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Discovering the Musical Legacy ­of Leon Russell

by Keith Purtell

Leon Russell

Leon Russell

Somewhere between rock ’n’ roll stomp and lush lyricism, pianist Leon Russell found an unclaimed patch of musical landscape, and he made it his own. He forged a unique style which blends rock, blues, pop, gospel and country.

Russell’s best ideas — “Tightrope,” “Me And Baby Jane,” “Roll Away The Stone,” “My Cricket,” “Magic Mirror” — illustrate his eclectic nature.

An Oklahoma boy who emerged on the scene in the 1960s, Russell demonstrated an extremely promising combination of style, technical ability and prodigious song-writing talent. His infamous 1979 on-air interview with Tulsa, Oklahoma, FM radio station KMOD revealed a relaxed good humor that has always graced his work and on-stage persona.

Leon Russell interviewed about his early years

Not all of Russell’s musical qualities instantly endearing. God knows his voice isn’t pretty. Even that limitation has usually fallen before his determination.

Until the double-CD “Gimme Shelter,” I had never heard his rendition of the country classic, “She Thinks I Still Care.” Something in the way Leon pours his heart into the chorus makes the raspy quality of his voice seem totally irrelevant. The effect of such an inspired performance is a compelling example of his oft-noted charisma. It also makes a statement about the emergence of artistic power past physical limitations.

Leon Russell

Leon Russell

So, why was Leon’s tenure as a top-selling artist not longer? Musicians of lesser merit have experienced wider spans of career success. It may have been record industry intolerance of an individualist. And, the market can be merciless to musicians who don’t stick to a predictable production and touring schedule.

I got to wondering how it is that a few artists keep producing good ideas while others drift into obscurity? Other professions are more durable. A good carpenter may go on working for as long as he is able. A physician likewise seems limited by nothing more than her zeal and physical vigor.

Artists sometimes seem destined to a short, glorious season of about 10 years. Are there rare and vital ingredients in artistic success that slip away after a while? Loss of youthful enthusiasm? Disappointment with fame?

Is it just a misperception that creative power is compressed into a specific phase of life? Or am I a selfish fan, expecting gifted people like Leon to spend their entire lives at top form? Whatever the answers, Russell remains an idiosyncratic and deeply sensitive artist.

Here are some samples of Leon's music:

   Delta Lady

   Beware of Darkness

   My Cricket

   She Thinks I Still Care

Suggested listening: “Leon Russell And The Shelter People,” “Carney,” “Hank Wilson’s Back.”

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