Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History

 Album covers Courtesy of UMe

Leon Russell, (April 2, 1942-November 13, 2016), the former Claude Russell Bridges, was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, and left the physical world dying of a heart attack in Nashville Tennessee.

   Russell is the subject of a new biography. Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, from author and musician Bill Janovitz, published March 14, 2023, via Hachette Books.

   The 592-page title is described in the book announcement as “the definitive biography of the legendary musician, composer and performer, a profound influence on countless artists, including George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Willie Nelson.

   “Leon Russell is an icon, but in many ways, he is also an underappreciated artist. A Zelig figure for a number of decades, he is spoken of in tones, reserved not just for the most talented musicians, but also the most complex and fascinating.

    “Russell’s career is like a roadmap of American music, yet he worked integrally with English rock royalty like Beatles and the Stones. He played piano on records by such giants as Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and Phil Spector, and on hundreds of classic songs with major recording artists. Russell inspired Elton John’s career, and Elton inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

    “In his prime, Russell filled stadiums on solo tours, and was an organizer/performer of both Joe Cocker’s revolutionary Mad Dogs and Englishmen 1970 tour and George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. Russell founded Shelter Records in 1969 with producer Denny Cordell, establishing offices and studios in Hollywood and eventually Tulsa, fostering wild and free atmospheres for musicians to live and work together.  

   “The book dives deeps and explores the personal side of Russell, who struggled with his demons, including substance abuse, severe depression, and a crippling stage fright that wreaked havoc on his psyche over the long haul.”  

   The litany of collaborators and beneficiaries of the creative worlds Russell inhabited were recording artists such as Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, Rita Coolidge, Dave Mason, Bob Dylan, Freddie King, J.J. Cale, Jim Keltner, Jimmy Karstein, Gene Clark, Marc Benno, Gary Lewis, the Wailers, Kim Fowley, Claudia Linnear, Don Nix, Mud Crutch, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Dwight Twilley Band, Gary Busey, Phoebe Snow, Bonnie Raitt, and the Gap Band. 

    As a bandleader, Russell was an early proponent of culturally diverse groups.

For over a half a century I’ve been dialoging with a handful of musicians, writers, deejays, record executives and songwriters about Mr. Russell. 

    In early 1960, future guitarist of the Everly Brothers (1961-1963) Don Peake, and guitarist Elliot Ingber, a 1965 founding member of the Mothers of Invention, were playing at the Sea Witch club and Pandora’s Box. Peake and songwriter/record producer Kim Fowley encountered “Claude” [Leon] and a pal from Oklahoma, [either Chuck Blackwell or Johnny Williams]. 

“Claude had a soft southern accent,” recounted Peake in a February 2023 interview we conducted.  

  “Kim was always deep in the trenches checking out talent. We went to an Italian restaurant on Pico Blvd. called Mama’s, owned by the mother of the great singer, Timi Yuro, who was on Liberty Records. In 1961 she had a big hit single, ‘The Hurt.’ Later, in 1962, I really got to know Claude at a Phil Spector session at Gold Star studios.” 

   In LEON RUSSELL: The Master of Space and Time's Journey Through Rock & Roll History (Hachette Books; 3/14/23; $31; ISBN: 9780306924774), shines the spotlight on one of the most important music makers of the twentieth century.

   A long out-of-print collection of intimate, solo piano and vocal recordings by legendary musician, composer, and performer Leon Russell is being reissued. Signature Songs, originally released in 2001, will be available on CD and pressed for the very first time on vinyl, via Dark Horse Records on March 17, 2023.

    Signature Songs includes stripped-down and unique takes on songs from across Russell’s remarkable canon, from the GRAMMY® Hall of Fame classic, “A Song for You,” to his own classic hits, “Hummingbird,” “Delta Lady,” “Tight Rope,” “Stranger In a Strange Land,” “This Masquerade,” “Out In The Woods," and “Lady Blue.”

    When Elton John heard the news about Russell’s physical departure, he immediately took to Twitter to comment on his musical hero.

    “My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me. Thank God we caught up with each other and made The Union. He got his reputation back and felt fulfilled. I loved him and always will.”  #LeonRussell #RIP #TheHandsOfAngels.  

     For Leon Russell fans, I recommend seeking out a copy of a live album from the Omnivore Entertainment Group distributed earlier this century. Nine selections from a 1973 Russell concert at the Budokhan in Japan, coupled with bonus tracks added to the CD release from a memorable 1971 show from Houston, Texas.

   Harvey Kubernik is the author of 20 books, including 2009’s Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic And The Music Of Laurel Canyon and 2014’s Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972.   Sterling/Barnes and Noble in 2018 published Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s The Story Of The Band: From Big Pink To The Last Waltz. In2021 they wrote Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child for Sterling/Barnes and Noble. Otherworld Cottage Industries in 2020 published Harvey’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters.

Kubernik’s writings are in several book anthologies. Most notably, The Rolling Stone Book Of The Beats and Drinking With Bukowski. Harvey wrote the liner notes to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, The Essential Carole King, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special, The Ramones’ End of the Century and Big Brother & the Holding Company Captured Live at The Monterey International Pop Festival.  

    During 2006 Harvey spoke at the special hearings initiated by The Library of Congress held in Hollywood, California, discussing archiving practices and audiotape preservation. In 2017 Harvey Kubernik appeared at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of their Distinguished Speakers Series.

   In December 2021, Harvey Kubernik was interviewed and served as a consultant on the Ron Chapman-directed Revival69: The Concert That Rocked The World about the 1969 festival held in Toronto, Canada featuring the debut of the John Lennon and Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. Chapman interviewed Klaus Voorman, Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper, Robby Krieger, Danny Serrafine, promoter John Brower, Rodney Bingenheimer, and Geddy Lee of Rush. Pennebaker/Hegedus Films is executive producer.  The movie is an official 2023 SWSW selection in Austin, Texas and screened March 12th and 16th at the Zach Theatre.    

   In 2023, Harvey, photographer Henry Diltz and authors Eddie Fiegel, Barney Hoskyns and Chris Campion were filmed by French director France Swimberge for her Mamas & Papas documentary scheduled for the European arts television channel, Arte. Kubernik is serving as consultant.