Leon Russell: The Rolling Stone Interview - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music News

Leon Russell: The Rolling Stone Interview

An epic talk with the piano-pounding session player-turned-bandleader

Leon Russell, Joe CockerLeon Russell, Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker performs at the Fillmore East for his 'Mad Dogs And Englishmen' live album with Leon Russell as he plays a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar in New York, on March 27th, 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Leon Russell. The image – if we can narrow it down to one – is aural. He’s always counting off, “One, two, three, four” at the end of those driving, lurchy, churchy rock and roll songs, pushing the endings, topping them with maybe a swirl of screams from his little chorale or with him on the piano, tickling out crazy little figures before a final “One, two, three, four” and a final chorus. Contagious is one word that comes to mind. Religious, another, because this whole, hearty approach has spread. Last week I saw Frankie Avalon, now the father of five, on the Merv Griffin show, singing “The Letter,” and he was using the Mad Dogs arrangement, squirming in his Jackson 5 costume and doing Joe Cocker with his “Venus” non-voice, doing the Leon Russell conducting – the – final – bars thing . . . Contagion.

If rock and roll is color and dynamics, and fusion, and dancing, Leon Russell’s got it down. Plus, he’s showbiz, and he understands pace, production, and the advantages of keeping an audience a little amazed, wondering what it’s all about.

I mean, who are these people? There’s that breath-giving black queen, Claudia Lennear, a former Ikette flowing free, but still foxily Ikettish; her partner in the chorale is Kathy McDonald, a white woman who was asked to be an Ikette by Ike Turner when he heard her during a break at Fillmore West, sitting on the floor singing a fourth harmony line to “Wooden Ships.” She declined the offer, but it didn’t matter – Tina would just not have tolerated her. Kathy, from Seattle, then San Francisco, sings and dances like a waif just unbound, and rock and roll is her freedom.

And there’s this comic figure, Huckleberry Finn-ish, thin in a Dr. Shazam T-shirt and adolescent in this wide, beaded headband with the peace symbol as the crown jewel – that’s John Galley, playing organ with one hand, electric keyboard bass with the other. From the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs & Englishmen expedition, there are the fluffy blonds, drummer Chuck Blackwell and lead guitar Don Preston. Preston and rhythm guitar Joey Cooper also sing, forming the vocal wall with Claudia and Kathy. And Leon, lean, sleepy-eyed conductor behind his piano, working his fingers like a typist, grainy voice barking out the Dixie/hip words. The magnificent seven.

They’ve been together some five months now, since the Mad Dog convention closed in May, and they’re top-billed, as anyone knowing Leon Russell might expect.

Russell’s current golden era began with his work on piano and arrangements for Delaney and Bonnie and Friends’ Original LP on Elektra. That led to Denny Cordell, Cocker’s producer, and to work on the second Cocker album. Plus a song Leon had written for Claudia, “Delta Lady.” Then his own album, on his and Cordell’s new label, Shelter, and his top-billed session men: Clapton, Harrison, Starr, Watts, Wyman, Winwood, Voorman, Cocker, Stainton, B. J. Wilson, and the Bramletts.

Then he reciprocated, helping on the Stones’ ‘Let it Bleed’ and on Clapton’s own album. He assembled, arranged, conducted, and rode shotgun on the Mad Dogs, Cocker’s instant, portable circus of last spring, and when that became a phenonemon, he became mastermixer for the album of the tour. He figures in the film, too, and there may even be a book. (“When the film comes out, the tour will become one of the most sociologically important events of our time,” he says.)

But that’s only Leon Russell of the last year or so. In 1968, he tried to give some signs of his individual creativity with an album,’Asylum Choir,’ on Smash Records, an album that earned raves but little else. Before that, he was a session man among a lot of session men in his adopted Los Angeles, often working out of a studio built in his modest home by Bones Howe.

Leon first split his hometown, Lawton, Oklahoma, to play trumpet with a band in a Tulsa nightclub, saying he was older than his 14 years to keep the job. By 16, he’d jammed with Ronnie Hawkins in Tulsa, and Jerry Lee Lewis was offering his band a touring job. Russell had also studied classical piano, beginning at age three. He split from home again in 1959, at age 17, to go to Los Angeles, working clubs on a borrowed ID card. After a short trip to Oklahoma, he returned to L.A. to stay.

Eventually, he became a full-time session man, at first getting jobs mostly from people who weren’t turned off by his greased-back hair and hoodlum demeanor. But he was a master craftsman, and the workload built: he got calls from Phil Spector, Herb Alpert, and Terry Melcher, and worked hundreds of sessions, playing piano on records by Bob Lind, Gary Lewis, the Crystals, the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and so many more.

Then – hair growing and mind blowing – he dropped out and laid low, working at a small record company and hanging out mostly at home, building that home studio. And it was there that it would start all over again. Once again, Leon was a magnet, and before long, his studio had accounted for hits ranging from the Beatle-carbonic Knickerbockers’ “Lies” to Cocker’s “Delta Lady.” It was there that he did the Asylum Choir album.

And there, in the playroom-sized studio – now converted to 16-track – on Skyhill Road in the Hollywood hills, is where the energy stays. Reels of wide-band tape fill up closets and bathroom sinks; burlap and sweat often dominate the recording shack, and it isn’t very impressive. There’s neglect for everything but the music machines. But when Leon and his band are working out there, it’s the Fillmore East, and – just the way he likes it – we’re all on stage, hanging over stairways and peeking through the little door. Master chef Leon Russell, doin’ some home cooking!

There’s where the interview was first scheduled. But when the Emerson-Loew photography team and I got there, he wasn’t ready. There was a new album and another tour ahead, he said. After that, we’d have something to talk about. Russell doesn’t much care to recite his credentials and his biography (that’s why we’ve done it here). So we met again on the first leg of his most recent tour, in Denver, Colorado; by then, he’d pretty well completed the new album, most of it done in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and he was ready to talk.

