By Hap Fry
The whole notion of it all really seems a bit strange.
No, Leon Russell the advertiser doesn’t hold the same panache as Leon Russell the musician.
Nevertheless, when Russell left his hometown of Tulsa, Okla. after graduating Will Rogers High School in 1959 to move to California, his goal was to follow in the footsteps of Stan Freberg not Professor Longhair.
“That’s where the show business was,” Russell said during a recent phone interview with The Marquee from his tour bus in Houston. “I actually went out there to get into advertising, but that was pretty painful. It didn’t work out. And then I eventually started playing on people’s records.”
Advertising’s loss was rock and roll’s gain. Fast forward 50-plus years later, and Russell is as decorated a musician as there is playing these days.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member is still going strong as evidenced by a summer tour that totals over 50 shows, including performances at the PAC3 in Cardondale and Gothic Theatre in Englewood before closing out the Ninth Annual Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest in Fort Collins in the middle part of the month.
“I’m just happy to have a job at this point,” Russell said. “I can’t really even remember what happened yesterday. I never allow myself to know what the schedule is. Somebody else takes care of it. They just open my cage, let me out, and I go out and do my trick.”
That “trick” has played out well. Russell has collaborated with some of the finest performers and acts of all time. Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys — you name ’em, and there’s a real good chance Russell has played with them in some fashion.
“It’s always fun to meet those people and work with those people,” Russell said. “There’s a lot of oddness — not sure about camaraderie. I got to play on a Sam Cooke record one time. I thought that was pretty great. I’ve played a lot of interesting stuff — Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Aretha Franklin —- just a bunch of different people. It was a lot of fun to be able to do that.”
Russell’s services more recently were summoned by Sir Elton John, who has always considered the native Oklahoman to be a hero of sorts. Together, the hall of famers collaborated to produce The Union in 2010.
The tandem’s efforts hardly went unnoticed. The track “If It Wasn’t For Bad” garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, and heralded filmmaker Cameron Crowe even produced an HBO documentary called The Union on the duo’s writing process for the record.
“I was actually really surprised,” Russell said of getting the call from John. “I hadn’t spoken to him in probably 34 or 35 years. I really didn’t realize that I was such an inspiration to him in that way, but I was very thankful for it. It really helped my profile – just very thankful for it.
“I mean, I was working all the time. But unless you have hits, the (tours) are somewhat smaller. And I never really did have hits. I was sometimes playing routinely 20,000 seats every day, and without hits I never really knew how that happened. I was just beginning to play smaller and smaller venues,” he said.
That Russell even temporarily considered a career outside of music seems bizarre. He began playing the piano at four and was a fixture in Tulsa nightclubs and supper clubs like the Sheraton Club, Casa Del Club and The Flamingo Club at 14 with his band The Starlighters.
Russell, along with fellow Tulsan and rock and roll icon J.J. Cale, were credited with creating “The Tulsa Sound” – think rockabilly, country, rock and roll, and blues – that heavily influenced Eric Clapton, among others.
“It was a dry state back then so I was able to start playing in the nightclubs when I was 14,” Russell said. “That gave me a nice head start. I just played the piano. I didn’t sing. So, it wasn’t as shocking as I suppose it could have been.”
Russell is also quick to pay homage to his family for helping him become so musically inclined. “My mom and dad had a duet thing,” Russell said. “He played the bottom. She played the top. And then all of his sisters played the piano, so I learned a lot from all of those people. It was kind of a privilege to get to hear some of that stuff.”
Even at 71, Russell admitted to not being very keen on down time. He recently recorded an album with Tommy LiPuma that he said was a lot of fun and may eventually be released. “On the days that we have off that we don’t have to travel, we just park where the driver can sleep all day, and we just kill time,” Russell said. “It’s actually difficult. If I was home, I would be writing songs. Down time is really kind of wasted time.”
Russell obviously has not wasted much time during what can only be described as a monumental career. And Russell is neither living in the past or the future. He’s only living in the present. “As far as the future goes, it’s difficult to say,” Russell said. “I mean, I’m almost permanently blindfolded. I just kind of go where it takes me.”
:: Leon Russell ::
:: Gothic Theatre :: August 17 ::
:: Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest :: August 18 ::
Recommended if you Like:
• Joe Cocker
• Eric Clapton
• Elton John