Over a decade earlier than he died, Leon Russell started writing a never-completed memoir that highlighted a narrative of deep humiliation. Upon noticing, at age 4, that his genitals regarded totally different from these of his feminine cousin, the 2 started to look at one another in a secluded playhouse. That’s, till a stern aunt found them and, as an alternative of recognizing their play as harmless exploration, proceeded to parade Russell in entrance of his whole household whereas accusing him of any variety of excessive crimes and heinous acts. “That incident affected me for my complete life,” wrote Russell, who died in 2016. “I are inclined to freeze up round any scenario that includes individuals watching me.”
How ironic, then, that such a person would wind up, for a sure time, in rock music’s highlight. In the course of the core years of traditional rock – between 1969 and 1973 – Russell was music’s North Star, pioneering a distinctly American sound that modified the profession paths of stars, together with Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Elton John. In that timeframe, he created a band that turned one in all music’s most legendary dwell acts; made Mad Canines & Englishmen, for Joe Cocker; stole the present from a white sizzling line-up of artists on the Live performance for Bangladesh; turned a star in his personal proper with solo albums that featured songs that turned requirements, together with Track for You and This Masquerade; and impressed the icon Willie Nelson to create his enduring outlaw nation persona. Even earlier than he turned extensively recognized, Russell had an esteemed profession as a primary name session pianist, performing with the Wrecking Crew on recordings by everybody from Frank Sinatra to The Seaside Boys to the rococo productions of Phil Spector.
Remarkably, he achieved all this whereas affected by what has alternately been described by associates, and by himself, as both bipolar despair, paranoia or Asperger’s syndrome, contributing to crippling bouts of stage fright. “Leon was a deeply insecure man,” mentioned Invoice Janovitz, writer of a brand new e book that gives the primary holistic examine of the musician, titled Leon Russell: The Grasp of House and Time’s Journey By means of Rock & Roll Historical past. “He struggled together with his depressive aspect his complete life.”
“The way in which Leon’s thoughts labored was not like different individuals’s,” mentioned singer Rita Coolidge, who carried out with him on some key tasks and who was romantically concerned with him for some time. “In each means, Leon was totally different.”
The darker aspect of that distinction, together with a clutch of different components, contributed to a fall in Russell’s profession as swift and steep as his rise. By his personal description, that fall left him “in a ditch by the aspect of the freeway of life”.
The hardships in Russell’s life return to its very begin. He was born with cerebral palsy, inflicting some paralysis to his proper aspect which resulted in a limp. It made him the goal of bullies whereas rising up in Tulsa, Oklahoma within the Nineteen Fifties. “He wasn’t a sports activities man on this jockey southern city,” Janovitz mentioned. “He was this nerdy man with a limp, and large horn-rimmed glasses.”
His father was yet one more bully who finally deserted the household. On the identical time, Russell confirmed a exceptional facility for music from toddlerhood. By 14, he was taking part in in native golf equipment the place his band was found by Jerry Lee Lewis, who declared him the higher piano participant and, so, took him and his group on the street. Due to the nerve injury to his proper aspect, Russell had developed a singular taking part in type that relied on his highly effective left hand, serving to him create his personal rhythms. Different musicians acknowledged it straight away, resulting in provides to come back to Los Angeles to affix its wealthy session scene. Russell’s piano work held such distinction, it even managed to face out amid Phil Spector’s cacophonous Wall of Sound productions. Based on Janovitz, Russell’s energy as a session man was “that he might all the time discover a place within the music. Herb Alpert as soon as mentioned that when Leon performed, the entire rhythm part would begin coming to him,” the writer mentioned. “He might change whole route or association of a track.”
By 1969, Russell had turn out to be a musical octopus with tentacles spreading to his personal report firm (Shelter Data), a duo he fashioned referred to as The Asylum Choir, and, most significantly, key contributions to albums by Delaney & Bonnie, the one white act signed to Stax. Their rollicking second album, Settle for No Substitute, didn’t promote effectively but it turned, in Janovitz’s phrases, “a secret handshake. It was the album the place all the main musicians mentioned to one another, ‘You need to hear this.’”
The thrill on Delaney & Bonnie’s report was so intense, it impressed Eric Clapton, Dave Mason and George Harrison to affix the group – which additionally included Rita Coolidge – for a UK tour. A then unknown Elton John discovered himself equally besotted. “Elton as soon as mentioned to me, ‘I might not be the place I’m as we speak with out Leon Russell and Delaney & Bonnie, and the music you all made’,” Coolidge mentioned.
Based on her, the highest line of British stars had been transfixed by them as a result of, “we had one thing they didn’t – a mixture of southern gospel, rock ‘n roll and blues”.
If Russell’s type idealized it, his skills as an arranger, band chief and songwriter made him the sound’s chief ambassador. “All people understood that Leon knew extra about music and concerning the route all of us needed to go in than we did ourselves,” Coolidge mentioned.
She discovered herself bodily drawn to him as effectively: “He was such a rare trying man, with these piercing eyes.” As soon as they acquired concerned, nonetheless, she found eccentricities as deep as his expertise. “Leon was essentially the most paranoid individual I ever met,” she mentioned.