It was a good time to find out all about Leon. He was in town a couple of days before the concert, resting up in a city he’d conquered twice before – once with Cocker; once with the stage/plantation all to his own band. His upcoming concert at the old Mammoth Gardens (formerly a roller skating rink) was in doubt – a hassle over the promoter not getting the ventilation fixed, you know. But that night, everyone went ahead, the Gardens was filled, and Russell, the image flashing out by way of a Malcolm X shirt, violet jeans, and a feathered cap provided backstage by a lady fan, Tinker Bell, was on top of it, talking soft and playing tough, a lot of the songs sounding alike and echoing back and forth to each other – one, two, three, four – amid the smoke and muggy unventilated air, the act and the audience very close to each other.

Sort of like the way it was back home on Skyhill Road.

–B. F.-T

Why were you here two, three days before the concert?
Well, we just came from Phoenix, and we really had a nice time the last time we were here. Not that we’ve had really a bad time this time, but it was just sort of weird, going through my first restaurant discrimination the other day. They refused to serve me and Don Nix at “Mr. Steaks,” and it really surprised me, because the people here seem to be not really into that stuff.

I’ve never been refused service in a restaurant before, even in the South.

Have you ever been attacked or shouted at?
Oh, yeah. We used to have a point system from one to ten. If they actually came up and hit you it was “ten,” and if it was just a double-take, it might be a “one.” I got a lot of “nines” in Dallas and places like that. They come up and stare you right in the face and say, “What’re you doin’! Why do you look the way you look? What’s your scene? Communist!” Yell, and chase you down the airport corridors and shit.

Chasing would scare me, because people can join in on chases very fast. Snowball . . .
Dallas is a weird community, at best. Here, I think it’s just fear. Like the lady that threw me out of the restaurant was obviously afraid of me. So I didn’t – I just left as quick as I could . . .

Did she give a reason for not serving you?
No. I said, “Why?” and she said, “We won’t serve you.” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because we don’t want to.”

It’s a funny thing, because people who can’t understand long hair ask, “Why?” And we basically say, “Because we want to; we enjoy it.” You know, “it’s my choice.”
Yeah, I can really understand that, though, because right before my hair was long I used to see some of my freaky friends running around, and I’d say, “What’s it all about? What’re you doing?” All of a sudden I had a Frank Sinatra session, and I had my ducktail, my Sebring, Elvis Presley haircut, and I just didn’t have time to go through the do, you know, so I just said hang it. There was so many people that I considered to be my friends who came up to me and just coerced me. Said all kinds of weird things. And so I thought: “Well, this is very strange.” Sinatra, as a matter of fact, did a double-take; I was the only one like that in the session. And I thought: “Well, that’s at least an ‘eight’.” It was weird because it all looked the same to me and from my point of view, everything was exactly the same. People just seemed to be bringing in these hostilities. So I decided to see how far it goes, and I’m still the same. The hair was pretty long . . .

And you lacquered and sprayed it?
Consumed those products . . .

Deadly chemicals . . .
But I’m not an ecology freak . . . nor Women’s Liberation. I’m almost totally politically inactive.

As Dick Cavett says, “Politics bores my ass off.” But would you play free concerts?
If everybody’d agree to quit using money, I’d be happy to play for free every day for awhile. But I don’t play benefits or any kind of fund-raisers. I prefer to play at hospitals, for people who otherwise can’t see us. But I can’t see playing for causes, whatever the cause may be.

What if the cause is one you deeply believe in, and you can be a key point in its success?
I’m not so much of a person for causes, unless I specifically – for instance, if it’s my cause, or some poor people’s, I’ll try to help. But you won’t find me playing for any peace candidates – or any candidates.

I just played for a mentally retarded children’s hospital in Oklahoma – just before we went to Muscle Shoals – and it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. It was all I could do to keep from crying long enough to sing the songs. I finally quit singing and just said the words . . .

It started out – well, Tulsa is my hometown, and I was just thinking of it in terms of another concert. And before I went back there, one of the girls at the house in California said, “Oh, you’re going back home to play – how exciting!” and I hadn’t thought about it, and I said, “Shit, that is exciting.” So when I got back there, I thought, well, we should do what we can do to get as many people there as we could and really do a thing. And we kicked around a few ideas, and we decided that the people who weren’t the fans wouldn’t know that I’d be there, and the people we wanted to get there would be those people. We decided we wanted to get on the front page of the paper – and on the news. And so I figured out that since my physical image is not in context with Tulsa acceptance, that it should be something of a public service nature and be unquestionable as far as service to the community was concerned.

It started out as a publicity stunt – and I’m not above stunts because that’s what I’m in – public relations and communications. But a couple of days before the thing was set up, I went through an artificially – induced religious experience and got to thinking about the ramifications of what we were going to do and what effect this music was going to have on these children. And then I started getting worried about whether or not I had the strength to control it, and I went through a bunch of changes about that and then finally decided, well, hell, I can do it, but I must really be careful about what I’m doing, because the people – especially there, are emotionally bared by retardation and emotional defects.

I mean, normal people can be moved to riot by rock and roll music, so these ultra-sensitive people can really . . . so I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about it. So we got there to the place. I knew we should play softer, first of all, because of the excitement, because the sound level in itself can be very exciting, if you’re not used to it, and most of these kids had been in hospitals all their lives. So we started out the first number, and I immediately saw that it was too strong, and I kept backing the band down ’til we were barely singing, barely playing.

Even at that, they were carrying two or three of them out, getting too excited, but after the thing was over with, an official at the hospital came up and said there’d been at least half a dozen kids there who’d been there for five or six years, and had been in wheelchairs and had never moved – in catatonic stupors, that were trying to dance and laugh and smile and have a good time. It was an emotional experience for me. It was all I could do to keep my end of it together.

They ranged from four or five years old to 18, and it was very strange. Like I wore this Paul Revere hat that I’d bought at the MGM auction, a red coat, the Shelter T-shirt with the Superman thing on front, and one girl said it was amazing, ’cause here were these kids, and all their fantasies just walked in front of them and did this thing for them.

