The enduring influence of Leon Russell

Leon Russell performs during the NOLA, Texas  Food & Music Festival at Cedar Park Center on April 3, 2016.  Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman, 2016.

Leon Russell performs during the NOLA, Texas Food & Music Festival at Cedar Park Center on April 3, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman, 2016.

Back in 2010, rocker Leon Russell released an album, “The Union,” with his one-time protégé, Elton John. At the time, Michael Corcoran, writing for the Statesman, took the opportunity to reflect on the understated influence of an artist who also helped shape the musical career of Willie Nelson.

Russell died in his sleep at his Nashville home on Sunday.  He was 74. Here’s Corcoran’s full piece, originally published on Sept. 11, 2010.

You can’t spell ‘Elton’ without ‘L-E-O-N’

by Michael Corcoran

Last year, Elton John was on safari in Africa when he heard a Leon Russell song and wept. He remembered how Russell was so kind, so encouraging, back in 1970 when newcomer Elton opened a short tour for his idol.

With John grossing around a million dollars a show these days and Russell playing Threadgill’s tonight to make up a March freeze-out at the 600-capacity outdoor venue, it’s hard to remember 40 years ago when the roles were reversed.

When Elton heard Russell’s “Back to the Island” on last year’s safari, he cried not just for all the great memories, but because he realized that he had not done enough to repay the musician he has credited with “completely changing the way I thought about playing the piano and singing” in the late ’60s.

Within a few weeks, Sir Elton was on the phone introducing himself to T-Bone Burnett, asking the Fort Worth-raised producer if he’d be interested in making a duets record with the old piano pals. That project, “The Union, ” comes out Oct. 19. The first single, “If It Wasn’t For Bad, ” is available now on iTunes.

“It’s not often you get to make a record with your idol, ” John says in a short film by Cameron Crowe being used to promote “The Union.”
Willie Nelson is another giant who credits Russell’s tutelage for helping get him where he is today. In 1972, when Leon had two Top 10 albums and was playing stadiums, he embraced the red-headed country singer, smoothing Willie’s transition from Nashville’s Music Row to the Armadillo World Headquarters.

There was a time when Leon Russell compositions such as “A Song For You, ” “Superstar” and “This Masquerade” became standards overnight because they sounded like they’d been around forever.

He’d come up the right way, playing sessions with Freddie King, the Beach Boys, the Byrds and Phil Spector while still using his birth name Russell Bridges. When his time as a recording artist came around, he wasn’t just some longhaired dude in a purple top hat getting in on the (wavy) gravy train. He was the Titan of Tulsa, the Mad Dog who made all those Englishmen sound better by showing them where gospel fit in with rock and vice versa.

Unlike Elton John, who craves the spotlight, Russell seemed spooked by mass appeal, moving back to Oklahoma when superstardom hit. He doesn’t give interviews and even went to court to block a documentary on him that Les Blank shot in the early ’70s. As his life has become more private, his music has become less accessible. Russell, 68, has not had a Top 10 album since he was 30 years old.

But his flamboyant protégé in the rhinestone glasses is doing the talking for Russell now. He gushes over the upcoming album, telling Crowe’s camera, “It really has made me fall in love with a guy I fell in love with years ago, all over again.” We’ll have to see if the public follows, but one lesson, in music and life, has been learned here: Treat eager upstarts with respect and they won’t forget.

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