We’re deeply saddened to learn of Leon Russell’s passing last week. Next week we re-broadcast our 2014 interview with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer.
Leon began his career playing in clubs in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. After moving to Los Angeles, he became a sought-after session player, playing on numerous hits of the 1960s. As a sideman, he performed with scores of notable artists including George Harrison, Eric Clapton, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. He also worked as a producer and arranger, and eventually became a solo recording artist in his own right.
Leon Russell hits include, Delta Lady, This Masquerade, Tight Rope and A Song for You. Defying categorization, Leon is comfortable in many genres, including rock, blues, gospel and country. In early 2014, he released a retrospective of his career entitled Life Journey, executive produced by his longtime friend Elton John. We had the honor of speaking with Leon on his tour bus in Roswell, New Mexico.
Here is the Leon Russell interview transcript in it’s entirety:
Leon: “Well, it was tough. I lived in California for six months one time and we had two off-night gigs a month, $15 a night, $30 for the month. Me and my drummer lived in a trailer court. The rent was $14 a month, so we had to pay the rent and pay for the all food for a month. So it was a pretty tough time.”
Viv: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell. Leon began his career playing in clubs in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma and, after moving to Los Angeles, he became a sought-after session player, playing on numerous hits of the 1960’s. As a sideman, he performed with scores of notable artists including George Harrison, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson. He also worked as a producer and arranger and eventually became a solo recording artist in his own right.
John: Leon Russell’s hits include “Delta Lady”, “This Masquerade”, “Tightrope”, and “A Song for You”. Defying categorization, Leon is comfortable in many genres including rock, blues, gospel, and country. In early 2014, he release a retrospective of his career entitled “Life Journey” executive produced by his longtime friend Elton John. We had the honor of speaking with Leon on his tour bus in Roswell, New Mexico.
Viv: We’ll start today with the opening track of Leon Russell’s 2014 CD “Life Journey”. This is “Come On in My Kitchen”.
Viv: It is a huge honor and privilege to be sitting here this afternoon with Leon Russell. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us on your tour.
Leon: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
John: Tell us how music came into your life in your early years.
Leon: Somebody gave us a piano when I was about three. I started playing around on it and examining relationships between the notes and so forth. They had this one tuner who meant to be doing something good. It was an upright, an old upright piano, so he tuned the piano down one step because he said it would stay in tune better and I suppose it would stay in tune better except it was one step flat. So my pitch has always been off plus or minus one step for my whole life. Otherwise I would have had perfect pitch, but you can’t have everything I guess.
Viv: That’s amazing actually. The fact that you said you were three years old and examining the relationship between the notes, there was some kind of musical affinity there that would cause you to do that exploration. When did you start songwriting?
Leon: Well, it’s a funny thing really. I think about that same time. I was trying to write an autobiography, actually, and I was thinking about that the other day. There are several factors involved. One of them is that I had a birth injury, damaged the second and third vertebrae in my spine and it cause a slight paralysis on my right side. It made me very aware of the duality involved in our plane of existence here. Left and right. My right side was completely different than my left side. My left side was strong and the right side was weak and I had to think ahead so I didn’t look like I was limping too badly. It made the right side slightly smaller as well. But, later in life, when I was playing in the studio, a lot of writers hired me, a lot of the arrangers, because they didn’t want to write the piano part. Don Costa was about my favorite I think. He, in fact, told me that he hired me because he didn’t want to write the piano part. He would write the chord symbols, a little melody, but say, “Play Jazz here, play Blues here” and that saved him a lot of time. A lot of times I was thinking when I was making records playing on people’s records, we’d practice the track for sometimes an hour and I’d never hear the singing. I didn’t know what it was going to be. I found myself making up songs to go on the track. Sometimes I’d make up four or five songs to go on the track. Sometimes when I heard the song that actually went on the track, I didn’t like it as well as the ones I made up. But I wasn’t really writing any songs. I didn’t think about doing that.
Viv: You have this magnificent history of putting together backing bands that included extraordinary singers and musicians and you were part of the wrecking crew of the preeminent session musicians. What was that experience like?
Leon: Well, first of all, I never heard that section called the “wrecking crew” until Hal Blaines book came out.
Leon: So a lot of things you got to realize about a show is, a lot of things happen after the fact. People come in and name stuff. I never heard that name the whole time I was playing with those guys. Carol Kaye said the same thing. The Wrecking Crew was actually the title of a rather marginal Dean Martin movie, which perhaps they played on. I didn’t play on it. Anyway, I always felt that was a weird name for a rhythm section: the wrecking crew.