When you were doing the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs tour, you said basically the idea behind your kind of rock and roll was tribalization – to have the performers and audience together trading songs. Is that working?
It’s working throughout the country; the audience is why they have rock and roll concerts, because that’s the only missing element in the tribal culture. Well, an analogy to more primitive cultures would be – “the only thing missing is the drummers.” They’ve got the camp fire, they’ve got the circle, but they just don’t have the drummers, and that’s where the rock and roll bands come in.

Rock and roll joins the Gypsies . . .
I was thinking more of New Zealand, but it’s the same bag. Africa, any kind of primitive tribal cultures.

How do you relate to festivals as a “tribal” thing?
Well, the only thing that’s unfortunate about it is that for some reason or another, there’s no ritual. I mean, the ritual’s in the formative stages now. The tribe is just starting to recognize patterns in existence. In India the Indian music is essentially the same form as blues, in that it’s spontaneity within a certain restricted format. But in India it’s a religion, and the restrictions are known by everybody and they know what their participation is and it’s just like a way of life. Here everybody’s still seeking out the patterns, like the festivals are the closest thing I can see in our modern civilization because it’s the way for people to expend non-specific energies.

Seems, though, like there are always variances in energies – there are always minds focused onto the political meanings of a crowd; why are we here; is this a capitalist cultural ripoff – things that would tend to separate people – and it leads to the talk – the pessimism about communes, tribes – the “death of rock and roll.”
Both economics and politics are false sciences. They’re based on poor communication. In other words, the reason people don’t like to trade – the reason they prefer to have money is because they don’t trust their own judgment of what something’s worth. If they have an outside arbitrator, who fixes the value for the time certificates – which is what the dollars actually are – money just buys time – it’s the same thing with politics, it’s based on poor communications.

Capitalism itself in itself is a bit of a rip-off, as far as I’m concerned, but what are you going to do? I’m certainly not going to be a politician and change it, in or out of the system. I’m just going to sing my songs, because that’s what I do. Some Oriental philosopher – Tao – once said that people that want to be political leaders are the least qualified to do it, and that’s true. The people who really are qualified won’t mess with it. So we always get the second best.

Why did you choose to go to Muscle Shoals to record the new album? We mainly went down there because that’s where everybody goes for a certain type of music that we like. It’s mainly the musicians. They have that unique experience of playing together for quite some different artists, and they really are easy to work with.

What’s Muscle Shoals like?
It’s in the country; it’s very laid-back and relaxed.

Is it a scene where there’s like music in the air, or are the studios like an oasis, separated from the rest of the town?
I think it serves as an oasis, but the people are becoming more and more aware that that’s their main industry.

It was really an interesting experience because we went to Tulsa, Oklahoma and spent a week on a lake there laying around, then went down to Muscle Shoals for a week, where we were on a lake as well, so the music is considerably more laid-back than in the first album. It was the immediacy on the first LP, with all those people being there making for more momentum; this time it was more relaxed.

What kind of songs are they?
It’s just a diary. Any record that I do of my own is a diary of what I’m into at the time. And what was happening in Muscle Shoals was a lot of fishing going on.

What’s the “Muscle Shoals group” – an entity like the Memphis horns?
I’m not sure, but I think it’s a group that at one time was the staff band at another studio in Muscle Shoals and they finally left and bought their own studio.

There’s four or five, and we used them on a couple of tracks. It was at Muscle Shoals Sound studios, and for some reason I was under the impression that it was a 16-track studio, so it took me quite awhile to get adjusted to the eight-track style of recording.

What, do you compose or conceive of arrangements with 16-track mixing in mind?
Well, it delays all the decisions ’til the last possible minute, which is more like a performance on tape; when you dub it down you can change your mind, but with eight-track, you have to decide two or three moves ahead of what you’re gonna do, what you’re gonna keep, and sometimes it alters.

Not having been to places like Muscle Shoals and Nashville and Memphis, I wonder if it’s the location or if some kind of magic begins to develop around studios and music people, and it results in “scenes.”
Well, that’s it. The magic takes place any time that you have a group of people that are together every day and that share a common frame of reference. The fact that it’s in Miami or Alabama – I think it’s just where those people are from.

It could even happen in Denver.
That’s right. Anybody can do it anyplace in their heads are in the right places.

What about London? What part of the album is that?
There’s one George Harrison song that I cut with the Dominos over there, which is nice, and there was one that I just kind of wrote on the spot, so there’ll be two songs with the Dominos on the album.

Anybody else help you in London?
I did one session with Ringo and George, but I didn’t really have any songs, and we were more or less jamming. I have one track that’s really nice, but I haven’t gotten around to writing the words for it.

How’s Shelter Records coming along?
Great. We’ll be cutting Freddy King at Chess in Chicago. We’ve signed him. And the next week we’re going to be cutting in Memphis. Me and Don Nix are producing. Freddy’s bringing his favorite drummer with him, and Duck Dunn from Stax is going to play bass, and then it’ll be my band.

Who does most of the organizational work for Shelter?
Denny Cordell does all of it.

What do you hope Shelter to be, to make it different from other record companies?
We don’t aspire to be Columbia Records; we just like our music, and that’s mainly what it’s all about. We’re mainly interested in helping people develop themselves in the way that they want to do it.

Who’s on Shelter besides yourself and Freddy King?
Don Nix and Jim Horn, the saxophone player.

What does Don Nix do?
He’s a singer; he’s mainly a producer. This is his first album he’s produced himself. But he co-produced the Delaney and Bonnie album on Stax. He sings with the Muscle Shoals group.

You’ve been talking about laying back and resting, but I get the feeling that you’re in a real hurry to cover as much ground around the country as you can, and to do as much as you can in as short a time as possible. . . .
Well, I’m in a hurry to do whatever it is I’m doing; I’m not so sure what I’m doing. I’m just geared to do it that way. That’s the way I make my music, and that’s the way I prefer to live, instead of sitting around getting moldy – I’ve been doing that too much in my life already. Don’t let the speed alarm you.

