A Familiar Face in the Crowd
Among the foremost questions raised by the enigmatic and uncommonly diverse career of Leon Russell is: Just how did he get that look?
His hair and beard fall in a vertical snowdrift from crown to breastbone, concealing his face and making him look like an apparition descended from Druidic priests and hermit trappers of the Old West.
Yet nobody would know Russell by his look alone if his distinctive, quavery voice and enduring body of gospel-fired rockers (“Delta Lady,” “Stranger in a Strange Land”), funky ditties (“Tight Rope”) and graceful romantic ballads (“A Song for You,” “This Masquerade,” “Superstar”) had not imprinted a memorable sight with memorable sounds.
The look, coupled with the musical legacy, makes it possible to say, “Leon,” and nothing more, to rock fans of a certain age, and have them understand just who you mean.
Russell’s break to the big time after years as a leading Los Angeles session man recording with the likes of Phil Spector, the Byrds and the Beach Boys came in 1970, when he burst forward as bandleader and spotlight-stealing, gospel-roaring singer and piano pounder on Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour. Hits of his own followed, and by 1973 Russell was one of the bigger draws on the rock circuit; fame and that look, he says, made it impossible for him to go out in public without being mobbed.
The last 20 years have been much more low-keyed; Russell has toured steadily and released records sporadically to a loyal cult following that he puts at about 250,000 fans worldwide; he holes up otherwise in his home studio in Nashville, giving few enough interviews that the bio sheet his record company put out with his new album, the blues-leaning “Face in the Crowd,” dubs him “the reclusive Russell, the J.D. Salinger of the music world.”
The Salinger reference didn’t ring a bell with Russell when raised during a recent phone interview--"I suppose that was written by a professional person,” he said with a touch of the dry humor that punctuates his quiet, deep-voiced conversation. “I remember reading ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ but I don’t think I got it.”
Russell has put out albums in consecutive years for the first time since the early ‘80s (“Legend in My Time: Hank Wilson Vol. III,” an engaging traditional country CD, came out in 1998), and now he’s prepared to field some questions--such as, “How did you come up with that look of yours?”
As Russell tells it, what he had in mind was not image-making but a form of protest touched off by an eye-opening road trip during the mid-1960s.
“I suppose it was a combination of events. Probably the most telling event of all was when I was coming back to Los Angeles from Memphis. I stopped at a gas station in Oklahoma. There was a black family who had bought gas and wanted to use the restroom. The [attendant] said it was broken and unavailable.” Russell knew better, and the racial insult stayed with him and rankled as he drove on. He says he got back to L.A. in time for a recording session and walked in looking bedraggled, his hair lank.
A Reaction to Lessons in Prejudice
“I had a Sebring haircut [Jay Sebring, slaughtered along with Sharon Tate and other Manson Family victims in 1969, was a leading Hollywood hairstylist]. He invented the movie haircut; I got one and looked at myself in the mirror for 30 minutes and thought it was really something. It was sprayed down, and if you didn’t mess with it every day it started hanging down and looking like Keith Richards.
“I got to L.A. [after the long car trip], and my hair was hanging down and messed up, and the people I had worked with for two years were vicious and mean because it was long and hanging down. I didn’t have my ‘do fixed in the normal way, and they were mean and insulting. I was fascinated by how little it takes [to set people apart].”
Russell started growing his wizard’s mane in reaction to this double-lesson in prejudice: “I just wanted to be constantly aware of it.”
Russell’s musical development had been anything but exclusionary since he began playing piano at age 3, despite a birth injury that left his right side 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. It was too complicated [given the limits on his range of motion]. I invented ways to play in a classical style that was not the real deal.”
That was his ticket to the Hollywood session scene; Russell had arrived on a bus from Tulsa at 17 and scuffled for four years before the work started to come as a player, arranger and producer.
In L.A. Russell began picking up country music; he also absorbed rockabilly as a touring sideman for Jerry Lee Lewis (Russell says he used to pound his hands bloody trying to make the piano heard over a band before he learned a useful trick from the Killer: put fiddle pickups in the the piano for extra volume).