Viv: I was going to ask you: why the wrecking crew?
Leon: It sounds like a name that was made up with a writer who was not necessarily a musician. Like, there was a guy interviewing me from Musician Magazine and I said something like, “Well there was a lot of clams in this” and when I read the article he said, “There was a lot of clamors”. Next time I talked to him I said, “You know, you really ought to realize if you’re going to be talking to musicians you need to learn the vernacular.” Clamor is not it. It’s clams. I guess that happens.
Viv: I think that’s so funny how we love to go back and re-write history and name things in ways.
Leon: Writers tend to do that. That’s what they do I guess. They write reality in the way they see it. I thought it was interesting that since I was actually there, I never heard that until Hal Blaine’s book came out. In my own life, I see that people talk about the Tulsa sound and then when I hear somebody describe what the Tulsa sound is, it sounds like the rhythm section descriptive that I made of the Jerry Lee Lewis rhythm section, which was quite unusual I thought at the time. The drummer played it kind of a Ska Shuffle and Jerry Lee played straight beat on top of it, which made that sound. Whoever I told that story to sort of precipitated into the Tulsa Sound, which is not that at all. That’s what happens I guess. It’s kind of like that child’s game where people whisper something around the circle.
Viv: How funny. So, you have been able to surf across, but create that sound across genres. Was that even a conscious thought or was that just how the music came?
Leon: Most of my stuff is unconscious. I was talking to Tommy LiPuma, he was the producer on this new album that I just did. And when I first met him he was walking with two canes-this is, of course, forty-five, fifty years ago. Looked like he had really a lot of trouble even walking at all. When I saw him recently when we did the album, he was just kind of walking with the cane or sometimes no cane at all. Looked like he had improved in some way. I’m not sure what his malady was but he did tell me that he had fifteen operations. But when we were doing this record I said, “Isn’t this amazing? If you hadn’t had your injury and I hadn’t had mine, I’d probably be selling car insurance in Paris, Texas.” And he said, “Yeah, and I’d be cutting hair in Cleveland.” So, a lot of times weird things come into the reality of your life.
John: That was Leon Russell singing “That Lucky Old Son” from his 2014 release “Life Journey”. I’m John Dillon with Viv Nesbitt and this is Art of the Song.
Viv: Leon, this sounds like an out-of-the-blue kind of question, but how did you survive? This is such an intense, difficult business that comes from the heart, that’s deeply spiritually connected, how did you survive?
Leon: I was lucky, probably. I came from a dry state, Oklahoma. It was dry was I started playing clubs at the age of fourteen. Dry state doesn’t mean there’s no alcohol; it means there’s not alcohol laws. So I was able to start at the age of fourteen. At seventeen I went to California, actually to get into advertising, but that was too painful. So I started trying to play in nightclubs and I found out that I couldn’t get into nightclubs until I was 21. Not only that, I had to belong to the union and the union wouldn’t let me join their local unless I didn’t work for a year. Talk about some nasty stuff. I had to borrow union cards and borrow IDs, which would be great until they changed doormen. And I’d walk up there, and I’d already given my IDs back and the guy said, “Let me see your ID” and I said, “I didn’t bring it with me” and I couldn’t go to work. Awful.
Viv: So you just learned to be canny and navigate all of this.
Leon: Well, it was tough. I lived in California for six months one time and we had two off-night gigs a month, $15 a night, $30 for the month. Me and my drummer lived in a trailer court. But it wasn’t a trailer; it was a little room that was next to the showers and restrooms for the trailer court. We lived there for six months. The rent was, I think, $14 a month, so we had to pay the rent and pay for all the food for a month. There was a McDonalds or something like that across the street and one day I could have a hamburger and the next day I could have French fries and a coke. It was pretty weird, really. Sometimes some people in the club would feed us on Sunday. So it was a pretty tough time.
Viv: Did it ever occur to you to do another job? Something else?
Leon: Industrial plumbing. I thought about it many times. I should have done industrial plumbing.
Viv: There’s serious money in that.
John: So, what changed? When did it happen that you were actually able to make a decent living with your music?