It doesn’t alarm me; it sort of surprises me, because you’ve been in this business for ten, 15 years now, and you know pretty much how long things take – the phenomena of phenomena – how Joe Cocker did certain things and the reception to it, how the times relate to his acceptance, how he got wary of it after awhile . . .
I must say I don’t understand his wariness of it. I don’t understand why he’s so unenthusiastic.

Yeah, we were talking about some exciting things – his film, his live album, and what was next for him, and he sounded – bleah, “let them work it out or fight it out, I don’t care.” But I can understand it, because he’s such a dynamic figure when he does get into something and goes on stage. . . .
That’s why I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to be involved, somebody with his touch.

Does that result in any kind of chasm between you now? Knowing your different paces?
Yeah, I’m willing to accept that. Most great artists that I have any kind of communications with at all, especially in the arts, it’s weird, but that’s what happens.

Did he feel pushed during the Mad Dogs thing?
I think he did.

I would think so. And with forty people traveling and living together and having to perform almost every night . . . what kinds of changes took place?
From my own point of view, it took a tremendous amount of energy, and I was pretty tired by the end, but in terms of astrology I guess it was just a difference in pace. Like I preferred to push.

Well, that’s what I meant. It drains you, yet you just get drained, rest, and push again with pretty much the same thing. You don’t learn, do you?
Hopefully you learn, but it’s a circle. I mean, the only time you stop is when you die.

It sounds like some kind of addiction – a musical addiction.
Yeah, it’s definitely an addiction. I just was talking to some people in the band, I don’t remember where it was, but at one point something happened on stage, and the crowd just exploded, and they transformed their energy on stage, and I could actually feel it; I was telling the people how I could see how it could get to be an addictive practice.

Could it get to be a challenge? Getting one kind of reception one place, then thinking, I wonder how it’ll be in, say, Tulsa . . . or at a festival with six other big acts . . .
That’s the whole thing about communication is knowing who you’re talking to, but I don’t really think of it in terms of geography as much as age groups.

What do you hope to do with the film of the tour? Just more or less a super home movie or would it be some kind of a message on tribalization?
I’m sure there will be a message; I’m not sure what it is, because from the different bits of the film I saw, it was amazing to see everybody’s different fantasies on all the different levels of what was going on.

What was your fantasy?
To eliminate the restrictions as much as possible – the standard restrictions, like economic restrictions, so everyone could bring their own diversions with them, so they wouldn’t be really away from their normal lives, which for the most part happened.

What did it teach you, say, about the future of communal life as opposed to, or as an alternative to existing family structures? Did you think of such things in getting the group together?
Well, personally, I’ve never had a great deal of family involvement. The deep involvements I’ve had with people have been through musical relations or some other relations other than blood. Interchange is so important in terms of lives. It seemed a good opportunity to get a bunch of people together and see how they react.

Did you form your own group because of the Mad Dogs tour?
There’s only one person who might not have been in my group had he not toured. I had a band five or six years ago for a couple of weeks that I put together which was basically the same band as the Mad Dogs band. It was called the New Electric Horn Band. I had six horns and ten voices in the choir and two drummers, organ, bass, guitar. I was going to make some records and that was to be my effort in music, and the band was great and all that, but I’m not a businessman. I didn’t have Denny Cordell there to get it all organized.

Who were in the band?
Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett . . . Don Preston, Don Nix, Chuck Blackwell, Carl Radle, John Galley [his organ player], Jim Horn, and a guy who’s playing with Ike and Tina now. But it really wasn’t that much of a deal; like I didn’t know anything about roadies at that time. . . .

There are some definite connections between Electric Horn and the original Delaney and Bonnie and Friends.
I’ve been very close to Delaney – at least musically – ever since I’ve been in California. And Carl was Delaney’s first bass player and came out with me on one of my trips to California. We used to play a lot of beer joints. . . .

This band came before Asylum Choir. Did the Asylum Choir album come after ‘Sergeant Pepper’? I heard touches of that influence in it, and the critics at that time heard bits of the Beach Boys and the Youngbloods and the Mothers . . . How did the LP come together, with the songs about fleas, the fine harmonies, the sound effects . . . even what sounded like a Moog. . . .
We didn’t have a Moog. The Moog is just a machine that will re-create any noise. You can do it with – I mean electronic music purists prefer to record their own train wrecks and shit, but the Beatles, yes, the Beach Boys, yes, Frank Zappa, yes, the Youngbloods – I’ve never heard them before – but Frank Zappa, I was always impressed with his non-musical restrictions. I was always under the impression that his records weren’t hampered by musical awareness at all. But in terms of John Cage and people like that, my awareness is hyper-musical sometimes – just too musical – and so it was a good experience for me to hear Zappa’s records because they were so non-musical.

At that time – 1968 – were you as heavily into gospel as you would come out to be later? The Choir had so many different kinds of music – soul music, Indian music, satires. . . .
That’s mainly what I do is satires, even now. I’ve never played in a real gospel church; never even been to one. I’ve heard it on the radio. Like Delaney and I got together one time and cut a record of the Chuck Berry song “Thirty Days” and we did it in a gospel way, somewhat similar to the way we did “Give Peace a Chance,” but it was just an experiment, and Delaney was actually involved in that kind of church, and he told me a lot of his stories about his experiences, and because I was interested in him, a lot of it seeped through, but my own contact with it was over the radio.

The Choir album sounds very constructed.
Originally the whole thing was going to be about fleas.

You were asking for a dog. . . .
Right, exactly. I was just looking for a venue; a flea is the same sort of parasite a human being is, in terms of the earth and dogs. So we did the two or three songs, but I just wasn’t enough of a writer to pull it off.

So you wrote one of the first songs about Hollywood instead.
Well, that has a certain flea element about it. . . .

