BACK in the days when pop news travelled sufficiently slowly around here for Rodriguez to become, successively, a hero, a legend, a martyr and, ultimately, an indirect Oscar winner — which goes to show that you can fool some of the people all of the time, especially when they’re not paying much attention and you keep enough of the facts from them — Leon Russell’s appearance in the Concert For Bangladesh film, playing alongside Bob Dylan and George Harrison and even given a brief spot of his own, raised a few eyebrows.
Who was this guy anyway?
A few will have known him from the previous year’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, where he was nearly as much of a star of the movie as Joe Cocker; fewer will have known his solo recordings.
Those who did what Russell did, and those with whom he did it, never did it quite the same way, but they nearly always did it more famously.
He has been called the ultimate session man, though there have been a few of those, and several of the songs he wrote have found huge public acceptance in the hands of others.
Everybody in those film audiences will have heard his work even if they didn’t know it, whether on the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man single, when the record company wouldn’t allow any actual Byrds except Jim McGuinn to play, or as one of Phil Spector’s revolving team of players, or on records by a list that ranged alphabetically from Herb Alpert to The Ventures, and stylistically from an easy listening album entitled Rhapsodies For Young Lovers to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed.
I can’t be sure exactly when I bought his first solo album, called Leon Russell and released in 1970.
What I do recall is sitting in my bedroom playing Hummingbird over and over for the last minute or so, where a gospel choir featuring Bonnie Bramlett, Merry Clayton and maybe Cocker himself wails away on the "don’t fly away" chorus, with Jim Horn doing his best King Curtis impersonation over the top, and my little portable record player appearing, to me anyway, to levitate with Pentecostal joy at a sound that is no less thrilling about 40 years later on a CD played through decent speakers, though it may just have too much soul for an MP3 through an iPod.
The contrast with Russell’s own sour and scratchy drawl that, possibly deliberately, seemed to blur and slur the distinction, later on in the album, between "hurt somebody" and "hate somebody" could hardly have been more pronounced, or more effective.
There’s a mighty guest list.
Even in an era when these appearances were commonplace and British rockers were often in search of a little southern soul cred, two Beatles and two or three Stones on your album will have been impressive.
Despite the presence of a couple of telling guitar turns by Eric Clapton, and Steve Winwood and most of the Delaney & Bonnie gang, who would have been quite at home amid the gospel-drenched rock ’n’ soul favoured by Russell — with the roaring Pisces Apple Lady the epitome of hippie soul — it is Russell, that drawl, his rolling piano and, above all, his songs, rather than his celebrated friends, that grab and hold the attention.
A Song For You has been covered hundreds of times, but is seldom as affectingly sung as the original; Delta Lady has a raw power that even Joe Cocker hardly matched; Shoot Out On The Plantation seems to have been the inspiration for about half of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, and the rest maintain the quality.
Russell is still out there, doing what he does, but with him this first cut surely was the deepest.