Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 2 April 1941, Lawton OK; d 13 November 2016, Nashville TN) Singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, bandleader, producer. He studied classical piano from age three to 13, took up trumpet, formed his own band as a teenager; played with Ronnie Hawkins, Jerry Lee Lewis; moved to the west coast '59, studied guitar with James Burton and became one of the busiest session musicians of the era, playing on most Phil Spector hits, also in the studios with Frank Sinatra, Gary Lewis, Paul Revere, Bobby Darin, the Byrds, Herb Alpert and many others.

Russell worked with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett in the New Electric Horn Band, then formed the Asylum Choir '68 with Marc Benno (b 1 July 1947, Dallas TX) whose first LP Look Inside The Asylum Choir '68 on the Mercury subsidiary Smash flopped despite critical praise; the second, Asylum Choir II '69, was not released until '71. (Benno later made albums Marc Benno and Minnows and Ambush '70-2 on A&M, came back with Lost In Austin '79 featuring Eric Clapton, but never made stardom despite superior songwriting, songs covered by Rita Coolidge and others.) Russell helped Delaney and Bonnie with their debut Original -- Accept No Substitute LP and Joe Cocker with his second album, co-formed Shelter Records with UK producer Denny Cordell (d 18 February 1995, Dublin, aged 51), and released his own eponymous debut '70 (the no. 60 LP USA included classic Russell songs 'Delta Lady', 'Hummingbird', 'A Song For You'; Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Stevie Winwood among the sidemen). He organized Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, swiping most of Delaney and Bonnie's band for it: the tour/two-disc set were huge hits '70, Russell and Coolidge stealing a lot of the spotlight. He helped Clapton with his debut solo album; Leon Russell And The Shelter People '71 used four sets of backing musicians and was a top 20 LP without a hit single; Asylum Choir II was released on Shelter and made no. 70; Carney '72 was a no. 2 LP including hit 'Tight Rope', also 'This Masquerade', later a hit for George Benson '76. Three-disc Leon Live '73 was a top ten album; C&W collection Hank Wilson's Back Vol. I plus Stop All That Jazz and Will O' The Wisp '73-5 were all top 35 LPs.

He left Shelter for WB with his own Paradise label and recorded with wife, vocalist Mary McCleary: she'd made solo LPs Butterflies In Heaven '73 on MCA, Jezebel '74 on Shelter; now Leon and Mary Russell had a top 40 LP Wedding Album '76, but Make Love To The Music '77 slipped. She made Heart Of Fire, he made Americana and Live And Love '78-9. The two-disc set One For The Road by Willie (Nelson) and Leon was a top 25 LP '79 on Columbia; The Live Album '81 with New Grass Revival bluegrass band and Hank Wilson Volume II '84 followed. There was also something called Looking Back '74 on Olympic which did not chart, perhaps early tapes from somebody's vaults.

Russell's many other activities included producing Bob Dylan singles 'Watching The River Flow' and 'George Jackson', and an appearance at Harrison's charity concert for Bangla Desh '71; he played fine piano on B.B. King's Indianola '70 (which included a cover of 'Hummingbird'); indeed he never forgot with his gospellish piano, gritty vocals and fine songs that the best rock is essentially white rhythm and blues. Reissues were later on The Right Stuff label, also Anything Can Happen '92 on Virgin.