By Michael Devers

(LSM Oct/Nov 2010/vol 3 – issue 6)

I didn’t know what to expect when I climbed aboard the tour bus parked under the Gruene water tower to meet and interview Leon Russell. I knew a good deal about the man’s music, but I knew nothing about the man.

Meeting an artist of Russell’s caliber for the very first time can be a little awkward. By the time they’ve reached that level of success, many become very … what’s a good way to put it? Idiosyncratic. (One time, at a BMI Awards event, I was pulled aside before meeting Shania Twain and warned not to physically touch her in any way, not even a handshake, because “Ms. Twain doesn’t like that.”) Well, Russell immediately put me at ease, as any air of grandiosity was sucked out of the room with his first words to me.

“You want a burger?”

It’s a disarming offer, coming from an artist of this man’s stature. His accomplishments include playing in the Shindig! house band; being a session player for Phil Spector; owning Shelter Records; recording multiple Top 40 albums as an artist; scoring multiple Top 40 singles as a songwriter; and much more. He’s also respected and admired by some of the biggest names in music history, including Willie Nelson, George Harrison, and Elton John, who refers to Russell as “my idol.”

If all you know of Leon Russell is the 1972 hit, “Tight Rope,” you are only seeing a small sliver of the picture. It’s kind of like looking at a postcard of the Sistine Chapel and wondering, “Why all the fuss about this Michelangelo guy?” For all of his past success, Russell’s profile has been comparatively low key over the past decade or two; honored and respected by his peers and an influence on each new generation of Red Dirt/Texas artists, sure, but he’s fallen off the mainstream radar. That will all change on Oct. 19, though, when the pop world is reintroduced to him via The Union, a collaborative album that teams him with the aforementioned Elton John and features all new songs written, played and sung by the two legendary artists. The project drew a who’s who from the entertainment world, with T Bone Burnett producing, Brian Wilson and Neil Young (among others) turning in guest appearances, Annie Leibovitz shooting the cover and noted rock-journalist/filmmaker (Almost Famous) Cameron Crowe directing a “making of” documentary.

Russell and John originally met at the latter’s first U.S. show back in 1970 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Later that same year, John would open up for Russell at the famed Fillmore East. But it wasn’t until John reconnected with Russell’s catalog while on safari in Africa last summer that he came up with the idea of recording an album with his hero. Better late than never.

Apparently, your albums are good music for an African safari.

I was in bed watching TV, and he [Elton John] was riding around on an elephant.

Do you remember what took you down to the Troubadour the night of Elton’s first U.S. show?

He did. I went down to seem him play. A few weeks before that we had tried to get him for Shelter. We were about a week late. He already had a record deal, but I wanted to see him anyway. I’d heard his tapes and thought they were interesting.

I’ve read you were an influence on him.

That’s what he says. It’s very flattering. I don’t really hear it, but that’s what he says.

Between your schedule, Elton’s schedule and T Bone’s schedule, how did you manage to get an album recorded?

I know Elton played 10 to 12 dates around the world — literally around the world — while we were doing that album. He’d be gone for a day or two and then he’d come back. I think he played South Africa and Brussels, Seattle and Salt Lake — I can’t think of all the different places. T Bone’s schedule was quite hectic as well, so it was tricky.

So many talented people worked on this record. For example, it must be great to have Annie Liebovitz shoot your promo pics and Cameron Crowe put your EPK together.

Elton is sort of a collector. In art he knows where the bodies are buried. I think he’s responsible for that. I know he called T Bone, probably Annie Liebovitz as well. He’s a serious collector.

Speaking of T Bone, he has a Midas touch right now. How was it working with him on the album?

It was great. He endeavors to make everyone feel comfortable, and is quite successful at it. It’s more like a casual party. I don’t know how he does it, really, but it was amazing.

You’ve recorded and produced an album or two in your day as well.

