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Rock Flashback: Happy Birthday Leon Russell

leon russell Rock Flashback: Happy Birthday Leon Russell

Leon Russell performs at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month (Getty Images/Michael Loccisano)

Singer/songwriter/sideman [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Leon Russell[/lastfm] turns 70 years old today. Some sources say he’s turning 69, but we’re going with 70, because that’s what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says.

Newly inducted into the Rock Hall as a sideman, Russell may have been the ultimate sideman. The list of records on which he performed, often anonymously, is staggering. According to his website, he’s played with, produced, or arranged for a range of stars from [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Eric Clapton[/lastfm] to [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Frank Sinatra[/lastfm] to [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Aretha Franklin[/lastfm] to [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Barbra Streisand[/lastfm] to [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]John Lennon[/lastfm] to [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]the Beach Boys[/lastfm] to [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Marvin Gaye[/lastfm], and on and on.

Russell, born Claude Bridges, started playing in public in his native Oklahoma at age 4. A band he belonged to in high school, the Starlighters, backed [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Jerry Lee Lewis[/lastfm] and featured another musician destined for success, [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]J. J. Cale[/lastfm]. After moving to Los Angeles in the late ’50s, Russell became part of the fabled group of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, frequently used by Phil Spector on his “little symphonies for the kids.” Russell was also in the house band on the TV show Shindig!.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the ’70s that Russell stepped into the spotlight on his own, but just tentatively at first. He played with [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Delaney and Bonnie and Friends[/lastfm], and was the bandleader on [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Joe Cocker[/lastfm]’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

Russell’s first solo album, released in 1970, was an all-star affair, with Clapton, [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]George Harrison[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Ringo Starr[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Steve Winwood[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Bill Wyman[/lastfm], and [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Charlie Watts[/lastfm] among the players. He returned the favor to Harrison in 1971, backing him at the Concerts for Bangla Desh.

Russell’s peak of commercial success came in 1972 and 1973, with the album Carney, the hit single “Tight Rope,” and a highly successful concert tour. At this moment, he began delving into country music under the name [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Hank Wilson[/lastfm].  In 1975, he scored another sizable hit single with “Lady Blue.” At the end of the 1970s, he would become a frequent collaborator with [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Willie Nelson[/lastfm].

Over the next 30 years, he spent long periods of time out of the recording studio and the public eye, although he’s recorded and toured more consistently over the last half-dozen years. Russell’s most recent album is The Union, a collaboration with [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Elton John[/lastfm] released last year.

A favorite Russell performance of mine comes from the Concerts for Bangla Desh, where he takes a vocal on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Nearly 40 years since that performance, he’s still got that familiar Oklahoma drawl.

Watch tonight: Elton John hosts Saturday Night Live tonight (April 2). He is also the musical guest, appearing alongside Leon Russell.

More on Leon Russell:

Listen to an exclusive interview with Leon Russell and Elton John about their album The Union

Vintage interview: Leon Russell talks about hits and collaborations from his long career

Terri Hemmert on Russell: “Is that you, Leon?”

Review: The 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony


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