Leon Russell, the wild-haired hillbilly pianist whose work with the legendary Wrecking Crew studio team propelled him to a solo career in which he followed his muse for decades, passed away yesterday at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He was seventy-four years old and recovering from a recent surgery.
Russell was an irrepressibly rhythmic and swinging pianist, and in the sixties lent his skills to a wide variety of charting hits as a session musician. You’ll hear him on Glen Campbell’s cover of “Gentle on my Mind” and hits by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (“This Diamond Ring,” “Everybody Loves a Clown”) as well as smaller hits by an astounding range of artists: Barbra Streisand, the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Bob Dylan (whose “Watching the River Flow, “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” were all produced by Russell), Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones, to name just a few.
In his extraordinary solo career Russell recorded everything from psychedelic rock to cajun-infused swamp rock, bluegrass and straight honky tonk. His 1973 album Hank Wilson’s Back is about as close to a perfect Americana album as you’re ever going to find.
And once again, there’s a song we found suited to the times. Russell co-wrote and recorded “Stranger in a Strange Land” on his third album, which was released two years earlier. Alternately a plea for peace and a song of despair, Russell borrows from Robert Heinlein’s science fiction masterpiece and offers subtle hints of our need for a Savior.
Russell’s “Song for You” might serve as a more suitable epitaph. Elton John has called it an American classic. John recorded a record with Russell, who had once hired him as an opening act, in 2010 which led to a resurgence in his career. John always credited Russell for helping launch his own career, and was among the first to mourn his passing.