Interview: Leon Russell

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 04.02.13 in Interviews


Leon Russell

[Charles Bradley turned heads and broke hearts with his 2011 triumph No Time for Dreaming. On the advent of his second masterpiece, the scorching, searing, Victim of Love, we invited Bradley and his bandleader and co-writer, Tom Brenneck, to take over eMusic's editorial section. In our interview with Bradley and Brenneck, they discuss the whirlwind that was the last two years of their lives. Below, read our interview with legendary songwriter Leon Russell, commissioned at Bradley and Brenneck's request. — Ed.]

Rock and pop typically divides along the means of production: Rock is largely made whole cloth by self-sufficient bands, whereas pop is usually crafted by hired songwriters and players. Leon Russell is a renegade in that regard. The 71-year-old Lawton, Oklahoma-born pianist launched his career as a session musician the week of his 21st birthday, then won acclaim in the rock world by writing, co-producing and playing on Joe Cocker’s successful second and third albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

After starting up his own label, Shelter Records, in 1969, Russell morphed into a solo act, releasing albums that were beloved by rock radio while also crossing him back over into pop, both as a singer (“Tight Rope,” “Lady Blue”) and a songwriter (“This Masquerade,” famously covered by George Benson). “Superstar,” one of his earlier compositions with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, was both a pop smash for the Carpenters in 1971, and a 1984 R&B hit for Luther Vandross. Russell’s other well-known tune, “A Song for You,” never performed particularly well on any chart, but has been interpreted by everyone from Donny Hathaway to Willie Nelson. Russell’s fame faded when the ’80s arrived, but in 2010, Elton John enlisted him for a collaborative album, The Union.

At the behest of Daptone soul superstar Charles Bradley, eMusic’s Barry Walters spoke with Russell, who put his astonishing career in characteristically humble perspective.

How did your career as a session musician in Los Angeles take off the way it did?

I played with bands starting when I was 14, and went out there [on my own] when I was 17, but I couldn’t play in nightclubs in California because I wasn’t 21; they didn’t have much sense of humor about that. My first adventure in recording was playing on demo sessions for Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley [her songwriting partner] at Metric Music, which was a division of Liberty. She met Jack Nitzsche and introduced me to him. I started out playing on all of his record dates, one the first week and two the second week and four the third week and exponentially up from there. I never did play any clubs again until later.

At a certain point, you and several other L.A. session musicians became known as “the Wrecking Crew.” Was that something you called yourself, or did that name come much later?

That came out when [session drummer] Hal Blaine and whoever his ghostwriter was wrote his book made that up. I never heard it in my life until his book. [Session bassist] Carol Kaye said the same thing. It’s actually the title of a Dean Martin movie that perhaps they played on; I didn’t. I always thought it was not particularly a good name for a rhythm section.

Were you typically told what to play, or did you come up with your parts yourself, or a combination of the two?

I suppose it was a combination. Most of the writers who hired me, they hired me because they didn’t want to write the piano part, Don Costa [the late guitarist/arranger/producer/songwriter father of singer Nikka Costa] in particular. He would write a melody line and chord changes, and he’d say, “Play blues here, play classical here” and he didn’t have to write the piano part; he actually told me that’s why he hired me. It’s complicated to actually write those parts. Even more complicated than that is to find somebody who can actually read ‘em. The guy who read that stuff, his name is Lincoln Mayorga; he can read and play anything. But myself, I’m not much of a reader.

Was it important to think fast in those situations?

I had a birth injury that caused me to be slightly paralyzed on the right side of my body. I took piano lessons for 10 years, and I didn’t seem to be getting any better. I was better off figuring out stuff that I could play, so that’s what I did primarily — figure out something that could give the illusion that I was a piano player. I’m primarily left-handed, so with my right hand I had to be careful. I was always thinking a bar ahead about what I could play and analyzing whether or not I was going to be able to play it. I’ve had to do that most of my life.

Where there times when you knew a song could be better than it was, but you just had to go ahead with what you were told to play?

A lot of times we would get our music, or chord sheets or whatever, and we’d rehearse the track 15 or 20 times before the singer even started singing the song. And just out of boredom, I would sometimes write melodies and words to those tracks as were rehearsing ‘em, and when the real song came on, I sometimes didn’t like it as well as the one I’d written in my mind. But I don’t want to give the impression that I know what I’m doing all the time.

Did you ever bring these alternate versions to the table, or did you need to keep them to yourself?

