From his first album, “Rhapsodies for Young Lovers” released in 1966, to his most recent “Angel in Disguise” of 2006, 40 years of prolific and influential music has been created by the legendary Leon Russell.
In a concert benefiting arts education in the schools, Russell performs at the War Memorial Convention Hall Sunday night. The rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was a cultural explosion in American creativity and unparalleled in the 20th century — musicians that emerged during that era are still producing work that is vibrant and meaningful to the history of the form.
Russell began his career as a 14-year-old playing piano in an Oklahoma nightclub. When Jerry Lee Lewis hired Russell to play back-up during a national tour he decided to leave his small town and head to what would soon become the hive of rock ‘n’ roll’s explosion. Arriving in Los Angeles at the spark of this musical fire, Russell became a member of the tight-knit community. He eventually produced and played sessions with everyone from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra, BB King to The Rolling Stones. The diversity of these sessions influenced his life long career, often mystifying critics who sought to pigeon-hole the eclectic performer.
Like Sunday’s benefit concert, Russell has often found success when using music to promote social causes. In 1972, Russell’s collaboration with George Harrison for “Concert for Bangladesh” led to his legendary performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Youngblood” and “Beware of Darkness.”
The performance that included music greats such as Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton was recorded and hailed by Grammy for Best Album that same year. The early ‘70s was a prolific time for Russell and he released three solo albums that went gold and soared to No. 2 on the pop charts. By 1973 Billboard magazine reported “Leon Russell was the top concert attraction in the world.” His live performances were opened by (now) rock legends Elton John and ZZ Top among others.
The musician collaborated with Joe Cocker and is seen as instrumental to the success of Cocker’s “Delta Lady” which Russell wrote. It was during his work with Cocker that Russell was nicknamed “master of space and time” due to his prowess as a producer and player.
As the decade progressed so did Russell. George Benson’s cover of “Masquerade,” written by Russell, hit the number one spot on pop, jazz and R&B charts for the first time in American music history. The album went on to win a Grammy in 1976 and he produced, arranged, and wrote many of rock’s most popular songs of that time like “Superstar” and “A Song For You.” In 40 years, Russell has released 37 solo albums — sometimes multiple albums released within one year.
His legacy was recently recognized by his home state when he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame for his work as a keyboardist in the legendary group of studio musicians nicknamed “The Wrecking Crew” — perhaps the most successful studio group in music history. The Wrecking Crew backed some of music’s most popular singers and groups of that time, including The Beach Boys, who used ‘the wall of sound’ to produce hits like “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls.”
Russell’s eclectic career eventually led him to Nashville where he recorded with Hank Williams — much to the surprise of his rock ‘n’ roll fan base. At a time when he was riding high in Los Angeles, this southern influence gave him depth that other artists of the same era resisted by remaining single-minded in their style and genre. Russell’s desire to follow his own path, rather than commercial expectation, gave him the image of a musical chameleon. Country music legends Mark Chestnut and Clint Black have credited Russell’s “Hank William’s Back Volume One” album with inspiring their own careers in the genre.
In the 1980s and 1990s Russell continued touring and recording internationally. The New Grass Revival tour led to a live album that featured bluegrass Beatles and Rolling Stone covers. He released “Anything Can Happen” with the Hornsby Brothers in 1992. He formed his second record label — Leon Russell Records — which released several albums, including a retrospective and re-mastered classics. His son recorded an album under Russell Records that included the groundbreaking collaboration for “Moonlight and Love Songs.” Russell collaborated with The Nashville Symphony Orchestra. There is seemingly no end to Russell’s long journey of artistic creation — on Sunday, Mardi Gras Entertainment welcomes this master to the island.
Want to Go?
Who: Leon Russell
Where: Kaua‘i War
Memorial Convention Hall in Lihu‘e
When: Sunday, doors open at 5:30 p.m., show starts at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $45 at Hanalei Music, Bounty Music, Street Eagle Motorcycles, Scotty’s Music, Kilauea Pharmacy and Progressive Expressions; $50 at the door