Thursday, November 17, 2016


Very sad this week to hear of the passing of the one and only Leon Russell, whose soulful, gospel-tinged boogie-woogie, rocking' piano provided much of the soundtrack for my misspent youth. He was an accomplished guitarist too, but I loved his piano best!

I saw him live at the Anaheim Convention Center ca 1970: Elton John was his opening act. They played separate sets, but their pianos were butt-to-butt onstage. It was a great night!

Saw him again at UCLA, with his own band. Guest star was former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner (who was experiencing a tiny window of celebrity at that moment because of a documentary about him).

Marjoe thought he knew a thing or two about revving up a crowd with his strutting, frenzied onstage antics. But all Leon had to do was lift one pinky and cast a glance: his band started cooking, and the crowd went nuts!

He was featured in two of the greatest rock events of the '70s (spawning two of the greatest rockumentaries, ever): Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of the States (1970) (movie: 1971), and George Harrison's all-star Concert For Bangladesh (1971) (movie: 1972).

Leon was the musical director and onstage bandleader of the Cocker tour, assembling a knockout collective of studio and session musicians.

He also recruited some amazing vocalists (Rita Coolidge, Claudia Linnear, Jennifer Warnes, among others), not as mere "backup singers," but dubbed The Space Choir, whose contributions were heavenly indeed!

Seeing the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour movie in 1971, I decided joining his choir would be my Plan B career option. So what if I couldn't sing? With all those people crowding the stage, who would ever know?

Here's the entire company rocking out to "Space Captain." (Split screen; very Seventies.) Keep an eye on Leon in the side panels, to appreciate his keyboard riffs, and see just how surely he's in control of the band!

For the Concert For Bangladesh, Leon brought the core of his own touring band to play onstage with Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, and members of the group Badfinger.

Here's one of my favorite bits, Leon's medley of the Stone's "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and the Lieber-Stoller chestnut "Youngblood."

(It's kind of a buggy video; a random icon pops up onscreen now and then, and there's a commercial(!) in the middle of the clip. Still, you can see how cool these folks are in concert!)

Both of the soundtrack albums to these movies were at the top of my stereo default list for years!
Did I mention Leon Russell was also a songwriter? "Delta Lady," "Superstar," "Roll Away the Stone," and "A Song For You" are just the first ones that come to mind.

When my brothers and I were cleaning out my mom's house a few years ago, I found this stashed away somewhere. It's a full-page pic of Leon, ripped out of Rolling Stone magazine, in his trademark top hat, and cascading hair (already going silver in his late 20s). I'd taped it o a piece of cardboard, and had it posted in my room forever!

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, killer piano-player, and Master of Space and Time: rock on, Leon!

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