Leon Russell, a gravelly voiced singer and pianist who wrote many pop and rock standards in the 1970s, including “This Masquerade,” “Tight Rope” and “A Song For You,” died Nov. 13 at his home in Nashville. He was 74.
His wife, Jan Bridges, confirmed his death in a statement but did not give a cause. Mr. Russell had been treated for a brain fluid leak in 2010. He had heart surgery in July and recently canceled several concerts.
A multifaceted talent, Mr. Russell was known equally for quietly intimate ballads and gospel-inflected, high-energy showstoppers, and was widely regarded as one of the 1970s’ most engaging rock performers. In an era when most musicians were content to wear jeans and T-shirts, he was distinguished by suits, top hats, vests and ruffled shirts that went with his shoulder-length hair and long beard.
He served as band director for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen band, performed in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, recorded with Willie Nelson and Elton John, and was one of the most frequently covered rock songwriters of that era. He built his own recording studios in Los Angeles and Tulsa and started his own independent record company, Shelter Records — a business model for many later performers.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Mr. Russell was regarded by many as a “rock and roll renaissance man,” as the hall noted, whose “quixotic half-century in music” stretched from his teen years imitating Jerry Lee Lewis in Oklahoma honky-tonks to his collaboration with John, a longtime admirer, in 2010.
Mr. Russell’s music borrowed liberally from blues, gospel, jazz and country — musical idioms all native to his home state of Oklahoma. However, his writing stood apart with a melodic flair and pop sensibility that impressed a wide range of performers from very different genres.
The love song “A Song For You” was recorded by more than 100 performers, including Andy Williams, Willie Nelson, Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles, and featured introspective lyrics that contrasted the public and private worlds of the performer:
I’ve been so many places in my life and time
I’ve sung a lot of songs
I’ve made some bad rhymes
I’ve acted out my life on stages
With 10,000 people watching
But we’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you
Another ballad, “This Masquerade,” helped establish jazz guitarist George Benson as a vocalist, while “Hummingbird” gave blues singer B.B. King a rare pop hit. “Superstar,” co-written by singer Bonnie Bramlett, became an easy-listening hit for the clean-cut duo the Carpenters, although the lyrics provided an ironic portrait of the rock-groupie culture.
In concert, Mr. Russell also excelled at interpreting songs by other rock performers, including his medley of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the Coasters’ “Young Blood.”
Mr. Russell emerged as a showman in the late 1960s after almost two decades as a successful session musician. By his own admission, he was an ear player who never mastered reading charts.
Despite that seeming limitation, Mr. Russell hustled his way into the elite Los Angeles recording session cadre informally known as the Wrecking Crew and played on recordings by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Ike and Tina Turner, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra. During this period, he taught himself lead guitar, aided by studio guitarist James Burton.
Mr. Russell also performed in the Shindogs, the house band on the ABC-TV rock-and-roll show “Shindig!” from 1964 to 1966, with guitarists Burton, a fellow Wrecking Crew member, and Delaney Bramlett, a frequent collaborator.
When Bramlett and his wife, Bonnie, a backup singer with Ike and Tina Turner, formed the loose-knit band Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, they hired Mr. Russell as the pianist.
He was born Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1942. He started classical piano lessons at 4. He believed that a childhood injury to his upper vertebrae gave him a slower right hand and contributed to his style.
In his teens, he performed in Oklahoma clubs with guitarist J.J. Cale and singer David Gates, later of Bread, and even played second piano behind Jerry Lee Lewis when he came through town. (Early demo recordings in the rockabilly style of Lewis and credited to Russell Bridges surfaced in the 1980s.)
By 17, he had moved to Los Angeles, working first as a lounge pianist and later as a studio musician. About a decade later, he built his own recording studio and recorded two albums with guitarist Marc Benno as the Asylum Choir. With co-producer Denny Cordell, he started the record company Shelter in 1969. Mr. Russell and Cordell produced recordings by Cale and blues singers Freddie King and Jimmy Rogers.
However, he drew greater acclaim for his work as co-producer and arranger on Cocker’s album “Joe Cocker,” which yielded the hit from Mr. Russell’s pen, “Delta Lady.” When Cocker’s band broke up, Mr. Russell assembled Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a large band with three drummers and 10 backup singers.
The live album and concert film that followed in 1970, “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” featured Cocker’s band under the direction of Mr. Russell, resplendent in his top hat.
That same year, Mr. Russell released his first solo album, “Leon Russell,” which featured “A Song For You.” His later popular recordings included the songs “Back to the Island” and “Lady Blue.” Mr. Russell also branched out into country music on an album of duets with singer Willie Nelson and a concert recording with the bluegrass group New Grass Revival.
Survivors include his wife of 37 years, the former Jan Lee Constantine, and six children. His earlier marriage to Mary McCreary, a singer who recorded with him as Mary Russell, ended in divorce.
“I’m an illusionist,” Mr. Russell quipped to the L.A. Record last year. “I give the illusion of being a great piano player, but I’m actually a magician. If it’s my own playing, I do good.”
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