How was the harmony done? Who was “Wilson” who helped write one song? Was there actually a Beach Boy involved?
That was Dennis . . . No, Wally, from Texas, who was in a band with Marc Benno, who did the album with me. It was mainly Marc who did the harmonies. He mostly sang, and we’d color up the songs. I sang some harmony, but he really has a charming, soft kind of a voice. Then, I really have a passion for choirs, so we constructed a choir, out of his voice a lot of times.

Just another aspect of your religion. . . .
Well, before we get too far off in that direction I’d like to say that I believe that organized Christianity has done more harm than any other single force I can think of in the world. I don’t know if it’s religion itself or the organization – the “we” and the “they” and the “haves” and the “have-nots.” We are right and you’re wrong, as opposed to “Let’s all be in the same spaceship.”

What’s the alternative for that kind of organization and that kind of religion?
Rock and roll.

Rock and roll – but you’re an exponent of one particular kind of rock and roll. What about rock and roll that promotes organized religion or some subculture you might consider as harmful if not more harmful than the things you’re fighting against?
I’m not really fighting against anything, but the Holy Trinity . . . I mean, I’m from the Bible Belt, so that’s all in my background. Christianity. So that’s the way that particular satire takes place. If you think of the Holy Trinity in terms of the triangle and geodesic domes, that’s actually where I am at personally.

In the Christian church – or at least in the Protestant church, the Holy Trinity is the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost. But three has been a magic number for all sorts of sciences and near-sciences.

Was your religious background forced at or into you, or did it just seep into you and become a part of your life?
I make it a habit of trying to be really aware of the things I love and the things I hate, and I use them all equally.

How did you become aware of what you loved and hated in your youth?
I didn’t understand southern Bible Belt Protestant racism, in terms of brotherhood, which they preached simultaneously; that was perhaps the first indication I had that something was amiss.

What about your family – what did they preach?
Well, the normal, average, Christian Midwestern bag . . . and racism as well. You know, we’re all victims or products of our environment, and my thing is to throw it back at them and keep the circle going – that’s pretty vague, but that’s the best I can do.

We were talking about the Asylum Choir album. That beaver-shot ad in the L.A. Open City sure raised a fuss.
Yeah, that’s when that stuff had just been declared legal – that the human body wasn’t obscene – so they were driven out of business on an illegal premise. It was just a fact that it was so shocking to see it in a newspaper. You could buy that stuff anywhere in any bookstore, and a policeman happened to pick up one of those newspapers and it offended his tastes – his values of regimentation.

What exactly did the ad look like?
It was just myself and Benno and this nude chick that was photographed in the control room . . . You know, I don’t care to get into my fantasies about what weird is. The Kama Sutra is full of different positions that people can stand in, lay in, sit in . . . People are just people as they’re born, it doesn’t matter how they stand.

Did your satirical inclinations include gospel?
I suppose you could say that, because the words I say in the gospel medium are completely out of order with the meaning of gospel. But gospel means truth, and I try to say what I believe to be the truth in a medium that is a proven mass communicator.

Do you consider Dylan’s “Rainy Day Woman (12 & 35)” to be gospel?
I suppose so . . . Dylan, as far as satire goes, is the kingpin, you know. He’s been acting like something that he may not be for years and years. But in acting that way, he is the way he acts.

Have you ever worked with him?
No, but I hope to sometime, because I’ve always thought – and this may be purely my own fantasy – but I’ve always thought he was making musical constructions that were far beneath his actual awareness, just so they could be assimilated by a lot of people.

And yet so many people insist on being so super-serious about him. Have you ever been able to get to a satiric level and listen and understand exactly what he’s doing?
I don’t know whether I understand exactly. I don’t think I could unless I knew him more personally. But he’s been a great inspiration. The first time I ever heard him, I was amazed at how much he sounded like me – this is from my point of view. And I remember immediately thinking, “Well, it’s great; but nobody’ll ever understand it.”

How do you mean he sounds like you? In terms of phrasing, or the kind of words. . . .
Yeah, his phrasing, singing and the words, I think. If he sounds like me in words it’s because I’ve studied his style right.

He always struck me as being one of the first people in mass communications that took a non-musical overview and used a musical medium to express himself. Like Dylan Thomas. I heard some recordings of him reciting his poetry, and it’s just one dimension less than Bob Dylan’s poetry because Bob had the added dimension of music. But otherwise, it’s very similar.

Did Dylan Thomas make up for the lack of music with something else?
Nothing, for me. I prefer Bob Dylan.

What about the Who? Did you like Townshend’s opera?
It’s a weird premise. Perhaps it’s really hip satire, I don’t know. A blind pinball champion? I really don’t understand. I’m not saying there’s not even anything going on, but I find myself asking myself why, when I listen to this record. . . .

I imagine Peter Townshend’d be able to explain–quite lucidly–what it means to him, to get into a whole fantasy on how it feels to be a human being who is actually a mass of nothing, being hit by all those weird scenes, and being a champion in some way at the same time.
Yeah, I don’t know about superiority to other people, and I don’t know about explaining constructions, but if the construction works, it works. And if you have to send accompanying dialogue with it to explain it, then it doesn’t work except as that total whole.

But that’s the tradition of opera: the libretto.
Perhaps that’s true; I’m not much of an opera fan.

What about films? “Dixie Lullaby” concerned “easy riders” in the South, and the message was “Be kind to the Southerners, or give them a chance to be kind to you.” Was that from the movie, from your own travels, from your own life, or something you’ve always thought was important to say?
It was all of those things. I was very impressed with the realism of that movie, the heroes and the bad guys. It wasn’t a morality play in the sense of a John Wayne western, where the bad guys are obviously bad and the good guys are obviously good. Because the bad guys were as real, if not more real, than the heroes. That little epic, y’know. And that was probably because they weren’t actors, they were really . . . I remember reading something that Dennis said when they first pulled in to that truck stop, those guys were standing around, so he went up to them and explained the premise and said, “What would you say if this was happening,” so they just sat down and said what they would say. You can’t get any more real than that, I mean you’re really one up to Andy Warhol.

