Music News

Leon Russell: The Legendary Sideman Is an Imposing Presence

It's safe to say that they don't make them like Leon Russell anymore. An authority no less than T-Bone Burnett said about Russell, in an April interview with The Onion A.V. Club, "I haven't been intimidated for a really long time, but Leon was scary-good. He understood Henry Mancini, he understood Little Richard, and he could travel very easily between those poles, those extremes. That was 40 years ago that I found Leon imposing. Now he's a kindly old gentleman. [Laughs.] At the time, he was a mirrored-sunglasses-wearing, super-bad motherfucker."

Given Burnett's work with legends like Robert Plant, Bob Dylan and, uh, John Cougar Mellencamp, the man knows a "super-bad motherfucker" when he sees one. In his '70s heyday, Russell undeniably fit the bill: With his massive beard, long hair and trademark sunglasses, Russell successfully parlayed a lucrative career as a sideman for a host of big names like The Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Joe Cocker (it was Russell who led the Mad Dogs and English Gentlemen band) and Elton John into a fruitful solo career. Carrying over the tricks he learned under Phil Spector's tutelage, his solo records showcased him blurring the lines between rock 'n' roll, funk, jazz, soul, and country and western styles, and his legendary live performances with his band The Shelter People earned him a rabid cult following.

Yet despite his storied history, Russell's solo catalog remains overshadowed by his session work. In a just world, Russell's name would be on the same list as Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, and The Kinks as a definitive influence on the retro-pop stylings of today's indie scene. Take his 1972 masterpiece "Carney," a classic example of his stoned, outrageous-showman style. Tracks like the hit "Tightrope" and "Out in the Woods" strut and stomp with abandon, betraying their influence on '70s pop revivalists like Dr. Dog, while more somber tracks like "My Cricket" and "This Masquerade" display Russell's subtle mastery of the ballad, putting him more in the class of early Tom Waits.

But while Waits has gotten stranger and craggier in his recent years, Russell has matured into the "kindly old gentleman" Burnett described. Adopting the persona of "Hank Wilson," he's tackled country music from a decidedly traditionalist point of view. In 2009, he released The Best of Hank Wilson, featuring an overview of his work under the pseudonym. Standards like "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "Oh Lonesome Me," and "Mystery Train" are given their proper reverence and, in turn, end up sounding far too country for modern country radio. Other tracks, like the blues- and gospel-tinged "I Believe to My Soul" hint at Russell's woollier past, and "Heartaches by the Number" exhibits a particular sense of humor.

Earlier this year, Russell and Burnett teamed with Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin for a new collaborative album, which also features performances from Neil Young, Booker T. Jones, and Waits guitarist Marc Ribot. Given Burnett's outstanding recent track record (his Crazy Heart soundtrack earned him an Oscar, and his production work on the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' collaboration, Rising Sand, helped the album win the Grammy for Best Album in 2009), chances are Russell's profile will be considerably raised by the album's forthcoming release. Russell's performance this week at the Rhythm Room might be the last chance anyone gets for a while to witness the man in such intimate surroundings. But then again, if Russell's career has demonstrated anything, it's that the man will be playing gigs and recording albums no matter what his famous associations have or haven't afforded him.