Leon Russell's Long Reach
by Justin Farrar | October 22, 2014
Rhapsody has officially declared it Classic Rock-tober! That means it's time to crank things up to 11, as we travel back in time to salute the finest in classic rock. Stay tuned each day of October for a new reason to rock out.
Leon Russell's latest effort, Life Journey -- released on April 1, a day before his 72nd birthday --- is a well-crafted summation of his sonic vision as it has unfolded over the last six decades. This is no small feat. After all, the proud Oklahoma native is one of the more difficult-to-classify artists to enter the classic rock pantheon. In addition to helping create the Tulsa Sound -- a prairie-dry mélange of Buddy Holly-inspired rockabilly, country & western and electric blues -- Russell has made idiosyncratic forays into Tin Pan Alley pop, swing jazz, bluegrass, New Orleans R&B and even psychedelia.
Of course, his vision becomes only that much more unclassifiable (and influential) when you also consider his work as studio musician, producer, label mogul, songwriter, cameo addict and Svengali-like manipulator of talent. In the mid-'60s, as keyboardist for the Wrecking Crew, arguably the most important session group in the history of American pop music, he appeared on landmark recordings by a slew of era-defining acts, including The Beach Boys, The Ronettes and The Byrds. Thus, it's no overstatement to say Russell played key roles in the births of folk rock, surf music and the girl group explosion.
By the dawn of the '70s, Russell, itching to become a pop star in his own right, had evolved from session whiz to a seemingly omnipresent character on the rock 'n' roll scene. On top of churning out a bunch of solo albums (1972's Carney is his all-time best), he worked with damn near everybody. One minute, he was serving as music director for British soul singer Joe Cocker; the next, he was busily penning monster pop hits like The Carpenters' "Superstar" (which he cowrote with the great Bonnie Bramlett). He also founded Shelter Records with partner Denny Cordell. Though Shelter didn't last long (a little over a decade), it became one of rock's hippest imprints by helping to launch the careers of JJ Cale (also from Tulsa), Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Phoebe Snow and power-pop pioneer Dwight Twilley. Shelter also has the distinction of releasing "Duppy Conqueror," Bob Marley's debut single in the United States. So yeah, Russell's reach is indeed long; to fully appreciate it, simply check out our all-encompassing playlist.