Leon Russell is a music legend and perhaps the most accomplished and versatile musician in the history of rock ‘n roll. In his distinguished and unique 50 year career, he has played on, arranged, written and/or produced some of the best records in popular music.
Leon has played on pop, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, standards, gospel, and surf records. As a session musician, arranger, producer, singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, record company owner, bandleader, and touring musician, he has collaborated with hundreds of artists, including Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Edgar Winter, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, J.J. Cale, David Gates, Bruce Hornsby, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, B.B. King, Freddie King, Bill Wyman, Steve Cropper, Carl Radle, Chuck Blackwell, Don Preston, Jesse Ed Davis, Rita Coolidge, Gram Parsons, Barbra Streisand, Ike & Tina Turner, Ricky Nelson, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Ann-Margret, Dean Martin, Marvin Gaye, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood, and groups such as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, The Monkees, The Astronauts, The Accents, The Fencemen, The Ventures, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Reve & The Raiders, The Rolling Stones, The Ronnettes, The Crystals, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Tractors and on and on and on…
Born in southwest Oklahoma in 1942, Leon began piano lessons at age 4. He was playing in Tulsa nightclubs at the age of 14. After graduating from high school, Leon’s band, The Starlighters, went on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis for almost two months. Leon left Tulsa at the age of 17 for Los Angeles where he began playing in the L.A. clubs and eventually became one of the best session musicians in Hollywood. He worked with the best Hollywood producers and top musicians in the business.
Leon became part of an elite group of studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew and played on hundreds of hit records in the 1960’s. He was part of studio groups such as The Routers and The Super Stocks. The Routers recorded the huge hit “Let’s Go” and The Super Stocks recorded surf and hot rod tunes. In 1964, Leon was a member of the house band on the Shindig! Show on ABC television which showcased the top pop acts.
Leon built a recording studio in his home in 1967 where he and Marc Benno recorded songs which were released on two critically acclaimed records as the ‘Asylum Choir.’ Leon co-produced, arranged, and played piano, organ, and guitar on Joe Cocker’s second album, ‘Joe Cocker!’ in 1969. He also recorded and toured with ‘Delaney & Bonnie & Friends.’ Leon founded Shelter Records with partner Denny Cordell and released Leon’s first solo album, “Leon Russell” in March, 1970. It included Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Klaus Voorman. The album began with the classic Leon song, ‘A Song For You.’ Shelter Records was not only Leon but many other artists like Freddie King, Don Nix, J.J. Cale, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Gap Band, Dwight Twiley and Phoebe Snow. Leon played on and produced three Shelter albums for blues guitarist Freddie King.
As a songwriter, Leon’s songs have hit the charts across all genres and have been covered by a diverse range of artists. Ray Charles recorded ‘A Song For You,’ B.B. King had a hit with ‘Hummingbird,’ The Carpenters with ‘Superstar,’ and Joe Cocker with ‘Delta Lady.’ The Carpenter’s cover of “Superstar,” written by Leon and Bonnie Bramlett, went to #2 on the pop music charts. George Benson won the “Record of the Year” Grammy in 1976 for his cover of Leon’s song, “This Marquerade,” and it became the first song in music history to hit #1 on the jazz, pop, and R&B charts.
Leon organized and led the band behind Joe Cocker for the famous “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour of the U.S. in March through May of 1970. The huge 11 member band included 3 drummers and a 10 member choir which played 65 shows in 48 cities. The tour was filmed for the movie “Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” The live double-LP album on A&M Records reached #2 on the U.S. album charts and sold over a million copies.
On August 1st, 1971, Leon joined George Harrison and friends for two performances of the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York to raise money for refugees. His “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley was considered the highlight of the show by some. The album earned a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Leon’s first solo album to earn a Gold record was “Leon Russell and The Shelter People” (1971). The “Carney” album, released, in 1972, would be his best seller and included the single, “Tight Rope” which reached #11 on the pop music charts. By 1972, Leon was a major concert attraction. Billboard Magazine named Leon the top concert attraction for 1973. His concert at Long Beach, CA on August 28, 1972 was recorded and released on the triple-LP album ‘Leon Live’ which rose to #9 on the pop charts. Leon released the second Asylum Choir album, ‘Asylum Choir II,’ in 1972 from songs recorded years earlier. The single “Slippin’ Into Christmas” rose to #4 on the Billboard Christmas chart in 1972.
At the height of his popularity as a rock star, Leon released a country music album, “Hank Wilson’s Back” under the name Hank Wilson on August 31st, 1973. His last Shelter Records studio album, “Will O’ The Wisp” (1975), included the hit single “Lady Blue” (#14 on the charts) and went Gold. “The Best Of Leon” was released in 1976 and earned a 6th Gold Record. Leon founded Paradise Records a Warner Bros. label and released albums from 1976-84 such as “The Wedding Album,” “Make Love To the Music,” “Americana,” “Life And Love,” “Solid State” and “Hank Wilson Vol. II.”
Leon co-hosted with Willie Nelson, the first of Willie’s 4th of July picnics. Leon continued to be a regular performer at Willie’s picnics through the years. Leon joined Willie on tour and they teamed up in 1979 for the country album, “One For The Road,” which earned a Gold record and was honored by the Country Music Association with a nomination for “Album Of The Year.” The album included the song “Heartbreak Hotel” That was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
In 1980 and 1981, Leon toured with the New Grass Revival and released the ‘Live Album’ from their performances. In 1984, Leon released his second country album under the Hank Wilson name, “Hank Wilson Vol. II.” Leon and Edgar Winter toured together in the late 1980’s. In 1992, he teamed up with Bruce Hornsby (producer) for the album “Anything Can Happen” released on Virgin Records. Edgar Winter also played on the album. In 1998, Leon released “Hank Wilson Vol. 3: Legend In My Time” followed by 1999’s “Face In The Crowd.” In 2001, Russell played with Earl Scruggs and Friends on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” which earned a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
Leon joined a number of artists in honoring Willie Nelson on his 70th birthday celebration at the Beacon Theatre in New York city in April 2003. Leon performed his classic ‘A Song For You’ with Willie and Ray Charles and also sang “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The show was filmed for the special “Willie Nelson: Live and Kickin’.”
In April 2006, Leon was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Bare Bones International Film Festival. In October 2006, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
Leon and the Zac Brown Band performed Leon’s song ‘Dixie Lullabye’ at the 2010 Grammys.
Leon and Sir Elton John released ‘The Union,’ as a duet album on October 19, 2010. They toured together in October and November 2010. The single “If It Wasn’t For Bad” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
Leon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2011 and inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in June 2011.
Capitol/EMI released a 16-track compilation CD, ‘The Best Of Leon Russell,’ on April 5, 2011.
Leon’s latest records from his own label, Leon Russell Records, include “Signature Songs,” a collection of acoustic piano/vocal recordings of Leon Russell classics; “Guitar Blues”; Moonlight & Love Songs,” a collection of standards; “Face In The Crowd;” “Crazy Love;” “Hymns Of Christmas;” “Rhythm & Bluegrass: Hank Wilson Vol. 4,” a collection of songs recorded in the 1980’s with the New Grass Revival; “A Mighty Flood,” an album of inspiration songs; “Angel In Disguise;” and “Best Of Hank Wilson.”
Leon’s musical style is still resonating with his lifelong fans and is inspiring younger listeners who are discovering his music from either the ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ or ‘Concert For Bangladesh’ DVDs.