Leon Russell, musician and hit songwriter, dies at 74


Leon Russell, a gravelly voiced singer and pianist who wrote many pop and rock standards in the 1970s, including “This Masquerade,” “Love’s Got a Hold On Me” and “A Song For You,” died Nov. 13 at his home in Nashville. He was 74.

His wife, Jan Bridges, confirmed his death to news outlets but did not give a cause of death. Russell had been treated for a brain fluid leak in 2010. In July, he had a heart attack and recently had canceled several concerts.

Russell, known equally for quietly intimate ballads and gospel-inflected, high-energy showstoppers, was widely regarded as one of the 1970s most engaging rock performers. In an era when most rock performers were content to wear jeans and T-shirts, he was distinguished by suits, top hats, vests and ruffled shirts that went with his shoulder-length hair and long beard.

He served as band director for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen band, performed in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, recorded with Willie Nelson and Elton John, and was one of the most frequently covered rock songwriters. He built his own recording studios in Los Angeles and Tulsa, and started his own independent record company, Shelter Records – a business model for many later performers.

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His 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction called Mr. Russell a “rock and roll Renaissance man” and noted his “quixotic half-century in music,” which stretched from his teen years imitating Jerry Lee Lewis in Oklahoma honky-tonks to the collaboration with John, a longtime admirer, in 2010.

Russell’s music borrowed liberally from blues, gospel, jazz and country – musical idioms all native to his home state of Oklahoma. However, his writing stood apart with a melodic flair and pop sensibility that impressed a wide range of performers from very different genres.

The love song, “A Song For You,” was recorded by more than 100 performers, including Andy Williams, Willie Nelson, Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles, and featured introspective lyrics that contrasted the public and private worlds of the performer:

Another ballad, “This Masquerade,” helped establish jazz guitarist George Benson as a vocalist, while “Hummingbird” gave blues singer B.B. King a rare pop hit. “Superstar,” co-written by singer Bonnie Bramlett, became an easy-listening hit for the clean-cut duo The Carpenters, although the lyrics provided an ironic portrait of the rock groupie culture.

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In concert, Russell also excelled at interpreting songs by other rock performers, including his medley of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Coasters’ “Young Blood.”

Russell emerged as a showman in the late 1960s after almost two decades as a successful session musician. By his own admission, he was an ear player who never mastered reading charts.

Despite that seeming limitation, Russell hustled his way into the elite Los Angeles recording session cadre informally known as the Wrecking Crew and played on recordings by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Ike and Tina Turner, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra.

He also performed in the Shindogs, the house band on the ABC-TV rock-and-roll show “Shindig” from 1964 to 1966, with guitarists James Burton, a fellow Wrecking Crew member, and Delaney Bramlett, a frequent collaborator.

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When Bramlett and his wife, Bonnie, a back-up singer with Ike and Tina Turner, formed the loose-knit band Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, they hired Russell as the pianist.

He was born Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1942. He started classical piano lessons at 4. He believed that a childhood injury to his upper vertabrae gave him a slower right hand and contributed to his style.

In his teens, he performed in Oklahoma clubs with guitarist J.J. Cale and singer David Gates, later of Bread, and even played second piano behind Jerry Lee Lewis when he came through town. (Early demo recordings in the rockabilly style of Lewis and credited to Russell Bridges surfaced in the 1980s.)

By 17, he had moved to Los Angeles, working first as a lounge pianist and later as a studio musician. About a decade later, he built his own recording studio and recorded two albums with guitarist Marc Benno as the Asylum Choir. With co-producer Denny Cordell, he started the record company Shelter in 1969. Russell and Cordell produced recordings by Cale and blues singers Freddie King and Jimmy Rogers.

However, he drew greater acclaim for his work as co-producer and arranger on Cocker’s album “Joe Cocker,” which yielded the hit from Mr. Russell’s pen, “Delta Lady.” When Cocker’s band broke up, Russell assembled Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a large band with three drummers and 10 back-up singers.

The live album and concert film that followed in 1970, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” featured Cocker’s band under the direction of Russell, resplendent in his top hat.

That same year, Mr. Russell released his first solo album, “Leon Russell,” which featured “A Song For You.”

Survivors include his wife of 37 years, Janet Lee Constantine and six children. His earlier marriage to Mary McCreary, a singer who recorded with him as Mary Russell, ended in divorce.

“I’m an illusionist,” Russell quipped to the LA Record last year. “I give the illusion of being a great piano player, but I’m actually a magician. If it’s my own playing, I do good.”

An early concert on YouTube: