I do not want to be the guy who writes obituaries. Especially of faded acts most people have never heard of. But Leon Russell was a superstar, albeit for a very brief time. He rose from obscurity, after hiding in plain sight for years before that, to become one of the biggest stars in the land based on a weird amalgamation of image and talent, and those who lived through the era will never forget him, COULD NEVER FORGET HIM!
It was all about "Delta Lady." On the second Joe Cocker LP, someone also strangely gone, despite his rendition of that Beatles tune eclipsing the fame of the original, I mean come on, when was the last time you heard "With A Little Help From My Friends" if you weren't at a Ringo SHOW! Of course I'm overstating my case, and that's the problem with rock aficionados, they're nitpickers, they want to set you straight to make themselves feel good, but don't criticize them, they lived through an era when music was a treasure hunt, when it expanded from 45s to LPs and you read the credits and combed the bins trying to discover who these people were and oftentimes the only way to hear the music was to buy it and when you did…it was like opening a Dead Sea Scroll, breaking the shrinkwrap, dropping the needle on something that got no airplay but meant everything to you.
Hell, you'd seek out out-of-print records at swaps and cut-out bins, and when you got your hands on them you were thrilled. And when I got my hands on Leon Russell's Shelter debut, which I bought in a shop in a mall in Bridgeport, Connecticut anchored by Sears which is now a community college, I got home and dropped the needle and was WOWED! It was like I was the only person in the universe who had heard this music, and I wanted to tell EVERYBODY!
That 1970 LP opened with "A Song For You," but this was eons before covers made it a staple. Funny how your compositions can eclipse your recorded fame. Then again, musical styles come and go, but a great tune can be reworked and reused forever, it touched souls then and it touches souls now and back then "A Song For You" was just the opening track, not iconic, I wouldn't even put it at the top in quality, I bought the album to hear Leon's version of "Delta Lady."
Now back to that Joe Cocker LP. The track that got all the airplay at first was "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window." This was BEFORE "Abbey Road." It was a special curio we had no idea was supposed to be heard in the context of a suite. And the iteration of "Darling Be Home Soon" nearly eclipses the Lovin' Spoonful original. But the song that ultimately prevailed on FM radio, which was gaining steam in the New York market, singles were being left in the dust, was "Delta Lady."
"Oh you're mine, yes, you're mine, Delta Lady."
You can show your pedigree by shouting out who the song is about, but this is not a test, this is a religious service, "Delta Lady" is an under three minute tear anchored by boogie-woogie-esque piano and a backup chorus and it's perfection until you hear…
Leon's is the same song yet different, it's got a swagger, it's a Hollywood production number that could have been featured on one of those variety programs that still dominated the television airwaves. Leon's vocal was as rough and unique and almost as good as Joe's, and this is rarely the case, the writer's take is oftentimes a poor imitation.
Imagine this, dropping the needle on the record of someone unknown and being BLOWN AWAY!
And the funny thing about this slightly slower "Delta Lady" is that it had everything, INCLUDING THE KITCHEN SINK, in the production. It was like they went out on Sunset Boulevard and recruited every member of the AF of M to come in and add magic, levitate the building. That's right, coming out of the speakers was a sound so mellifluous it made you want to crawl into your stereo and join the musical circus. Which we did, the Beatles get deserved accolades, but there were second and third waves. The second was Cream and Jimi Hendrix from the U.K., but then L.A. took over, it was where it was happening, everybody who'd paid their dues suddenly emerged intact to dominate.
But "Delta Lady" was not the only killer on the solo debut. (That's right, Leon had made music with Marc Benno that had lived in obscurity as the Asylum Choir but it resurfaced after Leon broke through.) I actually preferred the second cut on the album, "Dixie Lullaby" to the opener, "A Song For You." It swung, this was not a developing artist, he was FULLY-FORMED! And you've got to hear "Shoot Out On The Plantation" and "Hummingbird," but the tour-de-force is the album's closer, "Roll Away The Stone."
"Roll away the stone
Don't leave me here alone
Resurrect and protect me
Don't leave me laying here
What will they do in two thousand years"
Probably not listen to Leon Russell records, never mind the Beatles, but the essence of music, the way it infects you in this track, that will remain.
And all because of credits on the back of the "Joe Cocker!" album. Leon Russell wrote "Delta Lady" and co-produced it and I followed this information down the rabbit hole into a world of happiness.
And then came "Mad Dogs & Englishmen."
I saw it. At the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. There was a bit of advance word, but nothing could prepare you for this extravaganza of twenty-odd players and singers who came to town to overwhelm you and leave you talking about it for months afterward, until the double live album came out and everybody got the message.
And the majordomo was the silver-haired devil himself, Joe Cocker was barely more than a bit player, the star was the guy in the top hat, Leon Russell.
