Leon Russell (1942-2016): The Last of the Bird-Flipping Genre-Busters

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It’s fitting, of course, that the late Leon Russell’s real last name was “bridges.”

Claude Russell Bridges, who died today at age 74, would one day write a tune called “The Masquerade” that – in jazz singer and guitarist George Benson’s hands – hit No. 1 simultaneously on the jazz, pop and R&B charts. It’s the footnote on Russell that got a thousand feet tapping. And powerful imagery that defines his life’s work in music.

A gravelly marvel of a singer, Leon Russell parlayed his Cliff’s-notes rep as the rustic, yet rich swamp-popster into a terrific little rock sideshow. He was never exactly inside the spotlight, but careful liner-note readers – at least for a while – could always find Russell along its fuzzy edges.

If he set a standard of playing, and of innovating, that couldn’t be matched later, he also established himself as a hard-headed iconoclast, perhaps the last of the bird-flipping genre-busters.

Russell started as a 14-year-old who lied about his age so he could sit in with rockabilly players like Ronnie Hawkins (who eventually led a tough group of Canadians that became Bob Dylan’s backing group, the Band) and James Burton – the legendary late-period Elvis Presley guitarist from Louisiana. That led to sessions work under the tutelage of mad-genius producer Phil Spector, where Russell played on a stunning series of hit songs.

Soon, he was the hipster sideman. He could be found opening for Jerry Lee Lewis, sitting in on Glen Campbell records, making friends with Beatles. By 1970, Russell had written a hit for Joe Cocker (“Delta Lady”) then helped organize and play on Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour – as famous now for its debauchery as its shimmering soul-deep musical fury. A self-titled solo album followed, and it included the minor hit “A Song for You.”

Leon Russell was at the top of his game. He appeared on the bill for George Harrison’s proto-benefit concert for storm-torn Bangaladesh in 1971, performing a memorable medley of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and then the 1950s Coasters’ hit “Young Blood.” His flair for gritty, but heartfelt playing led to invites for sessions work with the Rolling Stones, as well as B.B. King and Dylan, another star from the Bangaladesh show.

There then followed, on 1972’s Carny, one of Russell’s most enduring classic-rock staples, the single “Tight Rope” – and then an only-in-the-1970s triple-LP concert set called Leon Live in 1973. But Leon was still Leon, with the bird flipping and all. He followed those commercial successes with a country-tinged studio effort.

Many fans weren’t ready to cross that particular bridge. People tended to take him as a deep-fried, Southern-sounding rock act – though Leon Russell is actually from Oklahoma – and were disappointed when he didn’t play along. Russell’s was clearly a spirit forged on variety, on not just the spice of life but the entire spice rack. He made his bones working across the spectrum, from arranging Ike and Tina Turner’s towering single “River Deep, Mountain High” to playing a key role in the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring” and Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey.”

His career began to slow, and for a while it looked like 1975’s Will O’ the Wisp — which produced the single “Lady Blue” – would be one of Leon Russell’s last great sides. He was silent for much of the ’80s. But with Anything Can Happen (produced by the then-hot Bruce Hornsby), he finally reemerged both as a recording artist – famously collaborating later with Willie Nelson and Elton John — but more particularly as a tireless touring act.

As he crosses one final bridge, it’s encouraging to think of the way he’d become an elder statesman. His hair, and his ever-whitening beard, grew longer – but so did Russell’s legend as the consummate musician and never-ebbing rebel. But he never changed: His concerts remained a bedeviling mixture, this gospel-y get-down groove coupled with a strange and strained vocal. It was down-home, happy and bedraggled – like a middle-aged hound dog.

Leon Russell could howl like that, too, his voice and his music so unadulterated and unique. The difference at the end was, we accepted it by then.

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