Leon Russell wasn’t exactly lost, but thanks to Elton John, he’s been rediscovered. After their collaboration on 2010’s The Union, the Oklahoma songwriter enjoys his highest profile since the early ’70s when he released three gold records in as many years. He’s resurfaced just in time for his brand of grizzled gospel-roots to catch a ride on the burgeoning southern soul revival.
Russell celebrates this renewed, twilight glow with a solo album, Life Journey, to be released Tuesday, April 1 on the eve of his 72nd birthday. It’s very much the reflections of a man who spent his life on stage as the curtain prepares to come down. It’s wistful and circumspect, from Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and Mike Reid’s “Think of Me” to his lush string-laden cover of Allie Wrubel’s “The Masquerade is Over.”
Not that he’s going gently into that dark night. While “Georgia on My Mind,” begins with a jazzy, spare cocktail swing, Russell can’t resist transforming it into a ‘40s big band number midway through. At other times, as on Eddie Cooley’s classic “Fever” and boisterous boogie original “Big Lips,” it’s readily apparent the fire’s still crackling.
“This is a record of my musical journey through life,” he writes in the album’s liner notes. “It reflects pieces of things that I have done and things I never did, for one reason or another.”
It’s hard to believe there’s much Russell hasn’t done. He began piano lessons at 4 and by 14 was playing nightclubs in Tulsa. He went to LA to get into advertising but wound up a member of the Wrecking Crew, the seasoned LA session players featured on the biggest hits of the ’60s from the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Tina Turner and Bob Dylan, to name a few.
Russell’s own career took off after penning the ’69 hit “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker. Later he’d give the Carpenters their biggest hit, “Superstar.” He’d release three solo albums before writing his own smash hit, “Tight Rope,” from the circus-themed ’72 album, Carney. The album showcases the full range of Russell’s genius from Dixieland and southern soul to colorful, offbeat psychedelia (see the woolly, appropriately-titled “Acid Annapolis”).
His star had faded mightily by the ’80s due in part to his unwillingness to chase or even endure the press or music execs. But he continued to tour and release music, much of it on his own label, where it went largely unnoticed.
Even before the guilty emotional epiphany that prompted Elton John to reach out to him for the first time in 30-35 years during an African safari, Russell’s creativity was coming to a boil. His album prior to the John collaboration was 2006’s lively, gritty Angel in Disguise, an overlooked classic steeped in greasy horn-laden rock and funky guitar groove (Russell studied under Elvis guitarist James Burton).
A year after The Union, Russell was inducted into both the Songwriters’ and Rock Halls of Fame. It’s overdue recognition, but Russell’s never seemed to care too much one way or the other.
“I didn’t start out to become famous,” Russell told Reuters in 2011. “So when it disappeared I thought, ‘Well, that happens sometimes.’”
But it just wouldn’t be right for him to go out without a well-earned round of applause.
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