On this one I tried to just not say anything. When I was leaving after we finished, I called T Bone over to the car and said, “I want to apologize for giving you so much shit.” He said, “Wait, you didn’t give me any shit,” and I told him, “Well, not as much as I could have!” He’s a very gracious and talented guy. It was a privilege to play.

You’re on a tour right now hitting some of your familiar ground. You come to Gruene Hall fairly regularly. 

I discovered this place when I had an idea about doing the secondary markets of Texas. I said, “It’s as big as a country down here, so there’s got to be a lot of secondary markets.” Turned out to be 32, and Gruene Hall was one of them. It was quite successful. The other 31 were less than successful.

What are the tour plans in store to support The Union

I’m not the one to ask about that. I really don’t know what they’re going to do. I know there’s a couple of shows that are planned — maybe the Beacon Theatre in New York and the Palladium in Los Angeles. Those shows will have the studio band playing.

The new album won’t be your first duets record. How did these sessions compare to the making of the One For the Road album with Willie Nelson?

[Laughs for a good long time.] I’ve never done a record like this before. For One For the Road [1979], I had just taken my video studio literally out of the box. I had seven cameras and each camera had its own tape machine. I had carpenters operating the cameras. That was kind of wild and there was this … you know, I probably shouldn’t tell that story, but the point is, it was chaos. Willie wanted me to come up and play with him in Vegas two weeks later and I spent the entire two weeks, about 16 hours a day, trying to repair the background noise. We were taking one take and moving right along, so quite a bit of stuff had leaked in.

T Bone, on the other hand, has a crew. I’d made some comments, like, “This right here needs to be fixed,” and they said, “OK, don’t worry about that,” and they apparently fixed it all. Next time I heard it, the problem was gone.

So he had some efficient carpenters?

He sure did.

Going back to your days as an ace session player, what was your most memorable recording session, strictly as a studio guy?

There’s a few of them. I did an album with Aretha Franklin at Columbia when she was sort of “settling in” as a recording artist. I remember she recorded “Am I Blue” and the string section tapped their music stands with their bows at the end of the session when we recorded that song. I’d never seen those guys react to anything, so that was pretty impressive.

I played a Johnny Mathis session or two, and that was great. Also played one with Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, who wrote “Sweet Caroline” — I played on that record and Don Costa produced it. Don always used to call me, a lot of those writers, especially in New York, would call me when they had classical piano they wanted to play, but they didn’t want to write it. They’d call me and I would fake it. Those classical piano parts are too difficult to write.

What else stands out from your session days?

They’d give me a chord sheet and we’d play the track three or four times with the rhythm section. Maybe five or six times before we ever heard anybody sing the song. And all the time I was playing this, I was writing melodies for those chord changes. Then I’d hear the song and sometimes I’d be disappointed. I’d think, “Well, that’s not worth a shit.” Sometimes they were better, but a lot of times they were awful. So I guess I got a lot of practice by doing that.

It sounds like you were writing even when you theoretically weren’t writing.

I wasn’t taking pen to paper or anything, but I was going through the process in my mind.

In watching the Concert for Bangladesh again recently, my favorite part of the show is seeing you and Billy Preston onstage together. I see so many similarities between the two of you. Did your paths cross much?

Not really. He came over to my house one night with the Gap Band. And I think I did a recording session with him where I was playing guitar and he was playing organ. Those are the only other times I remember us coming together.

It’s a shame. Could have been another great duets record.

I thought about that actually at one point. I was out with Edgar Winter for a couple of years. Then I started and thought about Billy Preston. Thought that would be an interesting duets deal. He died much too young.

It looks like this could be your year for getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Isn’t that something? How can a person such as myself get in that place? I think they must have thought I was in jail or something.

If it happens, is that something you’re looking forward to?

I don’t like those kind of things. I asked Johnny, “if you guys get me in the Hall of Fame, who’s going to go up there and collect the award?” He said, “You have to go!” I don’t like to go to those things. A friend of mine, Steve Ripley, went to collect my award at the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. I thought that was really great of him. I don’t know … I can walk up there and say, “thank you,” and that’s about it. [Laughs]

Does Ripley still own your old studio?

