The Spacey Life and Tunes of Leon Russell

Leon and his most famous acolyte, Elton John, soon after they first met in Los Angeles, 1970. Elton said Leon “was everything I wanted to be as a pianist, vocalist, and writer. His music has helped me and millions of others in the best and worst of times.”
Photo by Don Nix/Courtesy of the OKPOP Museum
Leon and his most famous acolyte, Elton John, soon after they first met in Los Angeles, 1970. Elton said Leon “was everything I wanted to be as a pianist, vocalist, and writer. His music has helped me and millions of others in the best and worst of times.”
Sometimes we tend to forget that even musical heroes have musical heroes. When Elton John came to these shores to play his first highly-anticipated run of shows at L.A.’s Troubadour Club in 1970, he was ecstatic to meet one of his: Leon Russell.

Cut to nearly four decades later and John wasn’t happy. That’s because Russell—who for the first half of the 1970s was one of rock’s biggest stars—had been largely forgotten. Even, he admits, by Elton. Russell was playing sporadic and uneven shows in small venues and battling health issues and bad business decisions of his own making. This is a man who Billboard deemed in 1973 was the “top concert attraction in the world.” Also touring that year: Led Zeppelin.

So, John and lyricist Bernie Taupin coaxed the reluctant singer/pianist into the studio for a collaborative album of duets, The Union. It won Grammys and spun off a documentary and concert special.

With his long snow-white beard and hair, ever present sunglasses, and preference for white suits and white cowboy hat—Russell resembled a cowboy/hippie Saruman from The Lord of the Rings.

And while his gait was slower (he had a lifelong limp), the girth larger, and the Oklahoma-born drawl a bit drawlier, he enjoyed a career resurgence, culminating in an emotional, tearjerking speech upon his 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Musical Excellence.

He thanked John—who did the induction honors—after being “found in a ditch by the side of the highway of life” and saving him. He also entered the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame at the same time.

Russell died in 2016 at the age of 74 while recovering from heart surgery. And now the story of the life and music of “The Master of Space and Time” is told in Bill Janovitz’s massive and thorough biography, Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock and Roll History (592 pp., $31, Hachette Books).
Through highly-detailed archival research and nearly 140 fresh interviews, Janovitz (who in addition to writing is a founding member of the alt rock group Buffalo Tom), traces Russell through his upbringing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, early success as an A-list session musician in L.A. and outlier member of the fabled Wrecking Crew, key motivator and musical force in ensembles like Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen records and tours, and his own solo ups (and downs…and ups).

But this is no hagiography. Janovitz reveals how Russell could pick up and dispose of women in his life while trying to have simultaneous relationships (including backing singers Rita Coolidge—said to be the inspiration for his “Delta Lady”—and Claudia Lennear among them). And how he could be stingy with money, praise and songwriting credits.
As noted time and time again, Russell was also influenced in a negative way by a coterie of hangers-on that he did nothing to dismiss. Both of his major homes/studios essentially became communal living crash pads. “His uncanny habit of trusting the wrong people would be an Achilles’ heel his entire life,” Janovitz writes.

A continual theme is the respect that many of his contemporaries who were both on the front of album covers and in the liner notes held for him. And many feel in 1971’s The Concert for Bangla Desh, his performance outshone even those of organizer George Harrison, fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston and an admittedly incapacitated Eric Clapton. Though his utterly distinctive if range-limited vocal honk was utterly unique, it was also for many listeners and acquired taste.
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Sam Bush, Bill Kenner, and Leon. On tour with New Grass Revival, 1981.
Photo by Diane Sullivan/Courtesy of Jan Bridges
Janovitz’s also addresses the Classic Rock Parlor Game of trying to determine the balance of power and influence on the ramshackle, traveling circus of the Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tour (and subsequent documentary and record), which initially brought Russell to mass attention. The Rock and Roll Circus usually saw 20+ people on stage through the night.

Did Russell on purpose attempt to steal the spotlight and decision-making process from headliner with his solo spots and flashy stage wear and moves? Did the drug-addled and indecisive Cocker even care? Could the tour have happened at all without Russell’s guiding hand? Did Russell buoy forces against Cocker? Whatever the truth, relations between the two deteriorated and each held decades-long grudges that were never solved.
Russell had much better relations with Willie Nelson, as they gleefully planned to bring “the hippies and the rednecks” together.

Russell was by Nelson’s side at early Fourth of July picnics. Janovitz tells a story of the pair being up all-night partying and singing before the 1973 first one in Dripping Springs. But when it turned daylight and they saw crowds already appearing—seven hours before showtime—the worse-for-wear pair decided to put on an impromptu gospel concert for the early birds. Russell also has the distinction of being the first performer ever to sign/carve a name in “Trigger,” Nelson’s legendary Martin N-20 acoustic guitar that he plays to this day.

Houston shows up in the book—and not in a good way. After Russell married bandmember/singer/pianist Mary McCreary—who was Black—some of his fans didn’t like it. One eyewitness at a Houston show remembers audience members throwing tiny nooses onstage during the show (this was possibly a 1976 gig at the Summit, though the person interviewed says about 70,000 tickets were sold, which would mean she's thinking of the Astrodome).
But Janovitz doesn’t just dwell on the glory years. From the ‘80s through the comeback, Russell was a man adrift. Moving around; dabbling in different types of music (including years with the New Grass Revival); divorce-remarriage-children; a business breakup with partner Denny Cordell; the shuttering of his own Shelter Records label and Church recording studio; poor health and weight gain (and possible undiagnosed bipolar or autistic tendencies); a fighting family; creative lethargy; no record deals; and playing smaller and smaller venues. He even eventually bashed heads with savior Elton John and his management, slipping back into old ways.

Make no mistake, reading and digesting Leon Russell is a sizable commitment and at times even too detailed for the average listener. And while the inner workings of its subject (like his image) sometimes remain elusive and mysterious, Bill Janovitz has definitely unlocked many of The Master’s secrets. It’s an important piece of rock journalism.