Leon: It was an odd thing. I went through that whole age and union problem until about the week when I was 21. I had started playing sometime before that, actually a few months. I had started playing demos for Jackie DeShannon. She was signed to Metric Music, which is a division of Liberty Records who, incidentally, Tommy LiPuma worked for as a promotion man. So I played on all of her and Sharon Sheeley’s demos and she met Jack Nitzsche someplace and introduced me to Jack Nitzsche and I started playing on all of his records, and it just sort of exponentially got bigger and bigger. On the week that I had my 21st birthday, where I was able to play in the clubs, I was playing so many sessions that I couldn’t afford to play clubs. Also, I was not having to pay any union percentages because they never would let me in and I had all these massive sessions coming up and they were always giving me a terrible time, “You got to join the union” and I said, “You wouldn’t let me join the union when I needed to. And I don’t need to now, and I’m not going to.” Me and Glen Campbell and James Burton.
Viv: That was Leon Russell singing “Fool’s Paradise”.
John: The concert for Bangladesh was a milestone in Rock n’ Roll history and it kind of set the standard for many benefit concerts to come. Tell us about your involvement with that and what was it like?
Leon: Well, George Harrison called me up one day and said that Ravi Shankar had called him asking to figure out a way to get some help for Bangladesh because there were terrible famines. So, George had this idea of doing a concert to raise money. I said, “Well you could go one step further, you could actually make a foundation and do a concert every year and just not ever spend the money, only spend the interest.” And he sent Al Aronowitz to Washington, D.C. to talk to Buckminster Fuller about it. And Buckminster said, “I can build housing, temporary housing, for 250,000 people for two million dollars.” And so Al came back and told George and George didn’t want to do it, he was afraid he would be (this is an exact quote), “The laughing stock of the world”. It’s amazing people that don’t know who they’re dealing with, it’s hard to imagine that anybody could pull that off. Buckminster Fuller was full of stuff that nobody could imagine that he could pull off.
John: So many cool people involved, what was it like backstage?
Leon: Well, between the shows, I was sitting there talking to Bob Dylan, I was always a huge fan of Bob Dylan, thing about Bob, he always told me everything I wanted to know about songwriting, about the music business, about life. Any question I had, he was happy to answer it. So we were backing in this dressing room, and dressing rooms at Madison Square garden are for teams. They’re for fifty people, but we had a pretty good cast. So I was sitting over there talking to Bob in one corner of the dressing room, all the rest of the cast was as far away as you could get from us on the other side of the dressing room, like they were afraid he was going to bite them or something. But I said, “Bob, play ‘Boots of Spanish Leather'” and he’d play it. And I’d say, “Play ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and he’d play that. He’d sit there and play everything that I’d ask him to play. He always did everything I asked him to do. It was amazing. I’m not sure why, except that he told me one time, he said, “You know, it amazes me you get up on the stage for twelve or fifteen people and it’s great. And I get up there with one extra person and it’s just terrible.” It’s a few things to know I suppose about leading a band if you don’t know those things, you can be in trouble I guess.
Viv: What’s the most important thing you should know about leading a band?
Leon: One of the things that I’ve found out is that bigger bands are easier, especially in Rock n’ Roll. I don’t know if you remember, there were these things that they used to have in Los Angeles called “love-ins” and what it amounted to was 300 or 400 people beating on beer cans or different objects. You start out from three blocks away and you can here this fantastic groove going on. Get closer and closer and you got to the fringe, there was a whole bunch of people that, if you pardon me, didn’t know their a** from a hole in the ground when it came to a groove. But the average was fantastic. It’s much tougher to form a band like the Beatles than it is to make a band like the Mad Dogs and the Englishman. That’s why I use three drummers and a big chorus and a lot of people because it kind of averaged out like those love-ins. You got to get one drummer that is absolutely on the money. That’s much tougher to do than to get a drum section. When I went to Lagos, Nigeria, I probably saw eight or ten bands, they had ten drummers, and a guitar and a sax. You’d think that’s an odd instrumentation, but I saw ten in a row like that. The drum section in many ways was averaging out like those love-ins.
Viv: Do you ever feel, Leon, that you have written music for a specific purpose?