And it ruined Joe's career, he lost control, he drank too much, it would be years before he righted the ship, but suddenly, Leon Russell was a SUPERSTAR!
Imagine that. New bands play Coachella and despite press no one reads they never break through. This guy goes on a tour long before the information age takes hold and he emerges a household name!
And then came "Leon Russell And The Shelter People."
It was all about "Stranger In A Strange Land." It was like this sound emerged from a swamp and you couldn't help but wade in and be sucked down. Long before musicians sold out, when the music was enough, Leon Russell held the hearts and minds of a generation in his hand, he was a leader who infected them with his self-created sound and they couldn't get enough.
And one of my favorite memories occurred decades later, in a hotel room with Tommy Nast long after midnight during one of those ubiquitous radio conferences which no longer exist wherein Mr. Nast proceeded to recite the entire rap which ends "Stranger In A Stranger Land" word for word, that was the power of music, we needed to know it by HEART!
And now Leon Russell is surfing the zeitgeist, when being a musician is the apotheosis, no one wanted to be President, they just wanted to get on the bus, work in the studio, sell records in a shop, they just needed to get CLOSER!
And the third solo album began with "Tight Rope," another composition that has sustained. But the best track is probably the follow-up, "Out In The Woods." Yet my favorite song is "If The Shoe Fits."
"Can you get us in free
My girlfriend and me
We like the songs, but we hate to pay"
I swear to god, I'm walking into Watkins Glen with the ticket I purchased and as the guard is saying it's now a free concert "If The Shoe Fits" comes over the PA, HONESTLY!
And then Leon pushed it over the limit with his triple-disc concert album "Leon Live" which I actually bought and barely listened to, went country, got married, seemed to lose the plot and was forgotten, almost that fast. Your hold on fame is very tenuous. But talent is forever.
And now he's dead.
I could go back to the studio years. Talk about playing on "This Diamond Ring" and helping compose "She's Just My Style," one of the few Beach Boys-inspired tracks that actually works, I can write about the beginning of the live years with Delaney & Bonnie, I can take you from there to here but when someone dies it's not about informing those out of the loop but reminding those who were actually there how special the work of the person was, and Leon Russell's was certainly special.
So now what.
We didn't expect these players to outlive us, but we did think they'd ride with us until the end, say goodbye and get off the train at a similar time. I mean once you've escaped the drug years, once you've made it past fifty, you're supposed to still hang around, right?
I guess not.
I don't expect anybody under the age of thirty to know what I'm talking about, they think a star is someone who self-promotes online and gets paid, they don't understand it's all about paying dues with the hope of bursting into a supernova, knowing only a few have the juice and the rest have to get out of the way.
And if you're under forty you might remember Leon Russell as that guy Elton John made an album with, but other than that you're probably clueless.
But if you're a baby boomer, this is someone you knew, whose music was in the air, someone who rode shotgun with your life that will soon come to an end also.
And just about everything that was important to us will be forgotten. It's already being forgotten. You get a few hosannas in the media when these personages go, but after new tweets replace the old, when the news cycle moves on, there's rarely another word.
Leon Russell's story is an American one. How someone from nowhere, godforsaken Oklahoma, can end up dominating the culture, our entire nation, based on talent and hard work, whew!
Leon's story is one of a bygone era, when music told you which way the wind blew, when you couldn't wait to go on a journey with your heroes, the most famous and oftentimes richest people in the land.
I don't know who goes next. Who walks the plank and is gone forever. I fear the leavings will become de rigueur, they will be seen as the way of the world, the passing of the baton to a younger generation. But that would be missing the point.
And the point is for a period of years, now gone, music dominated the world, it was the culture. And it made more money than movies, music built Time Warner Cable. And just like Warner Music was cast off by the conglomerate today music is a second class citizen. MTV made it about fame, about looks and dancing, the penumbra as opposed to the nougat. And then the internet blew a hole in not only the compensation paradigm, but the ability to dominate. And what once was, is now gone.
That's right, boomers lived through a golden musical era. They were late to the digital age, many have not caught up. Good times are still ahead, but they're very different from the times we had. When you were addicted to the radio, when you heard something and didn't stop there, but dug deeper and found jewels, when you went to clubs and theatres to see acts so innovative you wondered if they came from Mars.
Leon Russell was one of those people. He gave us shelter. He provided asylum in a confusing world. I have no idea who's giving us shelter from Donald Trump, but I do know Leon and the rest of the free thinkers showed us the world was not run by Richard Nixon.
"How many days has it been
Since I was born
How many days until I die
Do I know any ways
That I can make you laugh
Or do I only know how to make you cry"
Today I'm crying, but Leon you did make me laugh, with the joy of being alive, of hearing a great tune, of being exposed to exquisite musicianship, you made me feel like I belonged, that I was not a stranger in a strange land.
And for that I thank you.