My thoughts are so scattered as I type this. A short while ago, I found out that Leon Russell has passed away. For all of us in the music community, 2016 has felt like one long funeral procession. They’ve been coming one after the other.
There’s so many places where one could begin with Leon Russell. There are some great articles going around this evening from places like Rolling Stone Magazine and from The New York Times which can tell you all about Leon’s accomplishments as a singer, songwriter, pianist, session man, producer, bandleader and live revue leader. It’s all out there for people to learn about him if they choose to seek it. But I can’t go through all of his accomplishments here. I can only tell you about how I felt about Leon Russell over the years through my own prism.
Little did I know about it at the time, but Leon played on one of my favorite songs of all-time. It would take me many years later to learn that he played piano on Badfinger’s “Day After Day” back in 1971. He filled the spaces with such loving care for the song with those gentle waves emanating from the ivories. So many people focus, and rightly so, on the double guitar tracking of Pete Ham and George Harrison. Those guitars would not have had the natural fullness and effectiveness without Leon giving a deeper sound presence. His previous work as a session man gave him the gift of understatement when it came to working on the material of others. And in the case of this standout track from one of the greatest albums (Straight Up) of the early ’70s, Russell’s giving lift to a great song was no exception.
In August of 1972, I became a fan of The Rolling Stones. Again, it would take me until I got my first vinyl copy of Exile On Main Street before Leon would enter into my life again (even though my two older brothers had a copy of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen and I was getting bits of exposure to it at my young age at the time of which it was released). “Shine A Light” is one of the beacon performances on a 5-star album of which all of the players were key to the success of the album. What always knocked me out about the song was how the reverb in Mick Taylor’s lead guitar playing and Leon’s piano on that track seemed to come together so perfectly. Leon’s piano was the river of life running through it and Taylor’s guitar was the expression of love, pain and burnout all at once. It all seemed to flow together effortlessly just as the life we live and the river which takes all through the same places was destined to be the paradox which binds us and puzzles us all at the same time.
It was at the end of 1972 and into the early months of 1973 that Leon Russell specifically took root in my mind as someone I knowingly liked. He released the Carney album then. The single that came with it was “Tight Rope”. As someone who was in 5th Grade at the time, it puzzled the living hell out of me. But I sang along to as much of the lyrics that my hearing impaired ears could figure out and took it to heart. I’ve spent the better part of over 40 years trying to figure it out what it means. It takes on different meanings to different people. Some can see it as a performer’s career struggle between its own existence and ever-present possibility of being snubbed out. And there are those of us, like myself (when I finally got to see all of the lyrics through the magic of YouTube), who see the tune as being about the balance between life and death we all struggle with. Frankly, the song has grown so much more with me as it ages. It has an honest poignancy for those of us who need to frame our private fragile realities within the larger scheme of things. What has been taking me back to this song this evening is that “Tight Rope” was released back when the American public was bracing for all of the hell that would break loose two years later when a certain tricky guy was going to resign from an awfully big post. We were living our own individual lives on a tight rope. We also thought the American landscape was walking one of its own.
There was one more time when Leon would make a huge impression on me back in the day. This was in 1975 and the Will O’ The Wisp album was released. The single that he released from that album nailed me right between the eyes and knocked me completely out. “Lady Blue”. Oh my God! If there was ever a reason to enshrine this man into a balladry hall of fame, he got my vote in this song. He created perfection. Plus, that sax solo to go with his piano playing made for a mid-’70s production lesson of which I wish more had payed attention to upon looking back in hindsight. This was that period of time in the ’70s when production methods applied to records would tragically turn into much too dry results. Leon made the song sound like it sprung naturally from within a musical garden. As I was morphing from a child into my teenage years, the musical sounds within the song honestly planted a lot of Eros within me. It would play in my mind when I used to see beautiful women around me. And when I was alone and I was outside at night, it was one of those songs that had the ability to have you stop and look up into the night sky as it was playing in your head. It took you places.
As I am thinking of Leon Russell tonight, I am thinking of all of the musicians he came into contact with during the course of his life. I can’t think of anytime that I ever heard a bad thing come out of anybody’s mouth when it came to talking about him. There are a plethora of musicians still with us who are feeling a gaping hole in their hearts right now. They owe a great debt of gratitude for what he did for their records. Go ahead and look it all up. You can start from when he was a member of the famed Wrecking Crew and work your way out from there. He was one of the most valuable musicians that we have ever known. His loss is the loss of all of the musicians who ever toiled for that one perfect moment. That is to say, it is gigantic.