Leon: Well I used to only write it for a specific purpose. I only wrote it if I had a reason. I’ve had houses with studios in them for forty-five years, and I’d sit in those studios and wait for inspiration. I’d wait for a reason to write the song and I’d end up writing one or two songs a year, or I’d make recordings of me writing the songs and so forth. At a certain point, I said, “I got to figure this out better, this is not right. I need to be able to go to work like an accountant or a bricklayer and go do my job and then come home and eat and go to bed. I can’t do this waiting around for inspiration.” So, about the time I was making my wedding album, I started doing some research about how to do it. I read a book, I think it was called, “How to Write the Popular Song” and I tried some of the exercises that they had to say, They said, “First of all, in the heart of every prose writer, there’s a failed poet”, that was the first line of the book. And they talked about the blank page, how threatening the blank page was and it had to do with the writer or the singer or whatever trying to be the audience and the performer at the same. Said that doesn’t work. You can’t do that. You have to separate it. And they gave some suggestions about what to do about it, which I tried and it absolutely worked. I can write you one write now. So that was a huge breakthrough with me.
Viv: We’ll be right back with more from our conversation with Leon Russell. This is Viv Nesbitt with John Dillon. You’re listening to Art of the Song.
John: Welcome back to Art of the Song. We’re talking with legendary musician and songwriter Leon Russell.
Viv: So let’s talk about this new project, the one that you’re out touring. How did it come about and what’s different about this one?
Leon: After I did that record with Elton, I had the president of EMI and the president of Universal come up to me. They both wanted me to do an album. So, ok, I decided I’d start on it and called up Johnny Barbas, who was my manager at the time, also Elton’s manager, I said, “Give me some money, I want to do this record” and he said, “Elton wants you to have a producer”. I’ve never had producers. I’ve always made my own records. I think Elton’s always had producers and he’s been much more successful at it than I am. But that’s kind of odd for me because I was trying to think who I could get that I wouldn’t get mad at in the middle of the deal and fight and walk out and do all that stuff. So a lot of names came up, but I was in Montreux, Switzerland at some kind of a Jazz event, I don’t know what I was doing there actually, but I ran into Tommy LiPuma, who I’d known for forty-five or fifty years, like I said I’d met him when he was a promotion man at Liberty, and asked him if he had time to do it and he said, “I’ll make time”. He’s a pretty powerful producer really, I thought they ought to be impressed with that. I was a little bit worried in the beginning because of the records of his that he had made, I was worried that he might suffer a certain amount of Jazz damage. And I, myself, am not a Jazz. I did belong to the Columbia Record Club. I did get Benny Goodman and J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, just by accident I suppose. But I never have thought much about Jazz. It always seemed to me that to a lot of the Jazz players spontaneous melodies were important to the exclusion of time and other factors, which I couldn’t quite relate to. But anyway, Tommy said that he would do it and I spent so much money on it. I had fifteen studios in my forty-five years there, and I spent so much money on studios that I didn’t have enough money on musicians and I ended up planning everything myself largely. So this album cost more than all albums put together that I cut in my life. And we did it at Capitol Records, we did it with Al Schmitt, great engineer, great studios. I worked on Bobby Darin records there and different people, but I never could afford that place. It was too expensive and I couldn’t afford the twenty-five-piece band. That was expensive. So it was very different from that standpoint. When we first started talking, Tommy and I, I said, “I always imagined when I’m playing the ensemble on my piano that it was Count Basie actually playing and there would be little obbligatos in between, but I was fascinated. His ensemble just sounded fantastic. So Tommy showed up with one of Count Basie’s principle writing guys that had written his charts for ten years, played bass for him. Stood next to him to give him his cues. John Clayton his name is. When they ran the first song down, I thought to myself, “Boy this chart is too tough. These guys are not going to be able to play this.” But then they played it the second time and it was perfect. Come to find out that that is a full-time existing band. They play together all the time. They play on shows and different things and John Clayton uses them on his records. So, I was a little bit rattled because John had played with Count Basie for ten years. The drummer, who’s the other name in the band, played for Oscar Peterson. Those people are real musicians. I’m an illusionist. I just create the illusion of being a great piano player. Those people actually are great piano players. So I was pretty rattled that the whole time I found myself playing a lot of octaves. It was great though, I love to sit there and hear that music, the many horns and stuff is fantastic.
Viv: That was Leon Russell backed by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra singing the Duke Ellington standard “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”.
John: How did you choose the songs to go on the album?
Leon: We just had conversations. Tommy just came down to Nashville a couple times and we talked and we talked on the phone. He sent me types of stuff that he liked and then I discovered that he really was a blues hound like me. That Jazz thing I was worried about was more a front or something. I don’t know. I remember, when I was in Brazil, me and my wife were walking around and I was singing “One Ton Tomato” all the time I was down there and he said, “Oh yeah, I cut that with The Sandpipers. That was so great. They were supposed to do a narration on it and I got this DJ to do it and he went out and did it and he sounded like a DJ” and I said, “No, do it like this!” And I showed him how to do it and my engineer recorded it and that was me on the record doing the narration. So there was really not much I could ever mention to him that he hadn’t been there and done that. It was kind of interesting.
