Leon Russell is a living legend. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Russell made his name first as a ace session pianist before penning classic hits for himself and others.
He's also a legendary character. In the 2008 documentary "The Wrecking Crew," Cher recounts a time that Russell stumbled in late and drunk to a recording session led by legendary producer and future-convicted murderer Phil Spector. When the producer asked Russell if he'd ever heard of the word "respect," Russell jumped up on his piano and fired back, "Philip, have you ever heard the word, 'F#@k you?!.'"
Russell is back with a new solo album titled "Life Journey," which is out on April 1, just a day before he turns 72. Given the title and Russell's advancing age, we ask if this might be his swan song, he jokes, "Yes, I'm going to die the day after it comes out." We certainly hope that's not the case, because we prefer our legends living so we can appreciate them while they're still around. Here's some reasons why you should care about Leon Russell.
1. He wrote and recorded "Tight Rope."
The 1972 track, which reached No. 11 on the pop chart, is Russell's signature hit, featuring his woozy piano playing and bluesy vocals. With its old-timey ragtime feel, and circus-like atmosphere, it also served as the opening track to "Carney," which many consider Russell's finest album.
2. He's written classics for other artists.
Not only has Russell written and recorded classics himself, other artists have scored massive hits with their recordings of his songs. "Superstar," which he co-wrote with Bonnie Bramlett, was made famous by the Carpenters (and later covered by Sonic Youth). "This Masquerade," originally the B-side of "Tight Rope," became a top 10 hit for George Benson, produced by Tommy LiPuma, who was also behind the board for "Life Journey." "He made that song," Russell says of Benson, recalling that before Benson became famous, his fellow session players wondered why he wasn't already a star. "I was tickled that Tommy chose to launch his career with my song," Russell says. "It was an incredible version for sure."
As for the Carpenters, Russell didn't know the brother-and-sister duo before they covered "Superstar." "I was producing a gospel duet, two twins called the O'Neal Twins. They weighed about 350 pounds and they both sounded like Bobby Bland, but they sang in harmony like the Everly Brothers. I was talking to them one day and I asked them who's their favorite singer and they both said Karen Carpenter. It seemed like quite a reach for me, but they both loved her. She was a great singer, no doubt about it. I was pleased she chose to do my song. She had such a pristine voice."
3. He's recorded some incredible cover versions.
Over his five-decade long career, Russell has recorded some choice covers himself, including a notable take of George Harrison's "Beware of Darkness." "Life Journey" is largely a collection of covers ranging from Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" and Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" to Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." He also takes on the Ray Charles standard "Georgia on My Mind." "I don't think I would allow [my version of] 'Georgia' to be put out while Ray Charles was still alive, but I've always loved the song and I like the arrangement a lot of this record," he says.
The album also features Russell's version of Mike Reid's "Think of Me." You can hear it below in an exclusive stream.
4. He's played on some of the greatest recordings ever made.
Russell credits include sessions for Frank Sinatra, the Band, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles and dozens of others.
Russell recounts playing on Bob Dylan's "Hurricane." "He called me up to play bass on that," he says. "I'm not even sure how he got the idea that I played bass. I asked him when we cut that record, 'Are you going to re-cut that again. It sounded like there were a couple clams in there?' And he said, 'Well, if I cut it again, we'll just have mistakes in different places.'"
5. He's friends with Elton John.
Elton John helped bring Russell back into the limelight with their 2010 collaborative album "The Union," which was widely praised. John remains a champion of Russell's. He's credited on "Life Journey" as executive producer. "He paid for the record originally," Russell says. "I was going to just cut it myself, but he really was insistent that I had a producer. We considered several people who didn't quite feel right and then I ran into Tommy at Montreux and asked him if he had time to do it and he said he'd make time, which was exciting."
As for "The Union," Russell notes that the sessions took place shortly after he had brain surgery. "They were all very careful in taking care of me," hel says. "It was great to have [John] reach out to me like that. I had no idea I had that much influence in his life. It was great to have him be there and work with him."
6. He was the band leader of George Harrison's historic "Concert for Bangladesh" and Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour.
Cocker, it turns out, was quite a hard-to-impress taskmaster. While rehearsing the band at A&M studios, the cast of musicians was expanding daily. "The first day we had 20, the next day we had 40, and the next day we had 60," Russell says. "It was kind of a big-band thing and I thought maybe I should ask him what he thinks, so I did and he said, 'It never sounds good to me.' In that case, I never did ask him again I just went ahead and did what hell I wanted."
Russell's instincts were correct. The live album capturing that tour is widely regarded as a classic.