Rolling Away The Stone:  A Tribute to the Majesty of Leon Russell

Jesse Lauter on November 16, 2016

Photo by Linda Wolf

This week will forever be considered one of the darkest and strangest in recent memory. The election of Donald Trump has thrown the future of our nation into a bizarre state of uncertainty, we lost arguably the greatest songwriter in modern music with the passing of Leonard Cohen, and a certain troubadour who was a source of spiritual comfort for many entered the place where “there is no Space & Time.” Claude Russell Bridges, whom the world lovingly knew as Leon Russell, was a “Rainbow Minister & Ringleader” for the Hippie Generation, a “superstar” that shone very brightly but briefly. He was Modern Americana personified, carrying a deep understanding of all facets of popular music—rock, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, R&B, soul, funk, the Great American Songbook. The headlines bemoan the death of a “Southern Rock Legend” but Leon’s influence is palpable across the entire nation and beyond. He was loved in Red States and Blue States alike. He was the definition of the Purple State.

Genius is not a word that should be thrown around lightly but anyone who knew Leon or worked with him described him as such. He had perfect-pitch (where he could hear a car honk and identify what key it was in), a vast knowledge of history, and a keen awareness on how to direct a large school of musicians. He channeled his talents through his diverse songs– which ranged from heart-rending ballads (such as his two most acclaimed originals, “A Song For You” and “ Superstar”) to high-energy rockers (“Delta Lady,” ”Of Thee I Sing”)– a salt-of-the-earth voice (which he personally hated, telling me once that he thought “sounded like a cross between Tom Waits and Moms Mabley”), and a blistering style of stride & boogie-woogie piano– a unique twist on the playing of his two heroes, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. He was a shy-man who managed to breakthrough his stage-fright with his “Cosmic Ecclesiastic” character, a persona he embodied only for a brief period (1970-1973). You can witness Leon at his prime by watching any of the following films– Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Les Blank’s recently unearthed A Poem Is A Naked Person, 1970’s Leon Russell & Friend’s , or the very rare 1972 Long Beach concert video.

He was not only a solo artist, but an in-demand producer, arranger, and session-player, who worked with the “crème de la crème”—Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, The Band, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman, Doris Day, Gram Parsons, Dean Martin, Doug Sahm, Harry Nilsson, The Everly Brothers, BB King, Freddie King, and Joe Cocker. His impact lasted generations, giving Elton John “the recipe for his voice” and piano playing, as well as influencing The Black Crowes, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gov’t Mule, Bruce Hornsby, Widespread Panic, and the Zac Brown Band. He may have looked like an Old Sage (or even the Messiah himself), but he only lived to 74 and was to his dying day a working musician.

Leon was a product of Oklahoma (specifically Lawton and eventually Tulsa) and came out of an “Okie Talent Pool” that included several musicians that would remain close collaborators throughout his life, including guitarists J.J. Cale, Jesse Ed Davis, future Derek & The Domino bassist Carl Radle, and legendary drummers Jim Keltner and Chuck Blackwell. He wasn’t even 18 when he arrived to Los Angeles and quickly became a member of the heralded “Wrecking Crew,” playing on some of the greatest sessions in the history of recorded music: Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby,” The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” “The Little Old Lady” & “Surf City” by Jan & Dean, Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” The Byrds ‘“Mr. Tambourine Man, and even Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night.”

Photo by Linda Wolf

But Leon didn’t grow into his own skin until psychedelia became vogue, working with Marc Benno in their “Asylum Choir” and subsequently with (the still criminally underrated) Delaney & Bonnie. His watershed moment came when he was asked to assemble Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a 43-person traveling-rock-circus and three-month tour that many still consider to be Leon’s crowning achievement. After the Mad Dogs and the release of its companion tour-diary-documentary and album, Leon became an overnight sensation- topping charts, gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, orchestrating George Harrison’s ground-breaking Concert for Bangladesh, and eventually becoming a Muppet (yes, Dr. Teeth is a combination of Leon, Dr. John, and Leon’s pupil Sir Elton). He was the white Sly Stone (an artist he revered), a bandleader who constructed multi-cultural ensembles that healed Hippies’ spirits during the Nixon Years. I can go on and on about the specifics of his illustrious career, but if you want to truly understand Leon Russell, I’d strongly recommend listening to Leon Live, his triple live-album from 1973, a monster collection featuring the best band he ever assembled: The Shelter People. It is his finest hour, and in my opinion, the greatest live record ever made (even more so than the beloved Mad Dogs & Englishmen). Shrill in recording quality but undeniable in energy. It’s The Church of Leon documented for the ages.

