The Original King of Leon
Listen -Leon Russell – Of Thee I Sing – MP3
Listen -Leon Russell – Crystal Closet Queen – MP3
I hope everyone had a nice weekend.
Aside from the fact that I had some trouble sleeping (not enough fast living???) I got to spend lots of quality time with the family and the weather was in a word, superb.
I’m only going to do one post this week since the fam and I are going to try to head out of town for a few days to get in a little bit of actual vacationing before the summer is over.
The artist we will discuss today is lodged so deeply in my musical consciousness that – like the Beatles – there are a couple of his albums that I could quite likely “play” in my head from memory.
The sounds of Leon Russell first plowed into my sensitive young ears when I was but a lad, probably around the time that he was having his greatest success as a solo artist (1973/74-ish, when I was 11/12). Oddly enough, and this is probably unique at least as far as rock’n’roll goes, I came upon Leon Russell via my Pop.
The rock stipulation is an important one, because as far as jazz, classical and the great American songbook go, every single brick in my musical foundation (outside of rock, on which we rarely concur) was placed there by my father. He spent his entire adult life (he is, thankfully, still with us, but retired) working during the week as a history teacher, and then on the weekend nights worked as a piano player/singer in a variety of piano bar settings.
To say that my four siblings (two brothers, two sisters) grew up in a musical house is an understatement, with every one of us playing one or more instruments over the years, and myself (quite obviously, if you’ve ever read Iron Leg or Funky16Corners) having become quite obsessed with all things musical.
As I said above, as far as rock music went, the twain rarely met as far as Pop and I are concerned. He hasn’t much of a taste for the stuff, and for much of my young life I had a taste for little else. I can remember (fondly?) more than one occasion where I approached him about some rock thing or other that struck me as profound, to which he (at least figuratively) rolled his eyes and harrumphed. I can’t really blame him either. He was from another generation, and in all other respects was always – to a fault – musically generous with me. Without his guidance (and record collection) I wouldn’t have encountered George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Stravinsky and countless other jazz and classical artists.
His piano playing, whether casually around the house (some of my fondest memories focus in on his occasional bursts of old-school boogie woogie on the 88s), or surrounded by singing aunts, uncles and cousins at family gatherings, was also a big factor in the formation of my musical tastes.
It was at one such family gathering in the early 70s that one of my older, long-haired cousins passed the album ‘Leon Russell and the Shelter People’ to my father. It was from that moment (though I can’t say for sure the effect was immediate) that against all odds, in opposition to his every instinct (at least as far as I could see), my old man dropped the needle and actually dug Leon Russell.
Though ‘Shelter People’ wasn’t the first contemporary music in the house (I remember Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ album and a 45 of Joan Baez singing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’) I am positive that with that Leon Russell album, pure, unadulterated rock music made its first incursion into the Grogan household. Though I had my ears glued to the radio, I had yet to buy my first record (that would happen in the next year or so with my purchase of ‘Introducing the Beatles’ on Veejay).
I can’t say that the “Russell effect” was instantaneous. My parents had a habit of putting music on and letting it play in the background, whether it was my Dad’s LPs stacked on the changer (if you’re under a certain age you may have to look that up) or my Mom’s Mama Cass and Judy Collins 8-Track tapes on repeat. That said, at some point Russell’s bouillabaisse of Little Richard, Ray Charles and Dr John (though I suspect that any Rebennack-ization was coincidental since the good Doctor and Leon were roughly contemporaries) with a soupcon of hippie boogaloo drilled its way into my soft, impressionable brain and I was a goner.
The ensuing decades, in which I ingested every music book and record I could get my greedy little hands on, it was revealed to me that Leon Russell was no early-70s flash in the pan. Though his early days as a session musician and arranger in Los Angeles are well known (touching on everything from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, to the Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Glen Campbell, Gene Clark & the Gosdin Brothers and countless other sessions*) Russell’s most important contribution – at least in my opinion – was as one of the truly great movers and shakers in late 60s/early 70s rock music.
Though a cursory glance may only reveal a huge pulsing mass of buckskin, patched denim, mud, marijuana and converted school buses, when you bring the era into focus (as much as that’s possible) Leon Russell, with his long, prematurely gray locks brushing the keyboard, emerges as a kind of hub, touching on many of the major events and players of the era. Though he never really moved all the way to the front, he did take a step out of the studio, working his way into a kind of middle ground in the public consciousness, working with Joe Cocker (as musical director for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour), George Harrison (he’s in the Concert for Bangla Desh), Eric Clapton, Delaney and Bonnie, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Freddie King and many others before emerging as a solo artist.
Russell’s first solo album, entitled (not surprisingly ‘Leon Russell’) featured the original versions of the oft covered tunes ‘Delta Lady’ and ‘A Song For You’ and contributions from a who’s who of rock including various and sundry Beatles and Rolling Stones.
‘Shelter People’ is less of an all-star effort (though it does feature a cameo by George Harrison) but is, at least as far as I’m concerned a much stronger album.
Russell’s sound, starting with his voice and piano is an amalgam of pure rock’n’roll, gospel (listen to the ‘Leon Live’ album which sounds more like a revival meeting than a rock concert), R&B, jazz and to a lesser extent, contemporary pop. There are times that Russell sounds as if he sprung, fully formed from Little Richard’s conk, but taken as a whole his albums bear the influence of the hippie era and could not have come together (as well) in any other time.
The two songs I’m posting from ‘Leon Russell and the Shelter People’, ‘Of Thee I Sing’ and ‘Crystal Closet Queen’ are the two balls-out rockers on the album. ‘Of Thee I Sing’ is a slightly jaundiced look (could there have been any other kind in 1971?) at the face of America, with mentions of Kent State (“blood is on the books in Ohio”) and a juggernaut of a piano figure that threatens to leave the rest of the band in the dust.
‘Crystal Closet Queen’ is a tribute to the mighty Little Richard (“the undiluted Queen of rock and roll. He knows who she is!”) as a formative influence on Russell. I’ve never seen any reference to Mr. Penniman having been aware of this song, but I suspect he would approve.
Both of these songs (and the rest of the album) are proof that in the years where everything seemed to be unraveling in a haze of back to the country-isms, drugs and lax hygiene, Leon Russell was capable of getting down and creating some truly great rock music. In addition to the rockers on the album, there are also quieter, sublime moments like a cover of Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness’ and the song ‘The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.
Over the next few years Russell would go on to have his biggest successes as a performer (with ‘Tight Rope’) and songwriter (composing ‘This Masquerade’, covered by countless artists but most successfully by George Benson**). He went on to record and tour with Willie Nelson, and later joined (consumed/appropriated?) the New Grass Revival.
Both ‘Leon Russell’ and ‘Leon Russell and the Shelter People’ are available in reissue with bonus tracks and are essential.
I hope you dig the music, and I’ll back next week with some other cool stuff.
*As well as his time in the Shindogs, the house band on TVs Shindig
**Russell was also the co-writer of ‘Superstar’, a big hit for the Carpenters