The Early Years
Claude Russell Bridges was born in Lawton, Oklahoma on April 2, 1942. Known as Russell to his family, he showed an affinity for music from an early age, being drawn to the piano as early as 4 years old. As his mother, Hester, put it, "He just sat down one day and started playing by ear." He picked out the church hymn 'Trust and Obey' by ear with his stronger left hand and transposed it to his right. Due to a birth injury in his upper spine, Russell was partially paralyzed in his right side, most notably in three fingers on his right hand. This affliction helped him to develop his signature left-hand-dominant playing style.
In 1953, the family moved to Tulsa, and Russell would go on to attend Will Rogers High School, where some of his classmates would include Anita Bryant, Elvin Bishop, and David Gates, with whom Russell would form the band "The Fencemen" after moving to Los Angeles.
While still in high school, Leon would perform at local nightclubs with his group The Starlighters (Russell, J.J. Cale, Leo Feathers, Johnny Williams, and Chuck Blackwell). Due to Oklahoma being a dry state, the group of teenagers was able to play cubs that typically would have been reserved for those over 21. After building a reputation as one of the most talented young groups in Tulsa, they caught the attention of Jerry Lee Lewis, who invited them out on the road with him. "I figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants," Russell remarked in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview about why he took the job with Lewis.
In 1958, Russell moved to Los Angeles to further pursue his music career, and would go by the name "Leon Russell."