expressed it.”
Russell continued recording and touring despite increasing health problems. In 2010, shortly before he and John began making The Union, Russell underwent brain surgery to repair a spinal-fluid leak. He had trouble walking and “had gained a lot of weight,” says Keltner, who played on the sessions. But when Russell “would sit at the piano, the feeling was all there.”
It was present again at one of Russell’s last major concert appearances – in September, 2015 when he joined the Tedeschi Trucks Band in a tribute set to the Mad Dogs and Englishmen album at the Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, Virginia. The performance included other alumni from the original tour such as singers Claudia Lennear and Rita Coolidge, and pianist Chris Stainton, and Trucks says that in his first conversation with Russell about the show, he respectfully offered to hand over leadership duties. “I said, ‘This was your thing then. If you want to lead the charge now, just say the word.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I did it the first time. This one’s on you.'”
Yet in rehearsals, “Leon was the obvious musical director,” Trucks claims, “chiming in on harmonic things here and there, choir stuff. He did it in a very subtle way. But when he spoke, everyone listened.” Trucks recalls the first day Stainton showed up for practice. “It was sweet, the way he still revered Leon.” When Stainton walked into the lobby of the rehearsal space, “he was like, ‘Is Maestro here?'”