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Leon Russell, the musician's musician: New book takes an in-depth look at his life and career

Leon Russell performs during his joint concert with Elton John at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
Leon Russell performs during his joint concert with Elton John at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

Leon Russell is responsible for much of the best music of the 1960s and ‘70s. From his work with the Wrecking Crew — a band of notable Los Angeles musicians who played some of the biggest hits of the time — to being the musical force behind Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, Russell was entrenched in the popular music scene for decades.

Watch on YouTube.

Watch on YouTube.

Watch on YouTube.

He also co-founded Shelter Records, which not only put out Russell’s own music, but discovered artists like Tom Petty and Phoebe Snow.

Russell had all but faded into obscurity until Elton John brought him back into the spotlight and into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Russell died in 2016 at the age of 74. He would have turned 81 this weekend.

Musician Bill Janovitz released a new biography titled “Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock and Roll History,” which examines the influential musician’s life and career.

The cover of Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock and Roll History” (Courtesy of Hachette Books)

Book excerpt: ‘Leon Russell’

By Bill Janovitz

Sir Elton John inducted his most important influence, Leon Russell, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. “He was my idol,” Elton said before bringing Leon up to the podium to give his acceptance speech. The once-lithe super-hippie rock star ambled to the stage with the help of a cane—heavyset, dark sunglasses contrasting with his pale face, all framed by his long snowy white hair and beard, looking even older than his sixty-nine years.

“About a year ago, Elton came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life,” Leon said, haltingly, humbly, his voice breaking with emotion. “He took me up the high stages with big audiences and treated me like a king. And the only thing I can say is, ‘Bless your heart.’ Also, I want to say thank you very much, I appreciate it and, uh, hallelujah.”

The induction was a satisfying bookend to Leon Russell’s career, but it had been no easy task. It really came down to the intense lobbying efforts of Elton John.

There has been much angst about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since its inception. Admission and inclusion in the Hall of Fame are entirely subjective, and the nominating process is mired down in biases and politics. Nevertheless, it has become meaningful to many of the artists inducted and a bone of contention for fans of artists—and some artists themselves—who are excluded.

From the outset, the only criterion was that an artist had to have released a record at least twenty-five years ago. That’s it.

“The criteria were deliberately left open,” said Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s manager and head of the nominating committee. Landau described the factors as “a mix of quality and influence. . . . We have artists with mass appeal, and artists with a very narrow audience.” Discussing the J. Geils Band, Landau – who started out as one of Rolling Stone’s earliest editors – noted, “I’m still trying to get them into the Hall of Fame, unsuccessfully. Peter [Wolf ] is my oldest friend. We go back to 1967.”

I mean, who do you gotta know around here?

Elton John was among a third wave of slam-dunk Hall of Famers. He was inducted in 1994. Around 2008, he started to plead for Leon’s inclusion, which just based on Leon’s career from 1959 to 1975 would seem a pretty obvious case. But he kept going.

If it pleases the court: Leon started in 1959 with Jerry Lee Lewis; moved to LA and became the first-call piano player among the A-list of the so-called Wrecking Crew session musicians, backing the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra and playing on almost all of Phil Spector’s hits. He was one of the most critical forces for bringing together one of America’s most underappreciated bands, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends – the band that directly changed the career trajectories of George Harrison and Eric Clapton, among others. Leon pulled together Mad Dogs & Englishmen for Joe Cocker; cofounded Shelter Records, a powerhouse independent label that discovered Tom Petty, the Dwight Twilley Band, and Phoebe Snow, signed J. J. Cale, and was crucial in introducing reggae to America; commenced his solo career

with an almost flawless run of three solo albums, the first of which featured two Beatles, two Rolling Stones, Clapton, and Steve Winwood; was a top international concert draw during rock’s golden era; helped Harrison organize rock music’s first major all-star charity concert, also a Grammy-winning album; wrote no fewer than three evergreen standards, including a song that topped all of the major commercial charts; racked up six gold records; crossed over from rock to country before that was a popular career move, scoring a number one on the country chart; presented the funk/R&B Gap Band and renegade progressive bluegrass New Grass Revival; spearheaded innovation in recording, music video, and music gear such as the drum machine; helped launch countless music-biz careers; continued a dedicated career long after the spotlight had moved on; and then roared back in his late sixties with a Grammy-nominated hit collaboration with his most celebrated protege. There really shouldn’t have been much to deliberate.

But he seemingly had vanished from the public eye. What happened? How did this genuine rock star end up in “a ditch by the side of the highway of life”?

Excerpted from “Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History” by Bill Janovitz. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.