Remembering Leon Russell

The Songwriters Hall of Fame was saddened to learn of the passing of 2011 Inductee Leon Russell.

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, Russell began playing piano at the age of four. He attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and during that time he was already performing at Tulsa nightclubs. He took the name Leon from a friend who lent him a fake ID to get into clubs he was legally too young to perform in.

After graduating from high school in 1959, Leon left Tulsa for Los Angeles where he became a highly sought session musician, arranger and producer in the 1960’s. He played on hit records by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, The Monkees, The Ronettes and many others.  He played on and arranged the number one hit “This Diamond Ring,” for Gary Lewis and The Playboys in 1965 and co-wrote “Everybody Loves A Clown” and “She’s Just My Style.”

Joe Cocker had a hit with "Delta Lady" in 1969 from his second album Joe Cocker!, which Leon also co-produced and arranged. Leon’s standard “A Song For You” along with “Hummingbird,” and “Delta Lady” were from his 1970 album Leon Russell, released on Shelter Records which he founded with partner Denny Cordell. “A Song For You” is a classic and has been recorded by dozens of artists including Ray Charles, Donny Hathaway, Michael Buble, Willie Nelson, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilrera, Neil Diamond, and Simply Red.

B.B. King had a hit single from his 1970 album Indianola Mississippi Seeds with “Hummingbird” which Leon also played on. B.B. also recorded it with John Mayer for his 2005 birthday celebration album 80. Karen Carpenter sang “This Masquerade,” “A Song For You,” and “Superstar” which was a #2 hit for The Carpenters in 1971. “Superstar” has also been recorded by Rita Coolidge, Cher, Peggy Lee, Vicki Carr, Luther Vandross, Ruben Studdard, Sonic Youth, and The Motels among many others. George Benson’s recording of “This Masquerade” won the Grammy Award for Best Record of The Year in 1977 and was the only song with vocals on his triple Platinum album Breezin’.

Leon had his own chart success with his recordings of “Tight Rope” charting at #11 in 1972, “Bluebird” at #14 in 1975 and “Slipping Into Christmas” at #4 on the Billboard Christmas chart in 1972.

Leon was the bandleader for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour in 1970.  He performed with George Harrison and Friends at the Concert For Bangladesh in New York in 1971. He also toured with Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Revere’s Raiders, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Edgar Winter, The New Grass Revival, Willie Nelson, and Sir Elton John. 

Leon and Elton’s duet album The Union, produced by T Bone Burnett, was released in October 2010.  Leon wrote the first single from the album, “If It Wasn’t For Bad,” which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.

Leon was honored by the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as the first recipient of the Award for Musical Excellence in March 2011.