That took balls, too, I think, because they could’ve had a camera focused on Dennis in case he got ripped off by them. It could easily have happened.
He’s definitely got balls. As well as just sheer talent.

Now, what were you saying in your song? That people should give the Southerners a chance to be kind, or to be real?
Well, I don’t . . . not being an opera fan, the songs stand alone.

Not being an opera fan?
Yeah. What’d you say, libretto?

Oh, I see. That was a half a topic ago.
Some guy came up to me in San Francisco and asked – he told me that he’d quit turning on because he’d heard “Roll Away the Stone.” “Is that what that meant?” And I told him “If that’s what it means to you then that’s fine, but that’s not what it means to me.” And he said “What does it mean to you?” That’s not the reason that I do it, so I can go out and explain. They are what they are. . . .

I subscribe to the theory that films – and science fiction – come true. In other words, the people that create fiction are actually creating the future. Because the less visionary type of people are influenced. . . .

It may be sad, in a way, that movie, because it didn’t offer a positive alternative. I heard somewhere through the grapevine that Bob Dylan didn’t want to do the music to the movie because he felt that Peter Fonda should ride his motorcycle into the truck. Which I don’t think he – he may not have said that, that’s only hearsay, but I prefer to think movies like M*A*S*H, which I really can’t comment on in total because I only saw the first 20 minutes of it, but I sat there and looked at all that and everybody was laughin’ and shit, and I said, “Well, I know all this but it’s not funny.” It’s just that sort of black humor that’s not funny. And that’s sort of the way I feel with Easy Rider. Like it was all true, it was all real and it was expertly done, an expert media experience, but I just somehow wish that it could have offered a positive alternative to reality instead of displaying it as it actually now is.

I don’t know what Fonda’s answer to Dylan was when that came up, but I would imagine he wanted to challenge the audience to grope for their own alternative, to look elsewhere.
I find that people identify with movies kind of passively but not in an exploratory way. And there are a lot of people walking around that act just like John Wayne, without their specific knowledge of actually ever acting.

Perhaps so. People get movies presented to them in a package, and they accept it and they’re entertained or they’re thrilled or they’re enlightened or they’re shocked or whatever, and that’s it.
It’s a simple experience of media. Like Andy Warhol proved it when he painted his Campbell soup can series. It’s not exactly all content as much as it is style. Like the fact that you see these gigantic Campbell soup cans is the same thing that you see a dirty guy, a bad guy with a rifle rack in his truck, shootin’ somebody, blown up on a big screen. To somebody who’s not really into the effect of the media, and happened to have a pick-up with a rifle rack in their pick-up, they might just go ahead and play it on out.

Have you got some kind of an idea in your head about the kind of things you would do visually? Would you do a documentary, or a science fiction fantasy, or a musical . . . .
Well, I’d say it would be documentary, ’cause the most important media experiences these days are news. People can sense that an assassination is real, and they’re more prone to watch that. And war. That’s why war is such a big seller on the news. But it’s a commodity. It’s a commercial commodity war, these days.

That reminds me of what you said a couple of years ago about NBC packaging things that are going on right now and sending it to people, commercially, almost.
It’s not just the networks; it’s a lot of corporations. But it’s strictly an economic colonization of America, a vast dumping ground of products, the backyard of the world. So a few people are killed, what the hell? You sell a lot of planes and bombs, and for a religious cause, which people are prone to accept – the logic of the situation demands a different line of thought – but religiously, with God on our side, they don’t feel bad about $40 million a day toward the war. Because it’s protecting territorial boundaries, or it’s protecting some sort of religious vagueness. So they allow it to go on.

You just started getting into science fiction?
No, I’ve always been interested in it.

So many people get hung up in history, and I think that’s all right if you balance it with science fiction, because either one of them is just as true – history is no more true than science fiction.

Is there someone at Shelter who’s interested in video casettes and that sort of thing?
We’re interested, and as a company we’re going to the national cassette convention in February. Videocassettes are going to do the same thing to television that television did to movies. I won’t go as far as to say what that thing is, but it’s going to do the same thing.

Ultimately, Shelter will be a communications company, and the communications aspect will eclipse the records part of it.

Do you see your video cassettes being non-musical as well as musical?
Sure; the medium itself will eclipse the musical aspect of it, but this is a logical transformation to go from records to video. I think I might be more of a film director than anything else. I’ve never directed one, but it’s something I can get into.

Is that a logical next step for you?
It is to me; I don’t know how logical it’ll be to the movie industry. They’re just getting a taste with Dennis Hopper of the same thing the music industry got with Phil Spector. The first 19-year-old commercial genius. The movie industry with all its unions and all their backward ways of doing things are just getting a taste of it; we don’t have to do it their way.

Along those lines, you’ve been an integral force in getting artists interacting and overcoming old hassles with record contracts – playing on each other’s records. . . . 
Well, contracts concern only the people the contracts involve, you know. . . .

. . . And their lawyers and their royalties. . . .
In a certain way, the record companies work in a certain way for the artists, and it’s just – I mean, you can’t keep people from interacting.

True, but before, say, if Stephen Stills wanted to do a non-Buffalo Springfield album and wanted to hook up with John Sebastian, he’d have to go through his company for permission, or do it on the sly . . . Now it seems much more free.
As it happens, because of Buffalo Springfield or whatever, he is a giant, he can do whatever he wants to do. I mean the record company, I’m sure, is thankful for his endeavors, any way he wants to cut it. I don’t know whether they are out front encouraging that sort of thing, but it’s the old capitalist ideology of putting the basket out to catch the biggest amount of money. But the thing is, money is just representation of people’s interests, and record markets are created; they don’t exist in any particular form. Interaction between Stills and Sebastian will create something that before didn’t exist and without affecting what already exists.

There’ve always been giants in the industry, but before, there wasn’t that inclination to experiment with intra-group chemistry.
Well, it’s always been my scene to play on everybody’s records – for hire, so it’s just a logical next step.

