I know I should title my posts with words more likely to be searched. It's the business I'm in. But I couldn't resist this post's title. Those are the names of Leon Russell's children.
The man could write.
Leon, a piano player, died a week ago last Sunday. His resumé includes a dazzling list of accomplishments, yet he never really did become a household name. He played piano on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and on Sinatra records; he put together and led the band Mad Dogs and Englishmen for Joe Cocker; his album Carney reached #2 on the album charts; he was at George Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" in New York City, where he shook up the proceedings with a rollicking medley of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the Coasters' doo-wop classic "Young Blood," complete with revival-tent-style vocal interludes; he wrote jazz guitarist George Benson's biggest hit; and he collaborated with Elton John and also Willie Nelson. He started his own record label, Shelter Records, which released Bob Marley's first song outside of Jamaica. Leon both played for an immense number of other artists and bands and also wrote many songs that were hits for himself and many others. But he didn't relish the spotlight, and such fame as he achieved slipped quietly away. Gradually, Leon settled back into semi-obscurity—maybe better called "semi-fame"—remembered mainly by old hippies and (no question) other musicians.
Not apocryphal: he actually did get his start playing piano in honky-tonks. The first guy to hire him was Jerry Lee Lewis. He wrote a song for Ray Charles that won a Grammy. He played on a Monkees album; he played on an Aretha Franklin album. He wrote a hit for Karen Carpenter. Eric Clapton, three Rolling Stones and two Beatles were guest performers on his first album. He played on "Strangers in the Night" and also "Monster Mash." Read one of the longer obituaries; it was quite an astonishing career, never quite at the center but never far from the center of a tumultuous era in American and international music.
I was trying to remember where I'd heard about Leon recently, and then I remembered it was because of one of the last musicians Leon collaborated with, Elton John—who has always been famous and has never been forgotten. Elton was one of those other musicians who never forgot Leon. He aided and abetted Leon getting inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years back. It was a nice thing Elton did for Leon—returned a long-ago favor and helped him get a little late-in-life appreciation. Leon was grateful.
R.I.P., Leon, and respects to Blue, Teddy Jack, Tina Rose, Sugaree, Honey, and Coco, and all of Leon Russell's family and friends.
Segue to Elton. Soon after Elton John got sober, for some reason he got lit up by a passion for photography. Since then, he's gone from knowing virtually nothing about photography to being one of the world's major collectors. Now there's to be a major show drawn from that collection at the Tate Modern in London.
Most of us don't live in London (I'm jealous if you do), but you can take a virtual tour of Elton's photography collection via YouTube:
I had a brief flirtation with Elton John's music when I was young due to a marvelous song called "Bennie and the Jets" that my little brother and I both liked (I still do). Then I sorta didn't like him for a long time because he was kinda poppy and I got turned off by his Liberace-style stage persona (never quite grokked the whole thing with all the wacky eyeglasses). But that was a very nice thing he did for Leon. And then—well, anybody who collects photography and actually hangs it so he can live with it? Our kinda guy.
I've come around. Elton's a good guy.
The show is called "The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection." See it if you can.
(Thanks to several readers)
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Doug Thacker: "I remember seeing an interview with Leon Russell where he talked about how he got his start, his first break. As a young man he was living somewhere in the deep south and working at a convenience store, when one day none other than Richard Penniman—AKA Little Richard—came into the store. I don't remember exactly what happened next, or if indeed he ever said—and a cursory search doesn't turn up the story—but I do remember Leon saying that it was Little Richard who told him how talented he was, and who encouraged him to pursue a career in music. In later years, of course, Leon penned and performed a musical tribute to Little Richard called 'Crystal Closet Queen.'
"I was living in Ohio during the height of Leon's popularity. He was huge, with an almost fanatical following. Many of these followers, at least in Ohio, were self-styled rednecks, proud of their southern roots when they had them, and pretending to have them when they didn't. In their eyes Leon Russell could do no wrong.
"But then, at the apex of his popularity, Leon Russell did something no one expected. He married Mary McCreary, a black woman, and released Wedding Album, featuring the two of them together on the cover. 'I always said if I ever met someone who was a better musician than me, I'd marry her, and that's what I did.'
"I recall hearing many of his suddenly former fans react with great hostility to this. Among these fans Leon Russell went from redneck golden boy to persona non grata, in one fell swoop. His new album got little airplay.
"In the year following Wedding Album, Leon released 'Leon and Mary Russell Make Love to the Music,' with an equally defiant album cover. By this time his career was really on a downer and it never recovered. He released a number of albums after this, but none of them did well and Leon Russell faded into obscurity—until rescued from it late in life by Elton John.
"In the America of the 1970s, such a public interracial union as Leon and Mary had was a brave and defiant thing, and a powerful political statement. There's no doubt he knew what it would mean for his career and he didn't care, he did it anyway. I've always admired Leon Russell for this, and don't think he gets enough credit for it. His convictions and defiance were as strong as his music."
Mike replies: I had kinda forgotten about that, although I knew Mary was black. Maybe we should all go see that new movie, "Loving," as a way to honor Leon's memory.
PhotoDes: "I went to high school with Leon Russell (Russell Bridges) along with David Gates (Bread) in Tulsa in the late '50s. They played together for student functions and dances on many occasions and recorded a couple of 45s, I think locally, on small labels—Perspective and Robbins. The Perspective hit was 'Pretty Baby' and David was the vocalist, though at the time he used the name Ronnie Franklin (with the Vibes). The other was 'Lovin' at Night' with David Gates and the Accents. Russell played piano for both. We all bought their records and cheered them on, but I was surprised when they both headed to the West Coast after graduation and frankly didn't expect to hear a lot from either of them. I think it was in the '70s when I was told that Leon Russell, who I never recognized on the album I had (wearing what you call 'short hair,' was Russell Bridges. At first I thought 'hometown boy made good,' but I discovered several of his songs on other singers' albums I owned and realized that would be short-changing him. He was a genuine and unique talent."
Mike replies: What a great comment! Thanks for letting us hear from you.