John: And there’s a couple of new original tunes on the record.
Leon: Yes, a couple of songs that I wrote. People think that I went away or something for years, but I just lost contact with the public. I was always fond of misdirecting the press in whatever way that I could or not talking to them at all. But I was making records the whole time. I had about ten that I put out on the Internet, not with any promotion or anything, but those two songs were on those records. So I sent him a bunch of my original songs and he liked those too. I sent him “Big Lips” and my daughters were trying to talk me out of it. They said, “Dad, don’t send that to him. That’s too nasty.” And that was one of his favorite ones.
John: Leon Russell singing “Big Lips”. I’m John Dillon with Viv Nesbitt and this is Art of the Song Creativity Radio.
Viv: Leon is there anything that you would offer up to somebody who’s trying to find their creative outlet?
Leon: I suppose one of them would be: don’t give up. Real jobs are a lot worse than songwriting. But it has to do with that one thing that I told you about: you can’t be the audience and the artist at the same time. You have to figure out a way to separate these. Like the exercise in that book, it said, “Get up every day for two weeks and write as many pages as you can. Don’t worry about poetry. Don’t worry about songs. Just write anything that’s on your mind and you should have twenty pages a day at least. But don’t read them. Don’t read them for two weeks. Two weeks, read them and pick out the stuff that looks like titles. That looks like it might be a good idea.” And that takes a lot of that performer and audience simultaneous stuff away, which it absolutely does.
Viv: We’ve talked today about the tremendous inequality that happens through the dual nature of the haves/the have-nots, races, age, a union that in order to join you have to not be working for a year…
Leon: That’s pretty weird, isn’t it?
Viv: It’s really weird. It just feels like that you’ve unified a certain level of things for yourself and I’m wondering how you did that. In order to navigate all those disparate ideas, whether they were racial, or classist, or any of the different things.
Leon: Well, I appreciate that thing that you guys do, you interviewers, for me, which is give the impression that I know what I’m doing, which is absolutely not the case. I do whatever it is. I try to make some money and make a living and so forth. A lot of times I can’t say that I know exactly what I’m doing. However, there was a time when I was writing, that I set out to write standards, and actually was successful. “A Song For You”, I wanted to write a blues song that Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles could sing. Those were the guidelines. That’s what I wanted to write. And I had that guy Doc, saxophone player for Tower of Power, came up to me one day, said, “Leon, how do you get all those people to sing your songs?” I said, “I don’t know, it comes out on my record. I don’t do anything, except make the record, which I guess is the demo.” But standard writing is different than pop writing. I can’t tell you really what the difference is I don’t think.
Viv: And yet at the same time, with the union, you were recording a very special album with the King of the Pop realms, and you’ve been recorded by Jazz artists, and R&B artists, and Country artists. You’ve cut your own Country albums. These things just flow out of you. Genre nonspecific. It’s just music.
Leon: Genre nonspecific? That’s a good name for a band. I don’t know. I didn’t play in a hillbilly band until I went to California. And I have to tell you, there’s many more hillbillies in California than there is in Oklahoma. I don’t care what anybody says. But I never was in a band like that in Oklahoma. I played piano bars and different kinds of standards I suppose. I played a lot of those tunes. As a matter of fact, several of the songs on this album, like “The Masquerade is Over”, I’ve played that for many singers. The first time I sung it was when I was making my demo to give to Tommy. I never had sung that song before and so, when I was making the record that was probably the second time I sang it. But he got so excited. I sent it to him; he got so excited, he said, “Oh I’ve been running around all over Manhattan playing this for my friends”. I don’t know. John Denver got it right: life is a funny, funny riddle.
Viv: Truer words. Leon Russell, thank you so much for….
Leon: Is it over??
Viv: We could sit here….
John: We could keep going if you like.
Viv: I just feel like we could sort of just muse around until they made you go on stage, but we don’t want to take up your whole time this afternoon.
Leon: Well, I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.
Viv: Your welcome. And we’ll be sure to keep in touch and let you know when it’s going to air and all that. Thanks again.
Leon: It’s my pleasure.