“Well, I don’t know. Show business terms can be misleading,” ponders Leon Russell in his inimitable Southwestern drawl, when asked if The Union, his duet album with Sir Elton John, is a “comeback.”
“I’ve been playing live shows for 45 years,” he explains. “I stopped for a couple of years in the late ’70s because it was driving me crazy, but other than that, I’ve worked all the time. It’s just that when you’ve been in the underbrush for so long that not that many people have been coming out to see you, I guess you could call it that.”
Indeed. The Union, Russell’s first major label release in almost two decades, has been a spectacular success. It was voted the third best album of 2010 by Rolling Stone magazine, and the single “If It Wasn’t for Bad” is up for a Grammy for Best Collaboration With a Vocal. The Union was helmed by super-producer T-Bone Burnett at the request of Sir Elton himself, who wanted to work with Russell, the man he refers to as his idol. For over 50 years, Leon Russell has been one of rock’s true renaissance men. Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on April 2, 1942, he began taking piano lessons at age four. In spite of a birth injury that rendered his right hand weaker than his left, he began a remarkable career at a very young age, playing in bars at age 14 with friend J. J. Cale before going on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis two years later.
At 19, Russell was already a topcall studio musician whose work would encompass sessions for Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Waylon Jennings, and Aretha Franklin.
In 1969, Russell struck out on his own. He co-founded Shelter Records (which would become home to Tom Petty and Freddie King), led Joe Cocker’s band on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and appeared at the Concerts for Bangladesh with George Harrison and Bob Dylan. A peerless arranger, he wrote the horn charts for the Rolling Stones’ “Live with Me” and played its pounding piano part. He composed such standards as “Delta Lady,” “A Song for You,” “Superstar,” and “This Masquerade,” a Grammy-winning Record of the Year for George Benson. On March 14 of this year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will induct him under their new Musical Excellence category.
Last year, Russell underwent emergency surgery to correct a spinal fluid leak, and though he now gets around with the aid of a cane, that hasn’t slowed him down in the least from re-energizing his lifelong fans, gaining many new ones, and showing the whole world why his signature nickname, “the Master of Space and Time,” describes him to a tee.
How did you and Elton get together for The Union?
Elton was in South Africa on safari, which he apparently does every year, with his partner David Furnish. He’d talked about me on Elvis Costello’s [British TV] show, but David hadn’t heard of me. Elton went out and bought all of my albums and put them on an iPod. Elton was sitting out there one night and became very emotional. David asked him, “What’s wrong?” Elton told him, “These songs remind me of one of the greatest periods in my life, and this guy has been such a huge influence on me.” He said, “There are so many people on my iPod, like, 65 or 70, who have had hits, but this guy has had more influence on me than all 70 combined.” So, I was of course very flattered to hear this.
The new recording sessions began very soon after your surgery. Were you apprehensive about performing at your best?
I was. I waited about two weeks after the operation, and was still feeling a little weak when I showed up that first day. Elton already had written five new songs. I have to say this: One of the great things about working with Elton is that he is absolutely savant when it comes to melodic songwriting. I write the first verse of a song, and forget it before I get to the second one. So, I have to record while I’m writing to be able to complete the song, but Elton has such a huge amount of output, and doesn’t forget any of it.
The song that closes the album, “In the Hands of Angels,” is wonderful. What inspired it?
I just wanted to give Elton something back for all that he’s given to me, not to mention the immense amounts of money he spent on making the album. So I said to myself, “What do you give a guy that’s got six fully staffed houses, plus about ten or 15 of everything else in world?” I thought, the only thing I could possibly give him is a song. So, one night when the words were coming out, I ran to my computer and decided, “This is the song.” I wrote the whole song that night.
Were there times in the studio when the two of you were facing each other, playing your respective pianos?
Yeah, at different times. The way the project started out, I was in one room on one piano, and Elton was in another. At other times we were playing side by side.
Elton John said that although you began the project on a digital piano, as you regained strength after the operation, you switched to an acoustic.
