Nearly every month in 2016, we said goodbye to someone from the creative community who changed the way we think about music in a major way. Sadly, this month was no different. Within the span of a week, as we prepared this issue for press, the world lost three more influential artists: Leonard Cohen (November 7), Leon Russell (November 13), and Mose Allison (November 15, just a few days after he turned 89).
Thinking about them together, it’s impossible not to notice that, in addition to having deep catalogs of music, each of these men had an unmistakable voice. When any of them opened his mouth to sing, his vocal instrument was as immediately recognizable as the trumpet of Miles Davis or the sax of Ornette Coleman.
In fact, I would argue that it was largely because of their unique singing styles that each of them gained enough attention for his own work that important doors opened, which ultimately helped all of them create such influential bodies of work.
In addition to songwriting, Cohen was a poet and novelist, leading to an array of awards for his outstanding level of artistry; from the Prince of Asturias Award in literature from Spain, to the Glenn Gould Prize and Companion of the Order of Canada, as well as a hat trick of HOF inductions: the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. From his long list of songs, “Hallelujah” became the tribute heard throughout the world (made even more poignant in a post-election rendition sung by actress Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live).
Mose Allison’s sparse, blues-inflected vocals set against his transparent and jazzy playing gave his songs a fragility that was inviting and hard to resist. Yet it was The Who’s live version of “Young Man Blues” that first introduced me to Allison’s songwriting. Researching the source of the song, as a young man myself, I couldn’t believe how gentle and unassuming Allison’s performance was on the original recording compared to the energetic rendition I heard on Live at Leeds. In the days before Web searches and file sharing, when music fans spent hours rereading an album’s liner notes in order to follow the trajectory of songs and musicians, Allison was an important gateway to a deeper understanding of pop music’s history.
In his 2011 interview with Keyboard for the release of The Way of the World, following a 12-year sabbatical from recording, Jon Regen asked Allison if it was gratifying to be known as a true original. “Well, that was part of my original plan,” the songwriter replied. “That’s what I always thought that every musician should do.”
Leon Russell was another true original. Yet unlike the other two men, his influence reached across the entire music industry; from his days as a session player in the Wrecking Crew through his work as a songwriter, music director, producer, and collaborator for some of the biggest names in show business—Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr…just for starters! Russell even covered the Mose Allison song, “I’m Smashed” on his album Stop All That Jazz.
A few months ago, I was having lunch with Roger Linn, and our conversation turned to Leon Russell. Beginning at age 19, Roger had worked as an engineer and guitarist with Leon, and he told me a number of stories about their shared interest in using music technology to enhance the creative process. “In fact, it was Leon who stirred my interest in the idea of a programmable drum machine, which resulted in the creation of the LM-1 Drum Computer,” notes Linn in a tribute to Russell on his website. “And it was Leon who taught me the value of degrees of swing timing that later resulted in my creation of the LM-1’s swing feature.
“And though my guitar skills were not the equal of the great guitarists he normally worked with, he kindly gave me the privilege of playing guitar with him on his tours. In retrospect, I look back at those years as my attendance at the University of Leon Russell, an education I will always value.”