Obituary

Singer stood out for his music

Leon Russell.
Leon Russell.PHOTO: NYTIMES

One of the 1970s' most engaging rock performers, Leon Russell's music borrowed liberally from myriad genres

NEW YORK • Leon Russell, the gravelly voiced singer and pianist who wrote many pop and rock standards in the 1970s, including This Masquerade, Love's Got A Hold On Me and A Song For You, died on Sunday at age 74.

Widely regarded as one of the 1970s' most engaging rock performers, he died in his sleep in Nashville, Tennessee, his wife said.

The songwriter had surgery for brain fluid leak in 2010 and was treated for heart failure. In July, he had a heart attack and recently had cancelled several concerts. His last performance was on July 10 in Nashville.

With his trademark top hat, hair past his shoulders, lush beard, an Oklahoma drawl and his fingers splashing two-fisted barrelhouse piano chords, he cut a flamboyant figure in the early 1970s. He led Joe Cocker's band Mad Dogs & Englishmen, appeared at George Harrison's 1971 Concert For Bangladesh in New York City and recorded with Willie Nelson and Elton John.

His music borrowed liberally from blues, gospel, jazz and country - musical idioms all native to his home state of Oklahoma. But his writing stood apart with a melodic flair and pop sensibility that impressed a wide range of performers from very different genres.

More than 100 acts - including Nelson, Andy Williams, Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles - have recorded A Song For You, which Russell said he wrote in 10 minutes. Another ballad, This Masquerade, helped establish jazz guitarist George Benson as a vocalist, while Hummingbird gave blues singer B.B. King a rare pop hit.

By the time Russell released his first solo album in 1970, he had played on hundreds of songs as one of the top studio musicians in Los Angeles. He was in Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound Orchestra and played sessions for Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, The Ventures and The Monkees.

His piano-playing is heard on Mr Tambourine Man by The Byrds, A Taste Of Honey by Herb Alpert, Live With Me by The Rolling Stones and all of the Beach Boys' early albums, including Pet Sounds.

The music he made on his own put a scruffy, casual surface on rich musical hybrids, interweaving soul, country, blues, jazz, gospel, pop and classical music.

Like Nelson, who collaborated with him, and Charles, whose 1993 recording of A Song For You won a Grammy Award, Russell made a broad, sophisticated palette of American music sound down-home and natural.

Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, he started classical piano lessons at age four. He believed that a childhood injury to his upper vertebrae gave him a slower right hand and contributed to his style. In his teens, he performed in Oklahoma clubs with guitarist J.J. Cale and singer David Gates, later of Bread.

In Los Angeles, he became part of a pool of studio musicians known informally as the Wrecking Crew who provided back-up for pop and rock hits of the early and mid-1960s. He was glimpsed on television as a member of the Shindogs, the house band for the prime-time rock show Shindig!. In 1969, he and producer Denny Cordell started Shelter Records.

However, he drew greater acclaim for his work as co-producer and arranger on Cocker's second album Joe Cocker!, which yielded the hit from Russell's pen, Delta Lady.

When Cocker's band broke up, he assembled Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a large band with three drummers and 10 back-up singers.

The live album and concert film that followed in 1970, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, featured Cocker's band under the direction of Russell, resplendent in his top hat.

His work with Cocker, an appearance in the film about Concert For Bangladesh and his first solo album, which featured contributions from three members of The Rolling Stones and two from The Beatles, made Russell a star in his own right in 1970. But his second album, Leon Russell And The Shelter People, fared better commercially, reaching No. 17 on the Billboard chart.

His period of stardom as a performer was brief, but John, who was once Russell's opening act, engineered a comeback for him in 2010 when they collaborated on an album titled The Union.

John said he was inspired to collaborate when he was moved to tears on rehearing Russell's song Back To The Island. The Russell-written song If It Wasn't For Bad off The Union received a Grammy nomination.

John called Russell his "biggest influence as a piano player, singer and songwriter".

On Monday, he wrote on Twitter: "My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration & so kind to me. I loved him and always will."

Survivors include his second wife of 37 years, Janet Lee Constantine, and six children. His earlier marriage to singer Mary McCreary ended in divorce.

WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Singer stood out for his music'. Print Edition | Subscribe