I don’t want discuss Leon’s “decline,” but it’s a fact that his star slightly fell in the mid-70s (despite Grammy nods for his 1980 collaboration with Willie Nelson and writing a hit for George Benson in 1977 with “This Masquerade, as well as releasing one of his more underrated records, 1981’s The Live Album  with the New Grass Revival), and it’s the ultimate reason why more people are not familiar with his legacy. However those from younger generations who know about Leon Russell LOVE LEON RUSSELL. His music is precisely what you need to make your soul feed good on a bad day. There might be Jesus metaphors in many of his songs (the title of one of his most beloved numbers is “Prince of Peace”), but Leon never meant to proselytize. His ulterior mission was to repair the souls of people dealing daily with Vietnam, Watergate, Kent State, and the still fresh assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It’s no wonder why his record label was called Shelter Records. He wanted to provide a place of musical refuge from the nation’s unrest. Leon was a spiritual person, intimately knowledgeable about gospel music and a collaborator with the greatest gospel musicians (including the father of modern gospel music, Andrae Crouch). Leon’s music was church, but not one of fire & brimstone. Rather it was one of free-love, flamboyant fashion (with top hats and boa scarves to boot) and LSD… (The Holy Trinity… if you know what I mean…)

Some say “never work with your idols,” but it was the highest honor of my life to film Leon for my upcoming documentary about the Mad Dogs & Englishmen Reunion at the 2015 Lockn’ Festival, which was assembled by the Tedeschi Trucks Band and featured many of the original Mad Dogs, including Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Chris Staiton, and Chuck Blackwell. Also on board were special guests, all devotees to the “Church of Leon,” including Chris Robinson, Warren Haynes, John Bell, Dave Mason and Anders Osbourne. People often describe Leon as an intimidating, “Rasputin-like” figure, but over the course of that week, we all got to know Leon for who he truly was—a charming, funny, and sweet person. He was very excited about the reunion (repeatedly saying, “This going to be fun… like Six Flags!”), constantly spitting out jokes, and even engaging in political discourse (“The Republicans? They’re not balanced at all!”).

But when it came down to brass tacks, he was straight business—playing and singing with all his might, giving tips to the musicians, beaming with joy as Derek ripped a solo or Susan wailed on the mic, and even leading the troupe through some surreal improvised jams. He was fully engaged with everyone in that rehearsal room, even though it must’ve been an overwhelming experience for him (he was working with dozens of people he hadn’t seen in over 45 years). He was like the elder statesman of the experience and treated everyone with love, respect and humility, which ultimately guided that massive collective to deliver one of the finest and most memorable shows any of us had ever seen or any of the musicians had been a part of. People still come up to me who had no prior knowledge of Leon’s music or what the Mad Dogs were, but were lucky enough to witness the Lockn’ set, and tell me it was one of the top concert experiences of their life.

We need more performers and risk-takers like Leon in this day-and-age, especially ones who are comfortable with spirituality and sexuality in the way that he was, and most importantly, ones who put the highest premium on musicianship. It is my hope that the legacy of Leon Russell lives on more profoundly than ever, so below you’ll find a Spotify playlist I’ve made of my personal favorite solo songs (as well as tracks he produced or played on), as well as some choice lyrics that are very appropriate in these troubling times.

And let us all proclaim…”Long Live The Master of Space & Time!”

“Prince of Peace” (from “Leon Russell,” 1970)

Never treat a brother like a passing stranger
Always try to keep the love light burning
Sing a song of love and open up your heart
For you might be the prince of peace returning

“Stranger In A Strange Land” (from “Leon Russell and the Shelter People,” 1971)

Leaders take us far away from ecology
With mythology and astrology
Has got some words to say
About the way we live today
Why can’t we learn to love each other
It’s time to turn a new face
To the whole world wide human race

Stop the money chase
Lay back, relax
Get back on the human track
Stop racing toward oblivion
Oh, such a sad, sad state we’re in
And that’s a thing
Do you recognize the bells of truth
When you hear them ring
Won’t you stop and listen
To the children sing Won’t you come on and sing it children…

Jesse Lauter is a Manhattan-based music producer/engineer/mixer, rock-doc director, DJ and guitar player.