How did it feel to be a session man and not get credit – did it matter, or was it just a gig?
Yeah, I didn’t consider myself to be responsible for the overview that caused the mass communication of a record to happen. In some projects I had more influence than others. But I think the first record experience where I really did just what came off the top of my head was that Bonnie and Delaney album, which was true for Delaney as well. We just all got around and had a party. That’s what it sounds like.

I used to produce some records with Delaney and Bonnie; that was before I was together or Delaney was together – the records really weren’t that good, and it certainly lacked any kind of a business organization. Then Alan Pariser [their manager] came on the scene, and offered him the organizational capability he was lacking, and gave Delaney the confidence that he really did have something to say. That was sometime after the Electric Horn band.

I was going to do a group with Jim Gordon, and that’s the time that Delaney first met him. Carl Radle was playing with Delaney at the time. Jimmy Keltner was playing. He went back to when I was doing the Gary Lewis records. Gary Lewis introduced me to Keltner and Delaney met him that way. But the people that were involved with that band were already working with Delaney – it was like an organized thing, they’d been working for a month or so at a club in town.

So you’ve actually tried to form a number of groups before. Why did they never jell?
The only thing I actually tried to do for myself was that Electric Horn Band. Asylum Choir was a studio thing, we never got around to performing.

What made you decide not to have a horn section with your band?
Well, I’d like someday to do a tour with a Ray Charles sort of band, and I’m rhythm-section-oriented – and choir. It takes a certain amount of spontaneity out of it when you have a horn section to deal with, in front. The rhythm players can just about play anything if their heads are in the right place and it sounds right. The only things that are preplanned in our band is the vocal group’s part – they’re roughly the same every time, and horns would just be another factor, mathematically. It’d be two things that’d be predestined.

I love horns but I’d prefer to wait until some time where it’s feasible and do it up with horns – nine horns or something.

What kind of connection did you have with Ray Charles? Did you see his roadshows?
Many times; he’s just a great influence.

Was he an influence on your taking up the piano?
It was a funny thing, a friend of mine from back in Oklahoma named Johnny Kale, the first time he ever heard me play, he said I sounded exactly like Ray Charles. And at that time I’d never heard Ray Charles so I made a point of going out and listening to his records. This was 15 years ago. . . .

He’s one of the great innovators. I can see a lot of Ray Charles influence in Aretha Franklin. He was so unique in his early days before everybody started being influenced by him, so I always went and saw him as often as I could. I suppose I listened to his early records and Elvis Presley’s more than anybody else’s.

How did you and B. B. King get together?
His producer, Bill Smyckzk, heard the song (“Hummingbird”) off the album and played it for B. B., and called me to record it with him.

It just happens like that. That’s great. And in London all those people just happen to drop by and help on the album. . . .
I certainly was as surprised as anybody. I didn’t intend to go over there and sweep Europe with a rock and roll broom or anything. All of a sudden they were just all there.

What was the catalyst between you and all these people?
I think the main thing was the fact that they had heard my work on the Delaney and Bonnie Elektra album. I was just over there by myself – part of it was to dub the background on the second Joe Cocker album – and I didn’t have any musicians with me. And Glyn Johns was there, and he said all these people had heard the Delaney and Bonnie LP and really liked what you played and I’m sure they’d like to play with you, and I said well, sure! It’s so much more convenient to have a musical experience with someone who you’ve been aware of – of their credentials . . . like you can always fall back on them because you have some idea of what they’re into. It’s hard to not know how Ringo plays when you’ve heard four or five albums. Same for the Stones.

Had you thought of making an album over there?
Not really. I was just there for a vacation and to offer what help I could in dubbing Joe’s album. But I had some songs I’d written, and it just kind of came about. Actually, as soon as it was over with, I was a bit nervous. It was a bit frightening to think what had actually happened, but when they were there, they were all just people, and the music was clear. I’ve been in a lot of studios and made a lot of records with a lot less talent than that, and it was easy.

What were the combinations of people in the studio? Did, say, Ringo and Charlie Watts show up at the same time?
Well, John and Yoko and Ringo and George and David Crosby and Graham Nash were all there one night and that was the biggest gathering.

Why didn’t Nash join in?
I really don’t know; I really didn’t know anybody. Not even David Crosby. I’d met him a couple of times in the early Byrd days. Just one of those things where everything seeks its own level, and it’s hard to know what’s going on.

Thinking about those early Byrd days, was there a distinct group of session men and studio people – Bones Howe, Snuff Garrett, Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborne – away from a whole pop scene involving the Byrds and Sunset Strip?
Well, the only time I hear about cliques and scenes going on is when I read Rolling Stone, because to me – I’ve known Glen Campbell for a long time, and all those people that you mentioned – I just didn’t think it was a clique or anything: I just ended up working with most of those people. Whenever Glen Campbell had anything to do with a session and they needed a piano, he recommended me and by the same token when I needed guitar, I got him.

And you played on the first Byrds single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” How about the first album?
I don’t think I did–I may have played on parts of it; I think I played on the second as well. I can’t remember. Jack Nitzsche introduced me to Terry Melcher: I suppose I’d done some work for Jack by then. Melcher’s an incredible producer.

Who was at the first Byrds session?
Jim McGuinn was there; the rest of them weren’t there, as I recall. We did live tracks and then there were a lot of vocal overdubs.

How many songs did you do for the Byrds?
I’m not really sure – three or four, I guess.

Is there a particular, purposeful reason for what seems to be a memory bloc on things you did more than five, six years ago?
It’s just that I have a very concise memory for music, for specific music, and a very unprecise memory for other things, such as playing on Byrds records. I’d come closer to remembering the parts I played on the records than the records. Music I really hear, I can sit down and re-create it; if I don’t really hear it, I can’t. I’ve programmed my personal computers to remember notations instead of publicity.

Some of those people I really studied – like with Phil Spector, with Terry Melcher. I studied their style, just because it was so amazing. Style and technique . . .

