Leon Russell took off his ever-present sunglasses the other night at a very small show in a barn in the woods of Maine and he looked right at me. I felt like something close to God stared directly into my soul. Very few musicians are as important to me personally as well as to popular twentieth music in general. His ideas and style have influenced everybody from George Harrison to Elton John and, at the golden age of 71, he can still melt your face playing piano. His name is Leon Russell and he is the Master of Space and time.
Leon is a piano player from Oklahoma who first captured my attention on a hazy day in the summer in about 2006. I haven’t mentioned him much before, using one of his Bob Dylan covers for a piece a few weeks back. My hippie neighbor Fred, who is about eight feet tall and the subject of an upcoming entry of his own, picked me up in his rusty old Subaru outback with a 12 pack of Miller High life and a bunch of cds he had found in an old trunk. I got in the car under the context of going to move some wood from one side of his driveway to the other but ending up driving very slowly in a large field nearby, drinking most of the beer, and listening to tunes. I learned a lot about Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake and Palmer that day, but I want to focus on the major find which was Leon Russell. It was this song that sucked me in.
It didn’t hurt that we were having a few beers and driving in the woods, but this song bowled me over. I must have listened to it twenty times that afternoon/evening, amongst many of Leon’ s solo songs on a retrospective disc Fred dug up somewhere. I then got the Fred version of the legend of Leon Russell.
The guy is basically a jack of all musical trades, from songwriter to producer to musician to singer and so on. He started playing music as a kid in Tulsa and at some point, moved to Los Angeles and eventually became part of the group known as “The Wrecking Crew”. These “fuckin bad asses” were supposed to be the best studio musicians in town and played on hits from the Beach Boys to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band. Eventually, Leon started writing songs with some pretty good success, such as the following.
Everybody from Christina Aguilara to Ray Charles has covered this song and it’s also where he gets the name “The Master of Space and Time” . The excellent lyric states “I love you in place where there is no space or time” and this is around the same time Leon got perhaps his best known gig, as band leader for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour backing Joe Cocker. According to the liner notes of that best of disc, this tour was nuts and everybody was on drugs, but watch the video beneath. Leon looks like he is in his prime, the rest of the band is killing it, and Joe Cocker is his typical arm flailing awesomeness. More on that top hat shortly,
As things go, Leon got pretty big on his own right and split from Joe Cocker to start making his own records. His first had the track “A Song for You” which would go on to be a huge hit for so many along with one of my personal favorites, “Shootout on the Plantation”. Take the time to google this self titled first album and you will be amazed at the line up of players, with Cocker, a few Rolling Stones, and even two Beatles in attendance on the sessions. This guy clearly had come clout back in the day and from this performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, he also had the chops to keep all these famous folks around. Just look at the guy, Fred is right when he says he’s a bad ass.
Unfortunately, his own records never sold like the ones he wrote and played on so sometime in the mid 1980’s, he kind of went obscure. He played gigs to pay the bills and it got pretty destitute to the point where his tour van was almost not functioning. I got all of this post 197o’s info from a great movie called The Union which tells the story of the making of the album with the same name by Leon and Elton John. If your watch these live videos that I have included, you can see the gigantic influence and Elton does acknowledge it a lot. He does say some things that I think make Leon look a little bad, but all in all it is an immensely powerful movie about a musician who is absolutely amazing. Here’s a great track which Leon wrote for Elton.
So why do I like Leon Russell so much? There is nobody like him, from his style of playing piano to his lyrics to his distinct singing voice. While he can play in any genre, it’s almost like anything he plays on just becomes it’s own Leon genre. Although I have heard many of his studio parts, as I am sure you have if you ever listened to Oldie’s radio, I prefer his solo work. Nobody does all the work he does on a track anymore either, like “Out in the Woods” where Leon did everything except play bass. He has a distinctive style that has already stood the test of time.
I think his music also represents a certain time in my life, the college years they’d be called if I were to write a memoir. I listened to his music hard when I lived with my ex-girlfriend in a tiny apartment, one time buying a bunch of his records instead of saving money to cover rent. I never once introduced him to somebody who didn’t become a fan and one friend texted me the night after I saw him at like the crack of dawn. In short, it reminds me of a certain time that I really enjoyed but will never return to. The ex, who once told me listening to Leon Russell made her like me more, is long gone but I hope that she can still enjoy the music. That was the biggest thing we had together and although we ended badly, I look back on most of my time with her fondly. Here’s a good jam.
When I got the chance to see him the other night, still incredibly impressive at age 70, I obviously was thinking of my history of being a Leon fan and how quick things change. Watch that movie with Elton, the same goes for Leon, barely getting by one day and getting Grammys the next. I am very lucky for the show I saw as it was basically in a barn in Maine and I was probably twenty feet from one of my most revered musical idols. Check out the venue, it’s very cool. I also go to attend the show with two old friends whom I introduced Leon to years ago. In fact, the tickets were a wedding present to one of my friends whose wedding I was actually the best man for, so that was a cool experience in itself.
He played every song I’d want to hear except “Shootout on the Plantation” and had an amazing young band backing him. He is moving pretty slow and he has a laptop to remember lyrics, but don’t let this take anything away from him. He is amazing and I would pay a hundred bucks to see him again, Leon Russell is the Master of Space and Time and if you have a chance, discover it yourself.