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Leon Russell dies at 74; hit songwriter, Wrecking Crew member, musical bridge builder

Leon Russell dies at 74; hit songwriter, Wrecking Crew member, musical bridge builder
Musician Leon Russell in Tulsa, Okla., in January 2013. (File photo)

Leon Russell, instantly recognizable for his long white mane and a rich, hearty voice that drifted between country and soul, died Saturday in Nashville. He was 74.

Russell was lauded for swampy rockers such as "Delta Lady" and "Roll Away the Stone" as well as heart-rending ballads such as the oft-recorded "A Song for You" and "Superstar," which became a No. 2 hit for the Carpenters in 1971.

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Though a cause of death was not revealed, Russell had heart bypass surgery in July. His passing was announced in a Facebook posting attributed to his wife, Jan Bridges.

"We thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this very, very difficult time," read an emailed statement from Bridges. "My husband passed in his sleep in our Nashville home. He was recovering from heart surgery in July and looked forward to getting back on the road in January. We appreciate everyone's love and support."

Russell last performed July 10 in Nashville.

"For me, he's one of the greatest American treasures we've ever had in this country," said Elton John in 2010. That year the two toured and released the collaboration album "The Union," an elegant work that showcases each artist's prowess with the piano and Russell's flair for bridging pop and gospel.

"He's played on so many wonderful records, you won't believe what he's played on, you won't believe who he's played with," John said. "And for his own, he was the greatest bandleader of the late-'60s and early-'70s."

Russell's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame entry notes he was born as Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1942, in Lawton, Okla. His music studies began at the age of 4 with piano lessons, and he would also eventually take up the trumpet.

He became an accomplished rock musician despite a birth injury that resulted in his right side being partly paralyzed.

"I studied classical music for a long time, maybe 10 years, and I realized finally I was never going to have the hands to play that stuff," he told The Times in 1999. Given the limits on his range of motion, "It was too complicated. I invented ways to play in a classical style that was not the real deal."

When Russell was 14, he would lie about his age and started performing in Tulsa, Okla., nightclubs. His band, the Starlighters, was ultimately chosen to accompany Jerry Lee Lewis on tour for about two months.

Russell at 17 relocated to Los Angeles in the late '50s and quickly established himself as a prolific session musician. He was a member of the studio aces known as the Wrecking Crew, and in 1964 he could be seen in the house band for ABC's "Shindig!"

Russell, often accompanied with his signature top hat, recorded with the likes of Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Sam Cooke, the Fifth Dimension and Sonny & Cher. He played on many of Spector's top productions, including those from the Ronnettes, Crystals and the Righteous Brothers, and he became a key component of the producer's "Wall of Sound" technique.

In 1970, he orchestrated Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour, designed as a sort of rock 'n' roll revue. The 11-member band included three drummers and was aided by a 10-voice choir, and the tour became the subject of a concert film and a hit live album.

In 1971, he had a highly visible role in George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh benefit, where his medley of the Rolling Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash" and Leiber-Stoller-Pomus' "Youngblood" was one of the benefit's highlights.

The year prior he released a self-titled solo debut on his own Shelter Records that reached No. 60 on the U.S. pop chart. Russell soon found even greater success in 1972 with the single "Tight Rope," which combined a funky, saloon-ready playfulness and a country twang and soared to No. 11.

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His solo works subsequently dug into pop music's Americana roots, exploring country, blues, gospel and jazz. He even adopted the name Hank Wilson for his more overt country interpretations. In the early-'70s, he recorded "Watching the River Flow" with Bob Dylan.

Bolstered by a Southern sturdiness and a bit of rock 'n' roll stubble, Russell's piano-driven songs often took on church-like tones. His gospel influences came from listening to the radio at a young age:

"I was raised in the Methodist Church, which is a very Germanic, military kind of music they have there. I heard this other music on the radio: Pentecostal," he told The Times. "That was right up my street. If I'd been in that church, I'd probably been up there [on a pulpit] with Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker."

He was equally comfortable with the Great American Songbook as he was working with the likes of Willie Nelson, and he can be heard on works as diverse as the Beach Boys' "California Girls," "River Deep — Mountain High" by Ike and Tina Turner, and Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream & Other Delights" album.

"Mo Ostin [former Warner Bros. Records president] said I had catholic tastes," Russell recalled. "What that meant was I made it very hard on [radio] program directors. I was not a brand that they could always expect was going to be the same thing. I'm not as aware of categories in music as some people are. To me it's just music. I'm interested in all kinds of music."

Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

He is survived by his wife and their five daughters and one son — Blue, Tina Rose, Sugaree, Honey, Coco and Teddy Jack. Sugaree, Tina Rose and Teddy Jack have all been in Russell's band.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens

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