That really wasn’t the main reason. I started out playing this odd-shaped, blond Yamaha digital piano with a lid that props up. [The model was the Modus H01. —Ed.] I played this for a little while, then one day I started playing Elton’s big grand, which is a Yamaha DC7, and I began to realize that I’ve been playing electronic pianos for so long, that I had forgotten I had a whole vocabulary on real grand pianos that I’d been neglecting.
What was the first song on which the two of you collaborated?
The first song we sat down and played together turned into “A Dream Come True.” Then we did one called “There’s No Tomorrow,” which borrowed a piece from a song by the Mighty Hannibal, a relatively obscure American ’60s soul singer, called “Hymn No. 5.” It’s a song about the (Vietnam) war, and we just used its original chorus. Elton approached me to write some new lyrics for it. It only took me about ten minutes to do them, and I wrote some very, very dark ones.
The songs “If It Wasn’t for Bad” and “Hearts Have Turned to Stone” have that early ’70s Leon Russell vibe. Were you consciously trying to recreate that sound?
You give me way too much credit for knowing what I’m doing! [Laughs.] I wasn’t thinking of that at all. Johnny [Barbis, the album’s co-executive producer] told me, “Leon, we’ve got too many ballads on the album. We need you to write some rock ’n’ roll songs.” Now, with “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” I could hear the piano part in my head, but I couldn’t execute it. I had to sit down with my engineer at a computer, write down all three parts, and then just play everything one note at a time. For “Hearts Have Turned to Stone,” I used this little program called MasterWriter that’s been a great help to me when I’m writing lyrics. [MasterWriter is the brainchild of composer Barry DeVorzon, whose “Nadia’s Theme” became the indelible opening theme for the long-running CBS soap The Young and the Restless. —Ed.]
You seem to have embraced some of the newer technologies that weren’t around for most of your recording career.
I don’t like using anything that’s too old-fashioned. As far as I’m concerned, today’s studio technology is like microscopic brain surgery compared to operating with a hatchet and a bonfire. When I first started recording, everything was recorded to metal wire, so now, to be able to use something like Auto-Tune is a lifesaver for me. Edgar Winter told me that three out of every five notes I sing now are out of tune! [Laughs.] So, it’s a big help to me to have my voice fixed up like that. I’m very grateful I lived to see it.
When you were very young, who were some of the first pianists to make an impression on you?
The first one was probably Erroll Garner. Of course, Jerry Lee Lewis, and also Huey “Piano” Smith. The first time J. J. Cale heard me play, he said, “You play a lot like Ray Charles.” At that time, I hadn’t heard of Ray Charles yet, so I went out and bought some of his records, and liked them.
What was your goal when you first went to California in the ’50s? Did you have rock star aspirations?
When I first arrived there, it was to get into advertising. I wanted to be like Stan Freberg, who did all those advertising spoofs: “Nine out of ten doctors prefer Chung King brand food . . . but they’re all Chinese doctors.” I thought that was hilarious. Then, when I was actually exposed to the advertising world and I saw what a bloody business it was, I lost all interest in it, and decided instead to pursue being a studio musician. I didn’t think I was talented enough to ever become a big star.
As part of Phil Spector’s famous “Wrecking Crew” with musicians like Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Carol Kaye, and Glen Campbell, what was your first impression of Spector?
The first day I showed up to play, he came in, made a cross with both hands—kind of like warding off a vampire—and told the musicians, “Play dumb! Play dumb!” There never seemed to be any limit to his disregard for his audience. He didn’t think they had much going, and felt he had to make the music real dumb to reach them.
When you started doing studio work, what qualities did you admire in other pianists that you tried to emulate?
It’s hard to say. I mean there are a lot of pianists in all different kinds of music that play things I can’t play. I had surgery for an upper vertebrae injury when I was very young, and was paralyzed for a while on my right side—which also left it slightly smaller than my left. It might have inadvertently created a unique sense in my playing, though. I took lessons for ten years, but I finally got very depressed and disgusted and quit, because I saw people who had been playing for a much shorter time that could play all that classical stuff that I just didn’t have the hand coordination for.
Did you worry that would prevent you from getting studio work?