When the pair took the lengthy drive from Memphis to their new house in LA, “he wouldn’t get out of the automotive. He was so afraid of individuals him,” he mentioned.
When Coolidge informed him she didn’t need to have a child with him, he insisted on getting a monkey as an alternative. “That monkey terrorized the entire home,” she mentioned, with amusing. “It was completely untamable.”
As a lot as Russell flinched from the gaze of outsiders, he cherished to create giant musical households that he saved shut. “As quickly as he had any cash, he purchased an enormous home and had a bunch of dudes dwelling there,” Janovitz mentioned. “They dubbed it ‘the house for unwed musicians’.”
Probably the most important household he created was on the Mad Canines & Englishmen tour, which included almost fifty singers, gamers and hangers-on. As musically thrilling because the tour was, it started in panic and resulted in chaos. Cocker was contemporary off a star-making efficiency at Woodstock however he didn’t have a band. Hellbent on exploiting his new fame, his mob-connected supervisor demanded that he tour, threatening bodily hurt if he didn’t. It fell to Russell to tug collectively a band pronto, which he did, partly, by taking the gamers who’d labored with Delaney & Bonnie. Russell didn’t simply type the band and write its ecstatic preparations, he additionally cast a persona for the present because the ringleader of the circus, decked out in a prime hat and Captain America shirt. His look, sound and schtick made him “the last word Pentecostal cosmic preacher of rock ‘n roll”, mentioned Jesse Lauter, who directed a movie, Studying to Reside Collectively, that coated the Mad Canines’ tour in addition to a 2015 tribute live performance to it that featured Russell’s closing efficiency. “He was larger-than-life,” Lauter mentioned.
Russell, and the remainder of the band, had been dwelling giant backstage, too. Medicine had been a relentless, as had been orgies, the latter a favourite exercise of the band chief’s. Coolidge broke up with him, partly, due to his invitation to have a threesome with him and famed bassist Carl Radle. The intercourse at Mad Canines turned so incestuous, mentioned Coolidge, that she would see the band lined-up within the lodge foyer within the morning “to get photographs as a result of they acquired VD from all of the orgies”.
Fed up with such conduct, Coolidge mentioned she solely noticed the tour by way of in deference to Cocker. One other incentive was a solo showcase she had on the tour performing Famous person (The Groupie Track), which she co-wrote with Bonnie Bramlett and Russell. But, when the track got here out, Russell reduce her from the credit. “That was only a deliberate ‘gotcha’ as a result of I’d left him,” she mentioned.
Cocker was even angrier at Russell, who he felt upstaged him. In October 1970, it was Russell who appeared on the duvet of Rolling Stone, not Cocker. Worse, resulting from the price of the occasion, Coolidge mentioned Cocker got here out of it broke. “He didn’t have a spot to dwell, he didn’t have a guitar. He didn’t have shit,” she mentioned.
Neither Coolidge nor Janovitz imagine that Russell meant to harm Cocker. “To his dying day, Leon was wounded by the accusation of profession profiteering from the tour,” Janovitz mentioned. “The very fact is Joe wanted a band and Leon gave him an excellent one.”
In reality, Mad Canines turned the template for all of the large-scale household bands to come back, together with Bob Dylan’s sprawling Rolling Thunder tour of 1975, Bruce Springsteen’s huge band and the trendy Americana group Tedeschi-Vehicles, who created the Mad Canines tribute present captured in Lauter’s movie. In the meantime, Russell’s star soared, powered by the pop smash Tightrope, and a success triple-album live performance set, Leon Reside that licensed him as the most important live performance draw of 1972.
Inside three years, nonetheless, Russell’s star was on the wane. His music veered from the type that made him widespread by transferring additional into nation music and through the use of drum machines. Additionally, he had a bent to imagine the unsuitable individuals. “If Leon was introduced with a great opinion and a foul one, he all the time went with the dangerous one,” Janovitz mentioned.
On the identical time, his acolyte, Elton John, soared well past him. One of many decisions Russell made wound up revealing one thing profoundly ugly in elements of his viewers. He launched two pop albums that billed him equally together with his new spouse, the gifted singer Mary McCreary, who’s Black. When the pair toured, lots of of followers threw nooses onto the stage; some yelled the n-word, which wounded them each. In subsequent years, the pair endured a bitter divorce and whereas Russell remained productive within the studio, he turned ever extra distant on-stage, reverting to his core insecurities.
Lastly, in 2010 Elton got here to his rescue, making a stirring collaboration album with him, The Union, adopted by a sold-out area tour for the 2. Extra, Elton lobbied efficiently to get Russell into the Rock & Roll Corridor of Fame. Regardless, Russell’s music seldom turns up on traditional rock stations as we speak. “Even once I ask lively music followers about him, they are saying, ‘Is that Leon Redbone?’” Janovitz mentioned. “They’re not even positive who he was.”
To the writer, that’s a obvious gap. “Folks love Elton, The Beatles and Clapton however a lot of them don’t know the way vital Leon was to all of them,” mentioned Janovitz. “Folks have to know that Leon was somebody central to musical historical past.”