Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Legend Leon Russell Dies At 74

Nov 14, 2016
Originally published on November 14, 2016 9:38 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Leon Russell never was exactly a household name, but Elton John called the piano player and songwriter his idol. Leon Russell died in Nashville after a recent heart attack. Blake Farmer from member station WPLN has this appreciation.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Even if you haven't heard Leon Russell, you've heard him through others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SONG FOR YOU")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) I've been so many places I mean ever says in my life and time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SONG FOR YOU")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) I've sung a lot of songs. I've made some bad rhymes.

FARMER: Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, dozens of A-list artists have recorded "A Song For You" - Michael Buble.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SONG FOR YOU")

MICHAEL BUBLE: (Singing) I've acted out my life in stages with 10,000 people watching.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SONG FOR YOU")

LEON RUSSELL: (Singing) But we're alone now and I'm singing this song to you.

FARMER: That last voice is Leon Russell himself. He said he was shooting for a tune that would span generations, and it has.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WRECKING CREW")

RUSSELL: When you write standards, when you first hear a standard, it sounds just like a [expletive] little tune, you know (laughter)? And then you come back and you hear it later and then you hear it 20 years later, they're different.

FARMER: That interview was from a 2008 documentary called "The Wrecking Crew" about the top studio musicians in Los Angeles in the 1960s. That's where Leon Russell first put his stamp on American music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON RUSSEL SONG, "TIGHT ROPE")

FARMER: He played his way through high school in Oklahoma and set out for LA. Producers appreciated his down home style of piano playing. He backed The Byrds, Jan and Dean and Frank Sinatra. Russell converted his behind-the-scene gigs into a solo career. He became known for his eccentric shoulder-length white hair and a beard that he let grow down to his belly, often a top hat and aviator sunglasses on stage. Here's his hit "Delta Lady."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELTA LADY")

RUSSELL: (Singing) Longing in your soft and fertile delta.

FARMER: Leon Russell kept touring and making albums but with less and less acclaim. He even performed country music under the name Hank Wilson, but there was a long dry spell as a songwriter. Then in 2010, Elton John came along who'd worked with Russell back in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELTON JOHN: I was kind of angry because I thought, you know, this man's been forgotten about.

FARMER: In an interview with WXPN's World Cafe, John said he wanted to record an album with Russell and make sure he got credit for his career, even as Russell's health was failing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN: Look, the thing that astounded me throughout this whole thing, you know, he was never bitter about, you know, falling out of the spotlight because Leon, as I've learned, was never really a spotlight person, although he looked amazing. He had the most incredible image with the long hair and the Ray-Bans and the top hat.

FARMER: Elton John helped Leon Russell get the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's attention. It was a club Russell said he thought he'd never join. He was inducted in 2011. Here he is at the ceremony. He had exchanged the Ray-Bans for bifocals with clip-on sunshades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSELL: Elton came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life. He took me up to the high stages with big audiences and treated me like a king. And the only thing I could say is bless your heart.

FARMER: Russell wrote a musical thank you note to Elton John. The title of the song is "In The Hands Of Angels," and it was one of the last Leon Russell ever wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE HANDS OF ANGELS")

RUSSELL: (Singing) Well, I could have been sick. I could have died. I could have given up...

FARMER: For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.