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Leon Russell Biography

Home > Music > R > Russell, Leon > Biography

Birth Name: Claude Russell Bridges
Born: 1942/04/02
Birth Place: Lawton, Oklahoma, U.S.
Years Active: 1956-present
Genres: Country, Rock, Folk, R&B

Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges, April 2, 1942) is an American musician and songwriter, who has recorded as a session musician, sideman, and maintained a solo career in music. Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, he began playing piano at the age of four. Russell attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At this time he was already performing at Tulsa nightclubs.

He and his group The Starlighters, which included J.J. Cale, Leo Feathers, Chuck Blackwell and Johnny Williams, were instrumental in creating the style of music known as the Tulsa Sound. After settling in Los Angeles, he studied guitar with James Burton. Known mostly as a session musician early in his career, as a solo artist he has crossed genres to include rock and roll, blues, and gospel music, playing with artists as varied as Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Gram Parsons, Delaney Bramlett, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Ventures, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Bob Dylan, J.J.Cale, B.B. King, Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, and The Rolling Stones.

As a first call studio musician in Los Angeles, Russell played on many of the most popular songs of the 1960s, including some by The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Bobby "Boris" Pickett, and Herb Alpert. He can be seen in 1964's “T.A.M.I. Show,” playing piano with The Wrecking Crew (an informal name for the top L.A. session musicians of the 1960s), sporting short, dark, slicked-back hair, in contrast to his later look. Soon after, he was hired as Snuff Garrett's assistant/creative developer, playing on numerous #1 singles, including “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys.He wrote or co-wrote two hit songs for Gary Lewis and Playboys, “Everybody Loves a Clown” (which hit the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart Top 40, rising to #4) and “She's Just My Style” (which hit Billboard's Hot 100 Top 40, peaking at #3).

He played xylophone and bells on the 1966 single “The Joker Went Wild,” sung by Brian Hyland and penned by Bobby Russell (no relation). He also worked sessions with Dorsey Burnette and Glen Campbell on Campbell's 1967 album “Gentle on My Mind,” where he was credited as "Russell Bridges" on piano.

Russell's first commercial success as a songwriter came when Joe Cocker recorded the song “Delta Lady” for his 1969 album, “Joe Cocker!” The album, produced and arranged by Russell, reached #11 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. Russell went on to organize and perform in the 1970 “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour in support of the album. “Superstar,” co-written by Russell, Delaney Bramlett and Bonnie Bramlett, was sung by Rita Coolidge on that tour and later proved a success for Carpenters, Luther Vandross, Sonic Youth and other performers.

Soon after the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour, Shelter Records released his 1970 solo album “Leon Russell,” which included the first recording of “A Song for You.” This became one of his best-known songs, with versions released by more than 40 different artists including Carpenters, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, Helen Reddy, Whitney Houston, Elkie Brooks, Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, and Christina Aguilera. Both The Carpenters and The Temptations named an album after the song. Also in 1970, Russell played piano on Dave Mason's album, “Alone Together,” most notably on the song “Sad and Deep as You.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, Russell owned the Church Recording Studio on 3rd Street in Tulsa. Russell still records there frequently, while his former home on Grand Lake, in northeast Oklahoma, still contains the dining room table and chairs made from church pews from his Church Studio. On the property stands a private recording studio that has hosted many musicians, including members of The Beatles.

During the summer of 1971, at the invitation of George Harrison, Russell played piano on Badfinger's third album, “Straight Up.” The piano part complemented Pete Ham and George Harrison's dual slide guitars on Badfinger's “Day After Day.” “The Straight Up” sessions were interrupted when many of the musicians left for New York City to participate in the Concert For Bangladesh, at which Russell performed a medley of the songs “Jumpin' Jack Flash” and “Young Blood” and sang a verse on Harrison's “Beware of Darkness.” Russell (on bass guitar) and Harrison (on electric guitar and vocals) also played on a number of Bob Dylan's hits.

A busy year for Russell, 1971 also brought the Shelter release of “Leon Russell And The Shelter People” and “Asylum Choir II.” That same year, Russell played on recording sessions with B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. Russell helped blues guitarist Freddie King to revive his career by collaborating with him on three of his albums for Shelter during the early 1970s.

During those same years, Russell helped himself to a nice share of what was then called the “County and Western” market, recording and performing under the moniker Hank Wilson, and was a regular performer at Gilley's Club, the Pasadena, Texas honkytonk made famous in “Urban Cowboy.”

1972 was highlighted by a large-scale concert tour by Russell and his Shelter People entourage. A live performance was recorded in California at the Long Beach Arena in August 1972, and was released as the “Leon Live” album. In November 1972,

Russell's song, "This Masquerade", the B-side of his 1972 hit single "Tight Rope", went on to be recorded by numerous artists, including Helen Reddy and Carpenters. George Benson's version of the song reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In 1979, Russell and Willie Nelson had a #1 hit on the Billboard Country Songs chart with their duet of “Heartbreak Hotel”. Russell spent the next two years touring with the New Grass Revival, and released two more albums with Paradise before the label folded.

After a number of years of reduced prominence, Russell's career was rejuvenated when Elton John sought him out for a new project. In November 2009, Russell worked together with John and Bernie Taupin on “The Union,” a double album record credited equally to both Russell and John. Recorded in February 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the LP was released in October 2010. The recordings were interrupted in January 2010 by a health scare: Russell was hospitalized and underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak, as well as treatment for heart failure and pneumonia. In October 2010 Russell and John embarked on The Union Tour.Russell's current band lineup includes long time bass player Jackie Wessel, Brandon Holder on drums, multi-instrumentalist Beau Charron and grandson Payton Goodner on percussion.