Unless I was working for a very good friend, I would never say anything about the records at all. Herb Alpert called me up one day, he was a good friend of mine, and said, “I want you to help me. I’m cutting this country singer from Phoenix and I want you to help me with the rhythm section.” I went down there and said, “I think it would be better if you’d do this with the drums and the bass.” And he didn’t use that idea, and I told him a couple more ideas, and he didn’t use those. Herb is a genius. He’s made millions of dollars making beautiful records, and I can understand: He likes to do it the way he likes to do it. I’ve learned a lot from him, but after I made two or three suggestions, I didn’t make anymore because I could see he was gonna do whatever he was wanted to do. That guy from Phoenix, his name is Waylon Jennings. [Jennings originally hails from Texas, but had moved from Phoenix to L.A. to work with Alpert. — Ed.]

How did your experiences as a session musician help create opportunities as a songwriter?

I was partners with a guy [Thomas Leslie]. With him I wrote for Gary Lewis [comedian Jerry Lewis's son, who had a teen-pop group Gary Lewis & the Playboys; Russell co-wrote their Top 10 1965 hits "Everybody Loves a Clown" and "She's Just My Style"]. That was not really my kinda music. But my partner who I formed Shelter Records with [Denny Cordell], he had some hits over in England, and came over to make a distribution deal with A&M. He hired me to play on some Joe Cocker records. I figured as long as I was doing that, I would try to write some songs for Joe. When I was in a session, I always had a very sort of quiet demeanor. I didn’t want to get in the way. So we did the session and after the session I played these songs for Denny and he was kinda floored. I wasn’t aware that I turned into a rock ‘n’ roll maniac, but that’s what he said.

How did you come to write “A Song for You”?

I was in a relationship at one time, and the need for that song came up. I wrote it so I could sing it at the time.

Did you have the sense that you’d written a standard?

When I wrote “This Masquerade” and “A Song for You” and maybe a couple more, I was trying to write standards. “This Masquerade” had been cut over 40 times before George Benson [who had the biggest hit with it] ever cut it. And “A Song for You” has been cut over 125 times. I’m not sure if it was ever a hit exactly, but a lot of people cut it, and that’s what my goal was; I was trying to write songs that a lot of people would cut.

Was there an “a-ha” moment when you realized you’d cracked the code to writing a classic song?

No, there wasn’t. “A Song for You” I wrote in 10 minutes, and the same thing for “This Masquerade.” I don’t know anything about “a-ha.” These songs, some of them seem to have a life of their own, but I don’t have the ability to spot that.

When you did get your solo career going, was it what you expected?

I didn’t have any expectations at all about that, because I didn’t think I was good enough. My first show was at Anaheim Stadium with the Who. I was the opening band and they were selling out the stadiums pretty regularly. I don’t remember much about it except that I went up on stage, sang the songs, and came off the stage. I was pretty rattled the whole time.

Did you ever think, “I don’t have the kind of voice to have a solo career”?

There you go. That’s exactly what I thought. I still don’t understand it. [Laughs.] I sounded a bit like Moms Mabley, no reflection on Moms. [Mabley was a pioneering African-American comedian. — Ed.]

You had a very successful run in the ’70s. How did you deal with it winding down in the following decades?

The venues got smaller and the crowds got smaller. Like I told you, I didn’t have any expectation from the top. I thought I was extremely lucky to get where I got, so I avoided the press and did all the stuff that was wrong and kind of walked away from it.

So what was it like joining up with Elton John and playing to big crowds again?

Elton did a great deal for me. He spent a lot of money on me, on PR. A lot of people don’t know about stuff until somebody who they admire and trust comes up and says, “This is great” He did that for me, and I’m very grateful for it. When I was doing the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour [with Joe Cocker], I knew the audience didn’t know who some of these other singers on stage were, so I had all these girls with empty cameras pretend to take photographs so the audience would get the impression they were somebody worth photographing. People listen with their eyes, the main audience, so they have to be guided in some ways. [One then-unknown singer on the tour was Rita Coolidge, the inspiration for "Delta Lady," Russell's song for Joe Cocker. — Ed.]

What kind of advice would you give to musicians who want to make records like yours?

Once again, you’re under the impression that I know what I’m doing, and that’s not really the case. I do what I do and I’ve had studios in my houses for the last 40 years ’cause I like to make records. But as far as telling you the secret to them, I’m not sure that I know that. If I did, I’d have more houses. [Laughs.]

What are you doing these days?

I was writing some lyrics to some tracks that a friend of mine from California sent me. He’s trying to make an album for me, and I was trying to write some lyrics for the songs I’d be singing. I’m having a little bit of difficulty with my bipolar disorder today and the last few days and I haven’t been able to really do anything, but some days are better than others, you know?