He owned it, but he doesn’t any more. I mean, he doesn’t own that particular one. He owns one of my later ones. I was remodeling my house in Forest Hills, and the building department there is a little unseemly and I got crossways with them and tore the house down and moved to somewhere else. In doing that I ended up giving Steve a lot of my studio from out of that house. He’s set that up somewhere now.

Hey, isn’t there a band called the Red Dirt Rangers?

Yes, absolutely.

That’s great. I was involved in all of that stuff and I didn’t even know the name they’d hung on it.

You helped start something.

I’ve helped start a few things. Thankfully, not a lot of them were publicized!

It was fascinating to be in Oklahoma basically all of my life, and all I saw was red dirt. I went some place else and saw black dirt and said, “What’s wrong with this dirt? It’s black.”

I think you were also an influence on a lot of younger Red Dirt and Texas artists by having started your own label. You were going the do-it-yourself route really early.

I couldn’t get my album on anybody else’s label, so I decided to try and do that. I met Denny Cordell, who is an Englishman, and he had a label over in London. He’d made Joe Cocker records over there, and “Whiter Shade of Pale,” and he’d managed Chet Baker. He’d had quite a lot of hits — I can’t remember all of them — and he’d come over to A&M to get them to distribute in the United States. I was over there playing on a Joe Cocker record and I thought, “Well, I’ll try to submit him some songs,” so after the session I played him these three songs. He said he was struck down because I was so quiet when I played on the sessions, and then when I played him my songs, I turned into a shape-shifter of some kind. But that’s kind of my style …

I was playing on a George Jones duet record that Brian Ahern was producing. The thing about it is, when people call me to play, I go in and play and keep my mouth shut. If I’m meant to run the session, then I’ll run the session. We’d been cutting the record with high-profile young stars that George was singing with. I found out later that George thought my feelings were hurt because they hadn’t invited me to sing a duet with him. When he’d come to my Hank Wilson session, I was cutting “Window Up Above.” I was running it — you know, “You play this and you play this and you play this.” He was fascinated by it and then he saw me at the Bradley Barn session and I didn’t do anything but sit there and play so he thought my feelings were hurt. He insisted that I sing “The Window Up Above” with him, which didn’t make it on that album. I think it came out on another album [2008’s Burn Your Playhouse Down]. George is a true treasure.

So it’s a different approach for you between Leon Russell the session player, Leon Russell the artist, and Leon Russell the producer?

It’s just simple schizophrenia, not really anything more than that.

The combination of your songs and the Carpenters was a very successful partnership. Do you remember how they discovered the first one they cut?

By the time I got around to meeting them they’d already cut five or six of mine. I really don’t know how they found ’em. The way my songs got recorded was I’d record them on my records and people would take ’em off there.

This was 25 years ago and I keep meaning to find out what the number is now, but “Song For You” had been cut 125 times. None of them were particularly hits. This was before Ray Charles cut it. Someday I’ve got to find that out. [Ed. Note: It’s difficult to get an exact number as many recordings have R&B legend Donny Hathaway incorrectly listed as the composer. Though Hathaway never released it as a single, the song is closely associated with him and it’s now considered one of his most influential vocal performances. The current number of times “A Song
For You” has been recorded appears to be well over 400.]

“This Masquerade” had been cut about 45 times. None of them were hits.

Was that before George Benson cut it?

Yes, before George Benson. Of course, when he cut it, everybody cut it. That was a period of time when I was trying to write standards. As a matter of fact, right now I’m trying to write an album for Michael Buble. He doesn’t know it and he didn’t invite me to do it, I’m just taking it on as an exercise. He’s kind of the premiere standards artist of the day.

I wanted to mention, when you hear “This Masquerade,” the melody is one of those timeless, classic melodies.

