I first became aware of Leon Russell in 1970. His album “Leon Russell” was out and enjoying lots of airplay on Southern California FM and underground stations. ‘”A Song For You” is considered one of his most enduring classics. “Delta Lady” was another, covered by Joe Cocker, it had an amazing shelf life in the rock milieu. I always preferred Leon’s version. “Roll Away The Stone” was another favorite of mine. It is a rocking, gospel tinged scorcher that always got the juices flowing.
I found out much later that had been a fan of Leon Russell a lot earlier than I was aware of. He was a session musician in L.A. beginning in 1958. He played with the famous “Wrecking Crew” who were the backing band for everyone from the Beach Boys to Herb Alpert, as well as The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Leon was the go-to piano player for anyone in L.A. at the time looking for a top flight session man. He also toured with Jerry Lee Lewis.
By the time “Leon Russell and The Shelter People” was released in 1971, Leon was huge and riding a wave of popularity that spanned FM and AM radio. There was even a film accompanying Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” tour and album. Leon was the bandleader for the “Mad Dogs” tour.
1972’s “Carney” was kind of a quirky album. I loved the song “Roller Derby.” It was about a guy who falls for the “queen of the roller derby” and sings her praises as a lover and roller derby battler. Leon’s version of “This Masquerade” also appears on the album. This may be his most covered song with the likes of George Benson, (who won a Grammy for his version), The Carpenters and Aretha Franklin taking turns with it.
When the 1973 album “Leon Live” came out I was stationed in the Philippines and got a hold of a copy at the Navy Exchange. It is a rollicking rock and roll tour de force with Leon and his eight piece band, (as well as five backing vocalists.) It was a three album set and included Dylan covers and rock and roll classics, (the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley was an ass-kickin’ 16 minutes!) The album showcased Leon as a bandleader and a solo artist to a tee.
Then came “Will O’ The Wisp.” I was immediately struck by the beautiful song “Back To The Island.” It is a melancholy message to a former lover and entreats her: “I hope you understand. I just had to go back to the island. . . .” After moving to Hawaii in 1977 it became a homecoming song for me. The emotion always invokes a wistful longing to return home, even though the song was written about completely islands.
I only sporadically followed Leon’s music after coming to ‘the islands’, but the emotion and raw power that he displays in his music has been a touchstone for me as I ocasionally revisit the songs of the past that influenced me and a generation of music lovers. Leon Russell continued to tour and make music until his untimely passing last week. He was even scheduled to tour in early 2017. As a songwriter, unparelled musician and rock and roll icon Leon Russell stands as a shining example of power, beauty and positivity for generations to come.