Today we remember the passing of the great Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges; April 2, 1942 – November 13, 2016) was an American musician and songwriter who was involved with numerous bestselling pop music records over the course of his 60-year career. His genres included pop, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, standards, gospel and surf records. He was awarded six gold records.
His collaborations rank as some of the most successful in music history, and as a touring musician he performed with hundreds of notable artists. He recorded 33 albums and at least 430 songs. He wrote « Delta Lady », recorded by Joe Cocker, and organized and performed with Cocker’s « Mad Dogs and Englishmen » tour in 1970. His « A Song for You » has been recorded by more than 200 artists, and his « This Masquerade » by more than 75.
As a pianist, he played in his early years on albums by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. On his first album, Leon Russell, in 1970, the musicians included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. One of his biggest early fans, Elton John said Russell was a « mentor » and « inspiration ». They recorded their album The Union in 2010, which earned them a Grammy nomination.
Russell produced and played in recording sessions for Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, and others. He wrote and recorded the hits « Tight Rope » and « Lady Blue ». He performed at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 along with Harrison, Dylan and Eric Clapton. In 2011, he was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Russell was born in Lawton, Oklahoma. He began playing the piano at the age of four. He attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Also at Will Rogers High School were Anita Bryant, who was two years older, and in the same 1959 class, David Gates. Russell and Gates played and recorded together as the Fencemen. Another student at Will Rogers at the time was Elvin Bishop. During this time Russell was already performing at Tulsa nightclubs. He took the name Leon from a friend who lent him a fake ID to get into clubs he was legally too young to perform in.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1958, Russell became a session musician, working as a pianist on the recordings of many notable 1960s musical artists. By the late 1960s, he had diversified, becoming successful as an arranger and songwriter. By 1970, he had become a solo recording artist, but he never relinquished his other roles in the music industry. After performing country music under the name Hank Wilson in the 1970s and 1980s, he largely faded into obscurity.
Leon passed away on November 13, 2016 in Nashville, TN in his sleep.