Leon Russell, the longhaired, scratchy-voiced pianist, guitarist, songwriter and bandleader who moved from playing countless recording sessions to making hits on his own, died on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn. He was 74.
His death was announced on his website, which said that he had died in his sleep but gave no specific cause.
If you don’t know much about Russell except for a couple of hits, his career was remarkable.
With a top hat on his head, hair well past his shoulders, a long beard, an Oklahoma drawl in his voice and his fingers splashing two-fisted barrelhouse piano chords, Mr. Russell cut a flamboyant figure in the early 1970s. He led Joe Cocker’s band Mad Dogs & Englishmen, appeared at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh and had hits of his own, including “Tight Rope.” His songs also became hits for others, among them “Superstar” (written with Bonnie Bramlett) for the Carpenters, “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker and “This Masquerade” for George Benson. More than 100 acts have recorded “A Song for You,” a song Mr. Russell said he wrote in 10 minutes.
By the time Mr. Russell released his first solo album in 1970, he had already played on hundreds of songs as one of the top studio musicians in Los Angeles. Mr. Russell was in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra, and he played sessions for Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, the Ventures and the Monkees, among many others. He is heard on “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “Live With Me” by the Rolling Stones and all of the Beach Boys’ early albums, including “Pet Sounds.”
My favorite performance of his was from the aforementioned Concert for Bangladesh, where he delivered a rollicking version of “Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood”.
Vaya con Dios, my man.