No. What if forced me to do, though, was to learn how to invent things to play that sounded classical. When I first got into doing session work in California, a lot of the producers wanted that kind of classical piano playing, but didn’t want to have to write it out. So they called me instead. I worked with Johnny Mathis, Sam Cooke, and great people like [producer /arranger] Don Costa. He’d write me a simple chord chart with maybe a little melody in there and say, “Play classical here!” I really appreciated the way he did it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten the work.
When you made the transition in 1969 from behind-the-scenes studio musician to recording your debut album as a singer-songwriter, how did you entice such stars as Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bill Wyman, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton to be on it?
Glyn Johns [engineer for the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and others— Ed.] was responsible for that. He was engineering for me over at Olympic Studios in England. I had this song that I liked, and I played it for him. I said as a joke, “Boy, Eric Clapton would sure sound good on this.” He just said, very matter-of-factly, “Well, let me call him up and ask him.” Before I knew it, Eric and the rest of them ended up playing on my album.
How did Joe Cocker come across “Delta Lady,” which was your breakthrough song?
Well, Denny Cordell, who was my partner at the time, brought me to the attention of someone at A&M Records for my work on a song called “The Ghetto” on Delaney and Bonnie’s album Accept No Substitute. He called me to play on Cocker’s album, and while I was in the studio with him, I figured that as long as I’m here I might as well pitch some tunes. So, that’s how he got to record “Delta Lady,” and also another one called “Hello Little Friend.”
What was it like being Cocker’s musical director on the famous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour—which also became a famous rock movie?
Denny had come over to my house with Joe, who had a bunch of shows scheduled but no band. So, I called up some friends of mine, and we started rehearsals at this old Charlie Chaplin soundstage on La Brea and Sunset Boulevards in Los Angeles that Herb Alpert had bought. By the end of the fourth day, 20 to 30 people a day were showing up wanting to be in the band. So, we started out with about 45 people, filled up one of those old Constellation International airplanes, and then on every show, just basically let everyone play whatever they wanted to. Big bands are sometimes easier to manage than small ones.
You’ve done studio work for so many great artists. What was working with George Harrison like?
George liked to do an incredible amount of takes. On one of the songs we were doing, he had gotten up to 180 takes. I said, “George, do you want me to play 180 different things, or should I play the same thing 180 times?” I’ve always been ready to do my parts when called on.
Now, Bob Dylan is known for having little patience for multiple takes.
That’s true. When we were listening to the playback for “George Jackson” I said, “Bob, that last take had a little clamor in it. Do you want to do it again?” He said, “Nah, because if we do that, it’ll just have another mistake in it. So, I’m just gonna take that last one.” [Laughs.]
What special memories do you have of Dylan’s Bangladesh concerts?
The thing I remember most was sitting in one of the dressing rooms between the two shows with Bob Dylan. Bob was just great about showing me everything I wanted to know about the music business, and about writing songs. He’s simply a great teacher. I kept asking him all kinds of stuff, but he was incredibly patient, and probably sang 20 or 25 songs for me at a very quick pace. I’d shout out, say, “Baby Blue,” and he’d sit there and play it. He’s got a sharp memory just like Elton’s.
Out of your huge catalog of songs, which one remains your personal favorite?
I guess the song I’m most proud of would have to be “A Song for You.” I mean, 25 years ago, it had already been cut by 129 different people, and that was before Ray Charles did it, or anyone had a hit with it.
“A Song for You” and Elton’s “Your Song” came out around the same time, and are similar thematically. Do you think Elton was inspired by it?
I don’t know about that particular song, but I do know that Elton has given me credit for a whole bunch of stuff that I feel guilty accepting.
After this incredible year, what do you plan to do for an encore?
At the moment, I’m writing an album’s worth of songs for Michael Bublé. He didn’t ask me to it. In fact, he doesn’t know anything about it. Michael’s one of the best standard singers of our era, and I want to write him some new material in that style. Also, the president of Decca is begging me to make a new record. I’d love to do a hillbilly album. I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not.
Out of your entire, distinguished career, what are you most proud of?
I guess that I’m still alive, and that I’ve never sold anybody a bad car!
Watch: Leon Russell and Elton John: The Union Documentary