By 1969, Leon was poised to make the jump to a solo career. He had established his prowess as a songwriter and as one of the most sought after studio musicians, and had built up a repertoire of material that he was ready to record for himself. He ended up playing a few of his new songs for former Island Records producer, Denny Cordell, who had found success producing records for The Moody Blues (The Magnificent Moodies), as well as hit singles like "A Whiter Shade of Pale" for Procol Harum and "A Little Help From My Friends" for Joe Cocker. Cordell became enamored with Leon and his new material, but even more so with the personality that Leon exuded, which was so hidden when he was in the background.
The two decided to start their own record company, which they named Shelter Records, with their first release being Leon's eponymous 1970 album. The album reached #60 on the Billboard 200, and featured some now classic numbers including "A Song for You," "Delta Lady," "Hummingbird," and "Roll Away the Stone." Shelter Records would go on to release Leon's next 8 albums, which were all co-produced by Leon and Cordell.
Shelter's headquarters was split between Los Angeles and Tulsa, and operated its recording at two historic studios: Sound City in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles, and The Church Studio in Tulsa's Pearl District, a now National Historic Landmark which was an Episcopal Church purchased and converted to a recording studio by Leon in 1972.
Shelter was not only a vehicle through which Leon released his own recordings, but also operated as a workshop for developing artists, and became a launching pad for some of hottest young talent in music. Shelter released records by JJ Cale, Etta James, Freddie King, Phoebe Snow, Dwight Twilley, and many others. It also was the first home of two of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Tom Petty and Heartbreakers released their first two albums under the Shelter Records label, and Shelter would also release Bob Marley's first single, "Duppy Conquerer."
After a falling out with Cordell, Leon left Shelter in 1976 to follow other pursuits. Denny Cordell operated Shelter Records himself for another 5 years, until the label ultimately folded at the conclusion of its distribution deal with Arista Records in 1981.