Pentecostal Music Was Up His Alley
Russell had gotten his performing start at 14, playing standards in Tulsa, Okla., cocktail lounges. His gospel influences came over the radio: “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. 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.”
Russell says he cherishes memorable scenes from his session years more than particular results. “A lot of the stuff that was the greatest for me was not necessarily a hit.” He played on a session for one of the then-unknown Aretha Franklin’s obscure pop recordings for Columbia, before she emerged as the Queen of Soul on Atlantic: “I saw 30 violin players tapping their sticks on the stand [in appreciation] after seeing her sing. I’d never seen that in my life.”
At his commercial height, in 1973, Russell began confounding expectations by putting out a country album, “Hank Wilson’s Back!” He had struck up a friendship with Willie Nelson (whose own look went from a buzz cut to an Indian scout under Leon’s influence) and begun bridging the gap between the divided country and rock factions by playing the first of Nelson’s big Fourth of July bashes in ’73.
The two made an album together in 1979, then reunited in 1995 at the Coach House for the first of an ongoing series of occasional duo concerts.
“When it strikes his fancy, he calls me up and we do a few shows,” Russell said. “He always assumes I can play anything at anytime, which is not exactly the case. The first time, as we were walking to the stage he said, ‘I cut this new album; this song goes like this.’ I enjoy it quite a bit more since we’ve done more of them” and Russell knows what to expect.
In theory, Russell has a big-ticket nostalgia card to cash in, if he could reconnect with Cocker to revisit the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour.
"[Promoters] come up every few years and want to do that, but I don’t know if it will ever happen. The [tour] ended on perfect terms, as far as I know, but some weirdness [with Cocker] developed after the fact. I only saw him one time since then. I’ve never spoken to him about [a reunion]. I just know there’ve been inquiries.”
Instead, Russell pursues the prerogatives of the musical free-agent who can rely on a well-known track record and a diminished but still-solid fan base to keep him going. Last year’s album of honky-tonk standards gives way to the guitar-oriented blues album he has just put out.
Russell said he got the idea from request cards handed out to fans at shows, which kept coming back with requests for a blues record. Rather than assembling a band, as he did for “Hank Wilson Vol. III,” Russell made “Face in the Crowd” with his 21-year-old son, Teddy Jack (the only boy among his six children from three marriages). They worked as a duo, relying on studio technology and synthesizers rather than going for a more organic blues approach.
Russell says the ongoing father-son collaboration restores a long, deep loss in his life:
“We had an unfortunate divorce in our family, and I wasn’t allowed to see him for 10 years,” Russell said (Teddy Jack’s mother is Mary McCreary, Russell’s sometime musical partner during the ‘70s when they were married). “It was really a terrible thing. On his 18th birthday he called me up to say, ‘I’m coming.’ ”
In progress, Russell said, are a nearly finished rock ‘n’ roll album and an album or two of pop standards such as “Autumn Leaves” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” with backing by a 25-piece orchestra.
Russell acknowledges he isn’t the classic crooner: “Of course, my voice is a pretty unusual, kind of funny, voice. It’s really interesting to do [orchestral arrangements]; it’s kind of like standing on a ledge. My conception is what pulls me through. I know what the melodies [mean], even though I might sound like Moms Mabley a bit when I’m trying to sing ‘em. There are great singers in the [technical] sense . . . who may not know what the melodies are about.”
And Russell figures that, more than most songwriters of the rock era, he has a handle on what standards are about.
“ ‘This Masquerade’ was recorded 43 times before George Benson recorded it [and had a Top 10 hit with it in 1976]. The last number I knew for ‘A Song for You’ was 128 [versions] 15 years ago, and that was before Ray Charles had his hit on it [in 1993]. There was a period in my life when I was trying to write standards, songs that everybody recorded. I did a pretty good run of it.”
* Leon Russell and Scottie B. play Friday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $21.50-$23.50. (949) 496-8930.