Forgotten artists: Leon Russell

Elton John, surprisingly to me, declared great respect for Leon Russell as Russell’s career and life were coming to an end. Indeed I felt a bit affronted that the king of tinsel, both visually and musically, could be associated with a talent like Russell. However if you consider John’s early incarnation as an honorary west coast singer-songwriter on albums such as ‘Tumbleweed Connections’ (‘Ballad of a Well Known Gun’, for instance) then it made much more sense.  Whilst John had little or no ability to infuse his music with the gospel credentials of Russell (and to be fair his undisputable talents lay elsewhere), he still made albums and toured with him stating that he felt Russell had been a much-neglected artist.  Certainly between the mid 80’s and 2010 he was. If you want to get a measure of his career, check out the Wikipedia entry – there is enough in there for three musical lives, not just one.

Russell was a great musician, associated with the legendary Wrecking Crew and a noted session musician. He had a distinctive piano and vocal style and he was no slouch as a guitarist either. He wrote songs covered by others in their droves.  He was commercially as well as artistically successful (note the number of gold records). He played with a staggering number and range of artists in his 60-year career. He was a noted producer and mentor for others (credited for instance with reviving Freddy King’s career). He was a rousing and memorable live act and credited with putting together the whole Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour at very short notice.  Having watched the documentary again recently the music sounds as good now as it did then (OK there was a fairly charismatic vocalist involved!) You can only marvel at the breadth and longevity of his contribution to popular music.

I share the proposition then that Russell is a much-neglected talent. I could not say I have a great or comprehensive knowledge of his career and the ‘Hank Wilson’ incarnation is a phase that I am unfamiliar with. There are however two songs that I return to again and again that whilst highlighting his talent do not seem to get similar credit that tracks such as ‘Delta Lady, Tightrope, This Masquerade’ or ‘A Song for You’ regularly garner.

Both tracks appear on the ‘Leon Russell and the Shelter People’ album. The first is ‘Home Sweet Oklahoma’, which to me has a feeling of longing and regret that many an artist would sell their souls to replicate:

‘In lonely restaurant windows the empty hour glass reflects the human hunger for the question never asked’.

I’m not quite sure what an hourglass is but if ever an image summed up the lonely musician’s life on the road then this is it. Russell did in fact leave Oklahoma at age 16 to go to Los Angeles to pursue his calling.

‘When I was a young man barely 17 I went out to Hollywood to chase my dream ….. But I’m going back to Tulsa just a one more time I got a home sweet Oklahoma’s on my mind.

Russell’s vocal and the restrained accompaniment seal the deal and this is forever a reminder to me of my own roots that I left not long after Russell left his.

The second track is ‘Alcatraz’ which chronicles the occupation by Native Americans in the 70’s.  Various activists occupied the island to highlight the plight of that indigenous group, but also to claim the land under what they believed were historic treaty obligations.

The lyrics echo the numerous land ‘deals’ that disadvantaged the original population, starting with the sale of Manhattan Island allegedly for a bag of trinkets and beads worth $24.  This is echoed in the line:

‘Here comes Uncle Sam again with the same old bag of beads’,

Russell implies that many Native Americans are trapped in the legends of their own past.

‘Solitary soul confined to the legend of Geronimo’.

More than that, their current role is one that invites ridicule much the same as that of the ‘happy minstrel’ role of the black people of America; embarrassed and embarrassingly pale imitations of a heritage that deserves much more than Disney Culture meets light entertainment for the amusement of others.  Thus,

‘I know how to bring the rain I used to dance for ABC’

Ironically freedom seems to consist of occupying the house of death which Russell sees as no more than a grim though apposite charade.

‘All the Braves down on Death Row are pretending to be free … Back home in Alcatraz’

Going back to Alcatraz?  Well you might say they had never been away?

It’s interesting to note the range of government forces that were ranged against this protest.  Coast-guard blockades, the cutting of electricity, difficulties with food and water.  This was the age of counterculture and Russell’s song was virtually contemporaneous with events, already spawning films like ‘Soldier Blue’ and Brando’s Oscar protest.  It was the beginning of a realisation of just how badly they had been treated and that something needed to change – not least that the native population should have autonomy in their own affairs

‘Leon Russell and the Shelter People’ and the earlier (1970) ‘Leon Russell’ are both fine albums out of a lifetime of work and these are two songs that have stayed with me ever since I first heard them.  If you’re unfamiliar have a listen.

Author: Gordon Sharpe

Music fan for more than 50 years and I think it gets better than ever - I love the Americana scene.

1 thought on “Forgotten artists: Leon Russell”

  1. No mention of the UNION album with Elton a few years ago ? Which was excellent – Elton’s early work was influenced by Leon & The Band. The ‘Union’ album was a return to those roots.

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