Leon Russell on Elton John, crystal radio sets, and playing piano for Phil Spector
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When Leon Russell was in the midst of what possibly was the busiest period in his life, he was often referred to by the musicians he worked with as “the master of space and time” for his otherworldly ability to fit into any musical situation.
The Oklahoma pianist, singer, songwriter and producer tapped a wellspring of American roots music forms, from country and gospel to blues and soul, during his assignments as a studio session player in Los Angeles who worked with Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and countless others in the ‘60s. Later that decade, before launching his solo career, he became the leader of bands assembled by Southern rock musicians Delaney & Bonnie (Bramlett), and English rocker Joe Cocker.
“He was the greatest bandleader of the late-’60s and early-’70s,” longtime admirer Elton John said recently. “At [George Harrison’s] Concert for Bangladesh, on [Cocker’s] Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, he was the man. He walks into a room of musicians [today], sits down at the piano and he still is the bandleader; he still is the man.”
Where did that musical expertise come from?
“I started playing in nightclubs when I was about 14 in Oklahoma,” Russell, 68, told me recently during a conversation about his forthcoming album with John, “The Union,” which was produced by T Bone Burnett and is the subject of a profile of John and Russell in Sunday’s Arts & Books section. “At that time I made a crystal radio set, and oddly enough, with a crystal radio you can only get one station.
“So after I would get off my job at 1 or 2 in the morning, I’d get home and put on the crystal set with the headphones and just listen,” he said. “The station it got was a blues and gospel station, so I heard a lot of that music. That was a simple twist of fate.”
“The Union” represents the first time Russell has shared the spotlight with another pianist on an album, though it wasn’t by any means unique to his extensive experience in recording studios.
“Not really,” he said. “I used to play on Phil Spector’s records, and he liked to use three pianists” in creating his signature “Wall of Sound.” Russell said he and John had no difficulties when it came to figuring out who plays what on the new album.
“We never even discussed it,” he said. “There’s a song on the record called ‘A Dream Comes True,’ and the first time we sat down and played together, we sat down and played that song. It wasn’t even a song yet, just two pianos playing together. We came up with parts, and then just put the song on top of it. We never really discussed portioning out of any parts.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Russell said nonchalantly. “One of the features of being a piano player is playing as an accompanist for other people. I’m sure Elton has had as much experience with that as I have. When you play with another piano player, it’s just second nature to play the parts that need to be played.”
-- Randy Lewis