Leon Russell Biography

Music Producer, Songwriter, Musician(1942–2016)
Songwriter and recording artist Leon Russell penned the classics "Superstar" and "A Song for You."

Synopsis

Leon Russell was born in Oklahoma in 1942 and began his life in music at an early age. He moved to Los Angeles in 1959, where as a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew he became one of the music industry's most sought-after session players. Russell's career took off in the 1970s, when he released a slew of solo albums and several cover versions of his songs reached the top of the charts. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Leon Russell died on November 13, 2016 at the age of 74.

Quick Start 

Leon Russell was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on April 2, 1942, and didn’t waste time beginning what would be a long and momentous musical career. Within a few short years Russell was already playing the piano, and by age 14 he was regularly performing in Tulsa nightclubs. When he graduated from Will Rogers High School, he immediately hit the road with his band, The Starlighters, touring for two months as the supporting act for Jerry Lee Lewis.

In 1959, at age 17, Russell left Oklahoma for Los Angeles, where he found regular work as a session musician for live shows and studio recordings. Before long he found his way into the legendary Wrecking Crew, a group of the industry’s most sought-after hired hands. During the 1960s, Russell would perform with a dizzying array of some of the era’s greatest artists, including Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and The Rolling Stones, among many, many others.

From Songwriter to Solo Career

But Russell’s talents extended well beyond his piano chops, and in between recording gigs he began to write songs for both himself and others. In 1965 he released his first solo single, “Everybody’s Talking ’Bout the Young,” but he found more success as the co-writer of the Gary Lewis & the Playboys songs “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She’s Just My Style,” both of which made the Top 10 later that year.

In the latter half of the decade, Russell released the first album as part of his new project, the Asylum Choir, and also played piano on the Delaney & Bonnie album Accept No Substitute (1969). But it would be his work with Joe Cocker that would put Russell’s name on the map. Co-producing and performing on 1969’s Joe Cocker!, Russell also penned the single “Delta Lady,” which reached No. 11 on the pop charts. He would tour with Cocker as his band leader the following year, and the subsequent live album Mad Dogs & Englishmen would reach No. 2 on the charts.

Carrying his success into the new decade, Russell founded the label Shelter Records, and released his first, self-titled solo album, which featured appearances by members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton. It also featured the single “A Song for You,” which has since been covered by more than 40 different artists, including (most famously) Ray Charles and (most recently) Amy Winehouse.

At the Peak

During the 1970s, Russell’s career reached its apex. In 1971 he was prominently featured in George Harrison’s historic Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. He released the solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People, while The Carpenters' rendition of his song “Superstar” spent two weeks at No. 2 on the charts. He followed up with 1972’s Carney, which featured the song “Tight Rope,” his highest-charting single at No. 11.

Among his many notable projects from this era are the triple LP Leon Live (1973), the country album Hank Wilson’s Back (1973), Will o’ the Wisp (1975) and Americana (1978). Russell also returned to the charts as a songwriter in 1976 with George Benson’s cover of “This Masquerade,” which cracked the Top 10 and went on to win a Grammy Award. Russell rounded out the decade by founding the Paradise Records label at Warner Bros. and co-starred with Willie Nelson on the 1979 studio album One for the Road, which included the Grammy-nominated country hit “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Leon Russell 1973

(Photo: Shelter Recording Company/Shelter Records [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Comeback

With the arrival of the 1980s, Russell’s output slowed significantly, though he continued to record and perform. However, he made something of a comeback in the 1990s, releasing the Bruce Hornsby–produced Anything Can Happen in 1992, as well as the third installment of his Hank Wilson country albums in 1998 and Face in the Crowd in 1999.

Russell celebrated his life in music in the 2000s by starting Leon Russell Records and releasing Signature Songs, a reimagining of some of his greatest hits. He was also celebrated by the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, when he was inducted in October 2006. Four years later he stepped back onto center stage with the duet album The Union, recorded with Elton John. The album reached No. 3 on the charts, and the single “If It Wasn’t for Bad” was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Russell continued to tour and record and has released numerous albums on his label. In honor of a lifetime spent at the heart of the music industry, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2011, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame three months later.

In a note posted on his website, Leon Russell died in his sleep on November 13, 2016 in Nashville at the age of 74.

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