November 12, 2016 – Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Okla., on April 2, 1941. An injury to his upper vertebrae at birth caused a slight paralysis on his right side that would shape his music, since a delayed reaction time forced him to think ahead about what his right hand would play.
He started classical piano lessons when he was 4 years old, played baritone horn in his high school marching band and also learned trumpet. At 14 he started gigging in Oklahoma; since it was a dry state at the time, he could play clubs without being old enough to drink. Soon after he graduated from high school, Jerry Lee Lewis hired him and his band to back him on tour for two months.
He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s and found club work and then studio work; he also learned to play guitar. Calling himself Leon Russell — the name Leon came from a friend who lent him an ID so he could play California club dates while underage — he drew on both his classical training and his Southern roots, playing everything from standards to surf-rock, from million-sellers to pop throwaways. He was glimpsed on television as a member of the house band for the prime-time rock show “Shindig!,” the Shindogs, in the mid-1960s.
In 1967, he built a home studio and began working with the guitarist Marc Benno as the Asylum Choir, which released its debut album in 1968. He also started a record label, Shelter, in 1969 with producer Denny Cordell. Russell drew more recognition as a co-producer, arranger and musician on Joe Cocker’s second album, “Joe Cocker!,” which included Russell’s song “Delta Lady.”
By the time Mr. Russell released his first solo album in 1970, he had already played on hundreds of songs as one of the top studio musicians in Los Angeles. Mr. Russell was in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra, and he played sessions for Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, the Ventures and the Monkees, among many others. He is heard on “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “Live With Me” by the Rolling Stones and all of the Beach Boys’ early albums, including “Pet Sounds.”
When Joe Cocker’s Grease Band fell apart days before an American tour, Russell assembled the big, boisterous band — including three drummers and a 10-member choir — that was named Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Its 1970 double live album and a tour film became a showcase for Russell as well as Cocker; the album reached No. 2 on the Billboard album chart. Russell also released his first solo album in 1970; it included “A Song for You” and had studio appearances from Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, two ex-Beatles and three Rolling Stones. But Russell’s second album, “Leon Russell and the Shelter People,” fared better commercially; it reached No. 17 on the Billboard chart.
With a top hat on his head, hair well past his shoulders, a long beard, an Oklahoma drawl in his voice and his fingers splashing two-fisted barrelhouse piano chords, Russell had his widest visibility as the 1970s began. His songs also became hits for others, among them “Superstar” (written with Bonnie Bramlett) for the Carpenters, “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker and “This Masquerade” for George Benson. More than 100 acts have recorded “A Song for You,” a song Mr. Russell said he wrote in 10 minutes.He played the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden with George Harrison and Bob Dylan; he produced and played on Dylan’s songs “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Watching the River Flow.” He toured with the Rolling Stones and with his own band. His third album, “Carney,” went to No. 2 with the hit “Tight Rope.” In 1973 his “Leon Live” album reached the Top 10; he also recorded his first album of country songs under the pseudonym Hank Wilson. The fledgling Gap Band, also from Oklahoma, backed Russell in 1974 on his album “Stop All That Jazz.” His 1975 album “Will O’ the Wisp” included what would be his last Top 20 pop hit, “Lady Blue.”
But he continued to work. He made duet albums with his wife at the time, Mary Russell (formerly Mary McCreary). And he collaborated with Willie Nelson for a double LP in 1979 of pop and country standards, “One for the Road,” which sold half a million copies.
The music Leon Russell made on his own, put a scruffy, casual surface on rich musical hybrids, interweaving soul, country, blues, jazz, gospel, pop and classical music. Like Willie Nelson, who would collaborate with him, and Ray Charles, whose 1993 recording of “A Song for You” won a Grammy Award, Russell made a broad, sophisticated palette of American music sound down-home and natural.
In 1979 Mr. Russell married Janet Lee Constantine, who gave him six children: Blue, Teddy Jack, Tina Rose, Sugaree, Honey and Coco. For the next decades, Mr. Russell delved into various idioms, mostly recording for independent labels. He toured and recorded with the New Grass Revival, adding his piano and voice to their string-band lineup. He made more country albums as Hank Wilson. He recorded blues, Christmas songs, gospel songs and instrumentals. In 1992 songwriter and pianist Bruce Hornsby, who had long cited Russell’s influence, sought to rejuvenate Russell’s rock career by producing the album “Anything Can Happen,” but it drew little notice. Mr. Russell continued to tour for die-hard fans who called themselves Leon Lifers.
A call in 2009 from Elton John, whom Russell had supported in the early 1970s, led to the making of “The Union” — which also had guest appearances by Neil Young and Brian Wilson — and a 10-date tour together in 2010. Russell also sat in on Mr. Costello’s 2010 album, “National Ransom.” Then Russell, who had bought a new bus, returned to the road on his own.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. At the ceremony, Elton John called him “the master of space and time” and added, “He sang, he wrote and he played just how I wanted to do it.”
His website announced on November 13, 2016 in the early morning hours that Leon Russell has passed on in his sleep. Russell had significant health difficulties over the past five years. In 2010, he underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak and was treated for heart failure. In July of 2016, he suffered a heart attack and was scheduled for further surgery. He was 75.