Bless your heart. Thank you. Melodies are easy for me. I have this one friend — he’s a jazz player — and I was trying to get him to write some songs. He said, “Aww, I can’t write any songs.” I said, “the thing you don’t understand is you write 125 songs a night, but you don’t ever record them, you don’t ever listen to them, you don’t even know what you played.” He was playing jazz melodies. The trick is chronicling them and realizing what’s a good melody and what’s bullshit. That’s what I don’t like about jazz, generally — you’ve got to listen to all of the bullshit along with the melodies. I started writing with him and we probably wrote 70 great songs. The first song I wrote with him was incredible. He’s another guy who finds melodies so easy that he throws them away, doesn’t really pay attention to them. It’s astonishing. It’s like automatic writing for people who melodies come easy for.

I wrote a poem one time called “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Glyn Johns said, “We’re doing this record and they want to use ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ as a song. Can you write a melody for it?” So I said “OK,” and I went in and wrote three melodies for it and told him to take the one he wanted. The one that’s on the record is the one he liked the best. Melodies for me require no thought whatsoever. Lyrics, on the other hand, they’re hard for me. Always been hard. It got so hard I started researching and reading books like, How to Write Songs.

When it comes to standards, who are some of the lyricists you admire and respect?

Harold Arlen. He’s good. There’s so many good ones and a lot of those guys don’t necessarily get famous, but they’ve got huge songs. That’s why I wanted to write this album for Michael Buble. If I could get him to record an album of my songs, there’s be thousands of people to cut those songs. The thing about standards is they sound like kind of average tunes until they’re there 35 years later and a whole bunch of people have cut ’em and you say, “Oh, that’s a standard.”

Johnny Mercer is great. Mancini was great. [Ed. note – Henry Mancini teamed up with Mercer as his lyricist for his biggest non-instrumental hits.] I got to meet Mancini down in Jamaica and I told him I couldn’t read music well enough to play on his records. He said, “Well I can’t read worth a shit, either.” But he wrote an orchestration book which was my bible. I never wrote an orchestration without that book laying open. It came out and it had about 12 little records in it. All these string runs which I copied assiduously and without shame. It had the instrument ranges, the transpositions, all of the nuts and bolts about arranging.

I’d started playing clubs when I was in eighth or ninth grade, so I was having trouble at school and I started taking all of the courses that were easy. They had one called music and theory. She was teaching us how to recognize notes by hearing them. She’d give you the key of the tune, then she’d hit another note and by the interval you should be able to tell what it is even if you don’t have perfect pitch. I’d been doing that all my life, but I didn’t know the names for the stuff so she’d hit two notes and I’d say, “That’s a G and an A.” She’d say, “No, no, no. You’re not supposed to know the names of the notes, just the interval.” I asked her why I was supposed to act like I don’t know what it is. What good is that gonna do? She pulled me aside and said, “Look, I’ll give you an A in the course, just don’t say anything.”

You started when you were 14, so you’ve been at this half a century now, correct?

Our Red Dirt state was a dry state at that time, which doesn’t mean there wasn’t any liquor, it means there wasn’t any liquor laws. My bootlegger brought my bottle of whiskey to the door every day when I was 14. I’d go out and play and I’d get 10 dollars and all you could drink. I played in Oklahoma until I was about 17, then I went to California and they had this ridiculous no minors rule in the clubs so I couldn’t play and about starved to death and got pneumonia. I had an operation recently and they filled my lungs and said it looked like one of my lungs was dead. It was from when I got pneumonia 50 years ago and they wouldn’t treat me in California because I was a minor.

So you’ve been singing with one lung for 50 years?

It may not be that bad. Or it might be, I don’t know.

Do you remember how old you were when you first started playing?

I was 3. Or 4. We got a piano and I started taking lessons right when I turned 4. It was fascinating for me at that age to hit two notes and see how they related to each other. But we had the misfortune of having a piano tuner who thought he’d help me out. It was an old upright piano so he thought he’d tune it a step low to keep the strings from coming out of tune, which has put my pitch off plus or minus one step. At least until I get in gear and realize where I am. That’s not the kind of thing you want to do to kids.