John Lamb, Published April 08 2012
The other piano man: Leon Russell brings 50-plus years of music to Fargo
The striking musician looks like either the oldest member of ZZ Top or the hairiest of the Winter brothers.
Even though he’s a musician idolized by musicians and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, Russell may be more identified with his looks than his 50-year body of work that produced hit songs for several stars.
Russell brings that repertoire to the Fargo Theatre stage for a concert Wednesday night.
Though he was not available for an interview with The Forum, Russell has said, “I like all kinds of music, and I hate to do the same thing all the time.”
His legacy proves the point.
- Russell was born April 2, 1942, in Lawton, Okla. Fourteen years later he’d be playing the nightclubs of Tulsa, Okla. His group, The Starlighters, included J.J. Cale, the singer/guitarist who wrote the Eric Clapton hits, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.”
- In 1958, Russell moved to Los Angeles and by the mid-’60s was a member of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, the studio musicians who created the producer’s famed Wall of Sound. Russell helped arrange Ike and Tina Turner’s monumental song “River Deep, Mountain High” and worked on the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring” and Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey.”
Russell played piano in the house band for “Shindig!” ABC’s weekly rock ’n’ roll show, and “The T.A.M.I. Show” alongside guitarist Glen Campbell.
- In ’69, Russell wrote “Superstar” (initially known as “Groupie Song”) with Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett. Two years later, the song was a big hit for The Carpenters and would later be a hit for Luther Vandross and Ruben Studdard.
- Russell released his self-titled debut album in ’70. The record features Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman; Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr; Eric Clapton; Steve Winwood; and Joe Cocker. The record opens with Russell’s “A Song for You.” The ballad was later recorded by Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Helen Reddy, Whitney Houston, Donny Hathaway and Christina Aguilera. The Carpenters and The Temptations also have albums named after the tune.
North Dakotans should note Peggy Lee recorded Russell’s “A Song for You” and “Superstar” on her 1972 record, “Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.”
- Russell was recording the piano part on Badfinger’s “Day After Day” when Harrison asked him to perform at the Concert for Bangladesh. The piano man delivered a medley of The Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Coasters’ “Young Blood.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls the performance “among the most captivating performances of the seventies.”
- E Singer George Benson earned a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1976 for “This Masquerade.” That version was the first song to top the jazz, pop and R&B charts.
- Russell closed the ’70s with his last No. 1, topping the country charts with a cover of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel,” a duet with Willie Nelson.
- While staying busy touring and recording, Russell was largely out of the mainstream for 30 years until 2010 when The Zac Brown Band invited him to join them at the Grammys to play the pianist’s “Dixie Lullabye.”
Later that year, Elton John and Russell released and toured behind their duet album, “The Union.”
John recalled telling Russell during the recording: “I want people to acknowledge you for what you have done to remember you for what you’ve done and for you to be proud again of what you’ve done.”
The album reached No. 3 on the pop charts, Russell’s highest showing since ’72 and John’s highest since ’76. The single “If It Wasn’t For Bad” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
- E In 2011 Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” In the induction speech, John called him his “idol” and said, “He sang, he wrote and he played just how I wanted to do it.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533