The year was 1970, the 23 year old British Singer-Songwriter who had recently changed his name to Elton John, in his first American concert at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, Ca, was nervously sitting at his piano bench, about to start “Sixty Years On”, gazing over the packed- in audience in wonderment that all these people were here to see him, when he paused and noticed Leon Russell was in the house. This was 40 years before Elton would collaborate with his idol and one of the original “piano men” and release the excellent The Union album.
This was also before the “ Rocket Man” became a household name, and it was during a time that Leon was one of the hottest, most in-demand musicians on the planet. Leon, as a member of “The Wrecking Crew” a group of studio musicians in the 60’s played on hundreds of hit singles, was a member of Joe Cockers Mad Dogs and Englishmen touring band, was part of the house band for the T.V. show, Shindig, and was just coming off of a tremendously successful tour with Delaney & Bonnie. In short, he was a musician’s musician, and most importantly, he was Elton John’s Idol.
Leon was there checking things out to see if there was any substance to the buzz that he was hearing about this piano prodigy from across the pond, and was taking a much needed break after recently completing his magnum opus, the Self- titled Leon Russell album.
Released in May of 1970, Leon Russell featured Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Klaus Voorman. The album is chock-full of classic Leon songs including “A Song For You”, Hummingbird”, and “Delta Lady”. Listen closely and you will also hear a little Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker.
This album is one of those “forgotten gems”, I forget what a great song that was, type of record that gives you goose bumps when you give it a close and repeated listen.
The album opens with the classic opening piano notes of “A Song For You”. The song, in his hands with his pacing, and his phrasing, should be placed in a time capsule and buried in the ground to be unearthed for future generations to hear what a singer-songwriter is supposed to sound like. There have been zillions of versions of this song recorded, this song actually almost made Karen Carpenter seem cool for 30 seconds, but no version can hold a candle to the original.
The second song “Dixie Lullaby” is the kind of “rock and roll” lilting piano and background slide guitar-stomp style song that Leon has become famous for.
Up next is the faster paced rocker “I Put a Spell on You”. The starts and starts that are present at the beginning of the song don’t seem necessary but don’t take away from the good time feel of this gospel rocker.
Then comes song number four, “Shootout at the Plantation” which has become a staple at his live shows throughout the years, and is an excellent example of Leon’s versatility as a band leader, musician, and singer. My favorite Leon song, actually.
The album then takes a turn into a double dip of a roller coaster ride, with the slow, sensual croon that is “Hummingbird” followed by the often imitated, never duplicated “Delta Lady”. The infamous horn riffs that are followed by the fingering of the piano keys are once again, classic Leon.
If there is a “filler” song on the album then song number 7, “Prince of Peace” can be considered filler. Then again, how can a song with Eric Clapton on guitar be considered filler? Ok, I stand corrected.
Song number 8 is “Give Peace a Chance”. It always surprises me that John Lennon didn’t write this Gospel tinged tune that Leon penned with Bonnie Bramlett. It is a quickie, throw-away little number.
“Pisces Apple Lady” is a song you probably have not heard of. Give it a listen it has a “Delta Lady” type vibe to it and is a good song well worth your time.
“Roll Away the Stone” is another one of my personal favorites, and is a strong song musically, and lyrically. It does not stray from the “Leon” formula too much and features some subtle George Harrison guitar on the track.
Russell waits until the last song, the Dylan masterpiece “Masters of War”, to get a little bit political. In the short under 90 second song, it is almost as if he is saying, ok, we have had a little fun together singing and jamming, now it’s time to get serious.
Leon Russell, Is a serious piece of work by a serious artist. It gets better with each listen and his clearly Leon Russell’s Masterpiece.
Here’s hoping that the post “The Union” Leon has been able to put a little money in his coffers and is now finally well enough off that he no longer has to play those old, dingy Texas dive bars to make a living.
On second thought…….maybe not. Then I would be missing “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
All tracks composed by Leon Russell; except where indicated
- “A Song For You” – 4:08
- “Dixie Lullabye” (Russell, Chris Stainton) – 2:35
- “I Put A Spell On You” – 4:12
- “Shootout On The Plantation” – 3:13
- “Hummingbird” – 4:02
- “Delta Lady” – 4:05
- “Prince Of Peace” (Russell, Greg Dempsey) – 3:05
- “Give Peace A Chance” (Russell, Bonnie Bramlett) – 2:23
- “Hurtsome Body” – 3:39
- “Pisces Apple Lady” – 2:53
- “Roll Away The Stone” (Russell, Greg Dempsey) – 3:10
- “Masters of War” (Bob Dylan) – 1:24
- Leon Russell – piano, bass, guitar, vocals
- Buddy Harman – drums
- Klaus Voormann – bass
- Mick Jagger – vocals
- George Harrison – guitar
- Ringo Starr – drums
- Alan Spenner – bass
- Charlie Watts – drums
- Bill Wyman – bass
- Glyn Johns – engineer, mixing
- Delaney Bramlett – guitar
- Eric Clapton – guitar
- Jim Horn – saxophone
- Bonnie Bramlett – vocals
- Steve Winwood – keyboards
- Jim Gordon – drums
- Chris Stainton – keyboards
- B.J. Wilson – drums
- Joe Cocker – vocals
- Merry Clayton – vocals
- See our quick look at Leon and Elton’s The Union
- See other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Members that we’ve featured