Leon Russell

The Master of Space and Time's Journey Through Rock & Roll History

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One of the major, and unrectifiable, disappointments of my life: I never saw Leon Russell in concert. I had tickets to see him at Jonathan's Ogunquit, first scheduled for October 2016. Due to "unforeseen health complications", the date was pushed back to February 2017. And then cancelled, due to him passing away on November 13, 2016, age 74.

I was kind of a fan back in the 1970s, spurred by seeing his performances in the movies, Mad Dogs & Englishmen and The Concert for Bangladesh. I started buying his records (vinyl in those days)… and after a few years, I tapered off. I bought one more album, CD this time, Will O' the Wisp. (This book informs me that I was not alone in doing that.)

Not that it matters, but his A Song For You might have had Major Influence on my life path.

So I picked up this massive, definitive biography by Bill Janowitz from the Portsmouth Public Library. It's nearly 600 pages, not a weekend read. It goes into voluminous detail on Leon's music, business dealings, career trajectory (many ups and downs), romances, friendships, drug use, health problems.

And on that last bit: probably that notice mentioned above about the postponed concert should not have called the health issues as "unforeseen". They were not. Leon had a long history of problems. Many of them physical: a birth defect gave him a lifelong limp, and a left-right strength asymmetry. (This might have influenced his signature piano style.) There were multiple heart attacks, and brain cavity issues caused leakage of cerebrospinal fluid, occasionally coming out of his nose. (I hear you saying ewwwww. I did too.)

And there were probably mental issues too, although apparently none that were professionally diagnosed. Friends and family offered their own descriptions: manic-depressive, bipolar, Asperger's, autism. Definitely a few sigma off the mean on any number of traits.

His musical career started early in Oklahoma. Memorably, his high school band got a gig backing up Jerry Lee Lewis. Their warm-up playing caused Lewis to come out and exclaim to the audience, "I'm not gonna set down at that piano. He plays a lot better piano than I do!"

And things progressed from there. He moved out to LA, where he became an "overnight success" as a session musician, working both with wall-of-sound Phil Spector and the famed Wrecking Crew. And then…

Well, I could go on. Leon knew, roughly, everybody.

A story about the piano Leon plays on A Song For You: bought by Herb Alpert for his studio, it was also "very likely" the same one you'll hear on Carole King's Tapestry and Joni Mitchell's Blue. (Dude, that piano should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Were you wondering if the song "Stranger in a Strange Land" was inspired by the Heinlein novel? Yes it was! Although Janowitz claims the book "has not held up well over the intervening decades." Humph! … well, OK, I kind of see his point there.

And I mentioned drug use. Yeesh, you'll be wondering how Leon could play "Chopsticks", let alone anything more complicated. (Angel dust!?) And that extended to his family and retinue. One telling example: On the way to the hospital to deliver Leon's first (illegitimate) daughter, Blue, the mother Carla McHenry shot up heroin.

If you read this book: we live in the future now, so I strongly suggest you have YouTube and a decent music streaming service at hand. "Alexa, play 'Christmas' by Darlene Love", and listen for the piano at the end. Magic.

Last Modified 2024-01-12 6:03 AM EDT

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