He and his group The Starlighters (with JJ Cale and company) epitomized The Tulsa Sound, a deep, dusty hookup of outlaw and gospel which broke open an endless country road to what’s now known as Americana.
He let loose on the proverbial ivories with and for everyone from The Ronettes to The Rolling Stones, and was in turn backed by the likes of George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr.
He influenced Frank Black, Elvis Costello and, most resoundingly, Elton John, who brought his “mentor” back from the brink of obscurity and set the world straight about what and who constitutes true greatness.
Above and beyond all that, he wrote songs, soarful stabs of soul-cored beauty, including “Delta Lady” (which launched the career of Joe Cocker), “Superstar” (which was covered by The Carpenters — and Sonic Youth), “This Masquerade” (a Record of the Year for George Benson) and — yes! — “A Song for You” (which has been sung by some of the best singers ever to mic, among them Donny Hathaway, Amy Winehouse, Willie Nelson, Donna Summer and Ray Charles, who Grammied with it in ‘93).
He is Leon Russell, and he’s now taken his place among the Immortals in The Tower of Song.
As reported in New Times (run unedited below), it was “A Song for You” which compelled me to travel some significant distance in order to hear the song sung straight from the source. And of the untold thousands of songs I’ve had the privilege of hearing up close and personal, it is Leon Russell singing “A Song for You” at The Culture Room which remains among the top 10 highlights of my blessedly extensive concert-going life.
Thank You, Leon Russell.
Last Night Leon Russell @The Culture RoomBetter Than An old 45 and a Kleenex.
There are very few songs that I’d travel some seventy-plus miles to hear sung live – very, very few. But among that short list is Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” Covered over the years by the likes of Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, and, perhaps most famously, by Donny Hathaway, Russell’s pliant plea for clemency from the girl he let get away is without question one of the most moving examples of what a pop song can do to man, no matter how tough he pretends to be. Hell, even Willie Nelson, himself no slouch as a sinuously sensitive songwriter, saw fit to take Leon’s song out for a sing. Which made last night’s Culture Room trek all the more historical – and poignant. No, Willie wasn’t in the house, and Peggy, Dusty and Donny, unfortunately, are all long gone, but Leon the lion-maned was there alright – and very much here, even if he was not so much now.
Which isn’t to say Russell wasn’t in the moment, mind you, but just that his moment somehow seemed to be stuck in a space and time called yesterday. Maybe it was his backing band, who, with the exception of the wicked quick keyboardist Brian Lee (who btw is sightless), seemed never to go beyond the boogie-blues hokum practiced by decades of standard-bearing bar bands.
Still, that doesn’t mean all Russell’s best moments have passed – his own bearing (white hat, beard and hair) remains regal, and his voice retains that trademark Tulsa twang, so even the most by-the- book blasting of classics (Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” comes to mind) reveals an inner core that any minute could become transcendent. In fact, when Russell and the band bumped up the BPMs to the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” that transcendence nearly hit the fans.
Then it happened. The band left Leon with Lee, and the veteran soul-stirrer sang the song I’d come all this way to hear. Anyone who’s ever lost someone will know what I was feeling, which means anyone who’s ever breathed: that catch in the throat; the bat to the stomach; a skipped beat of a broken heart, all rendered in twenty-five lines or less. I tell ya, if I would’ve had a beer, I would’ve cried in it.
Could I have done without the boogie-woogie medleys of “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Papa was a Rolling Stone” and “Kansas City,” or “Great Balls of Fire” and “Roll Over Beethoven”? You betcha. Would I have like to have heard the man sing “Superstar” or “High Wire” instead? Without question.
And maybe one day Russell will return with nothing but a piano and deliver all by his lonesome. Till then though I can go about my wild life knowing that I had the privilege of standing before a legend and listening to him sing one legendary song.
Personal Bias: Leon Live was my first real rock record. Really.
Random Detail: The crowd didn’t share my dispirit with all the boogie- woogie, and jumped and swayed accordingly.
By the Way: The “Superstar” I mentioned is the same song sung by The Carpenters – and Sonic Youth.