And adopting, I suppose, what you felt was right for yourself.
Yeah, I wasn’t thinking of it in exactly those terms then, but that’s the way it turned out.
I was a musician first, and before that time, I’d never even owned a record player with speakers that big. So I was pretty impressed at how good it sounded – all of it, even the bad stuff.

Could you pinpoint anything about Spector that you could adopt for yourself?
The main thing, I believe, was to act like I knew how to do it. And that’s really true; I was so impressed with his confidence; his apparent awareness of what’s going on. Like I don’t look at it in exactly the same light today, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him.

What’s the main effect of that kind of facade or approach? Does it affect the music because it affects the musicians, or does it affect mainly himself?
It affects everything; you know, everybody has some sort of feeling inside their hearts or their bodies or whatever; and you can feel that way all your life and you may not be able to express it but it’s learning how to act one way or another that will cause interaction.

You worked for pretty much all his groups. Was he able to take a group that had no talent and make them sound good?
I don’t know about that, but he is an incredible actor. ‘Cause he’s got an incredibly unique frame of reference for music. The first time I ever went into 1650 Broadway in New York City, which is a big music building there, you could hear all sorts of groups like the Orioles and people like that singing and clapping in the hall. Long halls, a lot of echoes. And I said, “Shit, it’s a Phil Spector record!”

That’s maybe where he was first inspired.
That’s what I thought when I walked into the building. But he’s great; I love Phil Spector.

Was there any producer who, on the other hand, just didn’t know what he was doing, and therefore you learned from his shortcomings?
Yeah, but I wouldn’t care to say who. It’s quite a unique experience. Like in that same vein, Terry Melcher was the first producer I worked for who had the attitude that it should be recorded until it’s right, as opposed to “it should be recorded ’til three hours are up.” The usual frame of reference was that when the union allotment of time was up, the record was over with, but with Terry, if it wasn’t right he’d go back the next day and spend thousands of dollars, do it with the rich man’s approach. And that was an inspiration to me, coming from the great midwestern middle class vacuum.

What was your major concern in school?
I think it was containing my neurosis about school not being the proper way to educate, which I found increasingly difficult as I went on. When I first started in school I was a straight-A student, and as I progressed – my last year in school I failed three courses and just could barely make it to school at all.

What was your last year in school – high school or college? When did you see the light?
When I had a chance to go on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis. I’d just spent three days, twelve hours a day, taking entrance examinations to Tulsa University and I just thought, well, it’s a waste of time, ’cause I have to study so many things I’m not interested in. ROTC I had to take, and right away I knew that I didn’t want to do that. I figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants and travel around, play some rock and roll music, which I decided was easier and better.

Was Jerry Lee Lewis a good teacher, philosophically, with his redneck tendencies?
Well, there’s a lot to be learned from the reds.

Was this during the height of his thing?
I’d say it was during the depth of his thing, right after he was kicked out of England.

He had married his cousin.
Yeah. He used to carry his own trio, but it was probably economically not feasible. So he had just come from doin’ about ten shows with bands, a different band in each town, and he was really flipped out and crazy. We did all of his songs in his keys, so when we sat down to do a show we just ripped ’em off. So he said, “Well, shit. You guys have got to come on the road with me.”

You played as your own band and then you also backed him.
The dance-concert kind of deal. The extravagant concert.

What were the gigs like?
Well, it was still the last era of Blackboard Jungle and I remember Jerry Lee in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The band was really playing and he was standing up on the piano bench singing and watching 75 people fight in the audience, just chasing around and running all over the audience. Pretty soon they all advanced on the stage, when they got tired of fighting with each other, and the curtains were pulled and we made a mad scramble out to the cars and packed up as many instruments as we could and got out of town.

Must’ve been dynamite music.
Yeah . . . People were even more interested in the event at that time than they are now, and what happens now is the event rather than the music. But most of us used to fight, I think. Group interaction on even a more basic level than what happens now.

Did you have to wear pink suits and matching ribbon ties?
I don’t know whether we had to or not, but I think we probably wore some red sparkly shirts and white shoes or something.

A&M put out an album of old stuff recently, called ‘Bootleg,’ and it had a couple of cuts by you – one was an upbeat sort of Rick Nelson version of “Misty.”
That was back in the days of my more obvious satire. I think what moved me to do that was I’d just heard John Lee Hooker’s version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” It was so funny I decided to do one, too. But I think Herb Alpert [the A of A&M] bought the record from me ’cause he thought I needed the money – which I probably did.

Were these demos you did?
No, I just did them after a session – I think it was a Bobby Darin session, and everybody was just hanging around, so we cut this record.

Who’s your wardrobe person who chooses your outstanding outfits and takes care of your color coordination?
It’s mostly fans who come up and give me stuff or make clothes for me. I’m into symbolism. Like the long hair is symbolism, and the distance between me and the audience sometimes affects what I’m going to wear.

What does the long hair symbolize?
It’s kind of like the songs. Nothing specific – it just is what it is. It’s me in comparison to other long-haired people and short-haired people and people in general.

What does the basketball shirt signify?
I’d hate to say what it signifies to me because it might restrict your own fantasies.

Well, I hardly ever fantasize over basketball jersies, to tell you the truth. It strikes me as interesting to see that you’d go out and buy a basketball shirt, or receive one and wear it.
It’s a few things: it’s teams, it’s spectator activities, which I’m not convinced is the best sort of activity – voyeurs – I’m not sure whether it’s good or not, but I’m willing to take the role of the musical football player until such time that people realize that they can make music themselves.

There’s something else, too. Instead of like the Knicks or some professional team, you’re “Gil’s Barbershop” or “Holy Trinity.” Makes people wonder.
Well, that’s the hope. The wondering wanderer. That’s the whole bag–the songs, the performance, the whole lifestyle. Make people wonder. Make myself wonder, too. And it’s great.

In This Article: Coverwall, Leon Russell


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.