The Austin City Limits staff was sorry to learn about the passing of rock & roll legend Leon Russell on Sunday at the age of 74. Though not a household name like so many others of his generation, the piano-pounding singer/songwriter was an important trailblazer of 60s and 70s rock and a prime influence on artists as diverse as Elton John, Bruce Hornsby and Pixies vocalist Black Francis. After relocating from Tulsa to Los Angeles in the 1950s, the Oklahoma native became a first-call session musician, playing on records by the Byrds, Glen Campbell, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and many, many more, including regular dates for super-producer Phil Spector. In the late 60s, Russell became musical director for British soul singer Joe Cocker, producing his 1969 hit self-titled album, penning the hit single “Delta Lady” and pulling together the loose conglomeration that backed Cocker on his star-making live LP Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
Russell’s solo career began in earnest in 1970 with his eponymous LP, which contains the standard “A Song For You,” as covered by everyone from Ray Charles to the Carpenters to Amy Winehouse. (Not to mention Willie Nelson, whose recording of the song from the 1975 ACL pilot gives our upcoming documentary its title.) Russell worked prolifically from then on, as songwriter, producer, sessioneer and solo artist. As well as label owner – his Shelter Records housed not only his own work (including gold records Leon Russell and the Shelter People, featuring “Stranger in a Strange Land,” and Carney, featuring “Tight Rope” and “This Masquerade”) but also Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Freddie King, J.J. Cale, the Dwight Twilley Band, the Gap Band and the sole album by Texas’ own Willis Alan Ramsey.
For the last 30-odd years the iconoclastic Russell worked in any idiom that struck his fancy, merging rock, country, blues, jazz, bluegrass and Dixieland into a style uniquely his own. He’s toured and worked extensively with Willie Nelson and B.B. King, among others. In recent years he teamed up with longtime admirer Elton John for the 2011 duets record The Union, produced by T Bone Burnett, and most recently released the album Life Journey in 2014. He continued to tour, slowed down only by a heart attack earlier this year. Russell was a man living within in his own place in time, not a revivalist but a revival unto himself. He will be missed.
Russell appeared on Austin City Limits twice: as a headliner in Season 14 (1987) and as a guest of Willie Nelson in Season 25 (2000). The clip below is taken from the former, and features his take on his great ballad “A Song For You.”