Book Review: “Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History”

Hachette Books, 2023

Leon Russell changed music in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then ploughed an independent furrow from the ‘80s.

At this point in time, it is difficult to appreciate how big Leon Russell was in the early ‘70s in the United States when for a while he was the biggest-grossing music act. Not only did he have hit records but he also had an incendiary live show with his band The Shelter People, he produced Bob Dylan and was a star of George Harrison’s ‘Concert For Bangladesh’, and he was a songwriter whose songs such as ‘A Song For You’  were covered by some of the biggest stars of their day across musical genres. Russell’s peak years are well covered in the various histories of those musical times, however, what has never been available has been a detailed biography of Russell’s lifelong career in music, until now. Bill Janovitz, musician author and member of Buffalo Tom, tells the story of Russell growing up in Oklahoma in the ‘40s and ‘50s, playing in the Tulsa clubs as a teenager before moving to Los Angeles to become a member of the famed Wrecking Crew before establishing himself as a solo artist. Fresh insight is brought to these times but Janovitz also shines a light on Russell’s wilderness years which lasted from the ‘80s to shortly before his death in 2016.

During his time in the clubs of Tulsa in the late ’50s, Russell formed musical friendships that helped develop The Tulsa Sound and Janovitz covers this time in detail and even dedicates the book to legendary Tulsa Sound drummer, Jimmy Karstein. During his time as a member of the Los Angeles-based group of session players known as  The Wrecking Crew Russell played with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Phil Spector to the Beach Boys and Herb Albert, and countless other artists. Janovitz captures the spirit of the times well, including when Russell’s home on Skyhill Drive was the centre of many musicians’ musical universe. Russell’s solo career emerged slowly but his style was based on his musical experiences to date, and Janovitz is able to clearly plot these developments. These include his recordings with Marc Benno as Asylum Choir, through his support of Delaney & Bonnie to his solo music which helped bring in a more roots-based musical style at the end of the ‘60s that was a significant influence on members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and other musicians, laying the foundation for the West Coast sound of the ‘70s. He organised one of the legendary tours of the early ‘70s when he pulled the Mad Dogs and Englishman band together to support Joe Cocker, and Janovitz explains how this tour actually helped Russell’s own career more than Cocker’s. Russell was never contained by musical genres or his audience’s expectations, and his friendship with Willie Nelson and Russell’s Hank Wilson persona helped bring traditional country music to the attention of the hippies, and this aspect of Russell’s career is covered in fresh detail by Janovitz.

Leon Russell also brought innovation to the business and technical aspects of the music business. At a time when the electric guitar was God, he showed what a piano could do as a lead instrument, inspiring among others, Elton John and Billy Joel. With Denny Cordell, he founded Shelter Records which was one of the first artist-owned record labels that was a proper functioning label, as opposed to an artist’s vanity project, that brought J. J. Cale, a resurgent Freddie King, and Tom Petty to the listening public. He was one of the first musicians to build a functioning home studio in his house on Skyhill Drive. He was instrumental in the popularisation of synthesisers in music, being one of the first adopters of the Chamberlin which was the precursor to the better-known Mellotron. He thought up the concept of the programmable drum machine which Roger Linn incorporated into the groundbreaking Linn LM-1. In the second half of the ‘70s, he established his own video production studio and company as he believed video would be a key part of the future of music, even when the major record companies hadn’t yet really spotted this trend. Janovitz is able to show how Russell’s personality drove him to make these technical changes to the then norms of the music industry.

Janovitz’s biography comes into its own as he examines Russell’s wilderness years and his eventual rehabilitation in the 2010s with the help of Elton John. This is the part of the book  where he also starts drawing the threads together to give a detailed view of Russell’s personality, and how it influenced the direction of his overall career. ‘Leon Russell The Master o Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History’ has all the makings of being the standard work on Leon Russell, in much the same way that Ben Fong-Torres’ biography of Gram Parsons ’ ‘Hickory Wind’  is seen as a definitive account of the life and times of its subject.

It is a measure of Russell’s standing that artists interviewed by Janovitz for the book include Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, T Bone Burnett, Sonny Curtis, Steve Winwood, and James Burton, together with contributors from all phases of his career. While Janovitz is clearly an admirer of Russell and the biography is authorised by Jan Bridges, Russell’s widow, this doesn’t stop Janovitz from applying a critical eye when he thinks it is appropriate. While the book provides a wealth of material covering all aspects of Russell’s life. It is also surprising to find that the flamboyant rock star of the early ‘70s was in fact very shy, and his distaste for the media rounds and showcase gigs demanded by the music business contributed to his eventual fall into obscurity.

The level of racial abuse that was thrown at Russell’s wife Mary is shown by Janovitz to have had a negative impact on Russell’s subsequent career. Leon Russell married Shelter recording artist Mary McCreary and launched his own Paradise label in 1976 with a duet album with Mary called ‘Wedding Album’. The album featured the vocals of Leon and Mary and the heavy use of synthesisers and while it made the album charts it fell short of the success of his early Shelter albums, and marked the start of Russell’s commercial decline. While the critical reception of the album was mixed it does have its fans, and what Janovitz paints in vivid detail is the level of racist abuse thrown at Leon and Mary by contingents in his Southern fan base because of their mixed marriage. This abuse played a part in the rapid decline of his career footprint. When the couple divorced at the end of the ‘70s it presented a significant financial challenge for Russell as it coincided with his falling musical revenue and his heavy investment in his new video and music studio, Paradise Studios. When the distribution deal for Paradise Records with Warner Brothers ended at the beginning of the ‘80s it marked the point where Russell became an independent artist based in Nashville. Janovitz shines a light on Russell’s wilderness years that will prove fascinating for his fans as this period has been largely shrouded in mystery given Russell’s reluctance to give interviews at the time. He also brings the story up to date with details of the background to Russell’s last two major label albums, ‘The Union’ with Elton John and 2014’s  ‘Life Journey’.

‘Leon Russell The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History’ not only fills in the historical gaps of Russell’s lifelong career in the music business, it also looks at Russell the person, and everyone reading the book will get a sense of knowing who Leon Russell actual was behind the various personas he hid behind at various times in his career. Clearly, this is a must-read for all Leon Russell fans, and Russell has been so embedded in music that it is impossible to recount his personal story without shining a light on the music business of the time, and as such, readers who have maybe a more general interest in music will find this a very interesting read. A significant gap in the overall history of American music has been finally filled by Bill Janovitz’s book, and while it is a very readable book in its literary style, he has applied a rigor to his sources that should ensure this becomes a standard reference work.

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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