STILL PLAYING A SONG FOR YOU
Leon Russell On Bangladesh, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and His Hot New Independent Label
by Michael Buffalo Smith
As I dialed up the number, my mind was still busy filtering the many random memories of Leon Russell's music that flooded my mind, from my first copy of "Carny" on 8-track, to the orange blacklight poster I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager-Leon wearing the "Holy Trinity" t-shirt - The single 45 of "Tightrope," and my discovery that The Carpenters' "Superstar" was penned by the same man who rocked like a madman on the cover of Circus Magazine.
I was pretty excited about this one, folks.
GRITZ is proud to present the following, a casual conversation with a true musical, icon. Leon Russell.
I've spoken with so many musicians over the years, and the two names that keep cropping up when we talk influences are Dr. John and Leon Russell. Who influenced you to want to play music?
I think originally it was probably jus the music itself. I was pecking around on the piano when I was three, trying to figure it out. In later years there were all sorts of people I saw and heard that really influenced me. Chuck berry was on the first rock and roll show i ever saw, and I thought he was really remarkable. I also studied classical music, and thought some of those guys were incredible. I also thought Harpo Marx was pretty great- that comedy versus great harp playing going on. I don't know, it's hard to say. The list goes into the hundreds. (Laughs)
I can understand that. During the sixties you played on so many hit records as a noted studio musician and a member of The Wrecking Crew. What would you say are some of the most memorable sessions that you played on?
Well, one time I played on a Sam Cooke record. That was remarkable. I was glad I got a chance to be there for that. Also, I played on an Aretha Franklin record for Columbia, and there was an orchestra on it. At the end of it there was the tapping of all these violin bows on the stands. That was pretty remarkable. Those guys are pretty cynical. They don't get very excited about anything. It was amazing. And of course there were the Phil Spector sessions, which were interesting, and a kind of experiment to see how many people you could get into a small room. (Laughs)
I guess the first rock and roll album I ever owned, I was turned on to by my Uncle John in California. It was "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." It changed my life. Tell me a little about your relationship with Joe Cocker and how you guys came to do this project.
Well, Joe had this band called The Grease Band, and he had a tour booked over here in the United States, fifty cities I believe. And right before he came over here he fired his band. He was just gonna cancel the tour. And I believe it was the Musicians Union that told him that if he canceled all those dates, they would never let him back into the United States again. Well, his producer was Denny Cordell, and he asked me if I could put something together in a very short amount of time, so Joe could play those dates. So i just basically called up my friends and people that I'd played with before and set that show up in a few days.
Incredible. I just love that album. I've always been a sucker for live albums anyway. Then came the Concert for Bangladesh. Tour thoughts of Bangladesh, George Harrison, and that whole project.
Ravi Shankar had asked George to do that. they were having this terrible famine in Bangladesh.Willie nelson told me in later years that the reason was because the U.S. Government had made them stop growing hemp, which was their main crop over there. They made their tents and rope and all out of it. The government made them stop growing it, and when they cleared the land it eroded. It was a nightmare. So Ravi asked George to help, and George asked me. I told him that rather than raising money just on time, that we should start a foundation, because that type of thing was happening around the world continually. we could put the money into the foundation and do 2-3 of those shows a year, and only use the interest from the foundation for the relief effort. I told him I thought a good person to head the foundation would be Buckminster Fuller. He didn't really know who he was. He sent this New York Post newspaper writer to Washington, DC to talk to Fuller, and Fuller said that he could make shelters for 250,000 people out of rolled newspaper for $2 million. George didn't want to do that. His exact quote was he "didn't want to be the laughing stock of the USA." But I said, you know, this guy's not kidding. If he says he can make those shelters for that, he can do it. But they didn't do that I'm afraid it was turned over to the United Nations and I heard that a lot of the supplies got to the docks and there wasn't any way to get them to the needed areas. So there wasn't as much good done at the time as there could have been. There's this preacher in the United States- i can't remember his name- but he has this campaign called Feed the Children. He was asking me about that Bangladesh thing, and I told him about all the money that was raised and all the supplies that were bought, and their problem was transportation, and that if he was going to raise money and distribute food, he'd better be sure he had his transportation together. I notice he's got a fleet of tractor trailers with this charity. Sorry, I'm rambling.
Not at all. It has always concerned me to know where the money and supplies go after the concert or fund raiser.
Well, logistics are a problem. they have to be taken into consideration. You can't just raise a big pile of money. That's not gonna do it. You have to know what to do when you do get it.
You did some work with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends too. How was that?
It was fun. They were quite a volatile couple. I played on, I think it was their first album.
You've played a lot of different styles of music during your career, from rock to jazz, country and bluegrass. Do you have a style that you prefer to play more than the others, or do you just like to play them all?
Well, I feel sorry for people who have jobs where they do the exact same thing everyday. I like to do different stuff everyday. I'm sure i wouldn't mind working on a assembly line if I could work on a different part of the line everyday. I think I probably play some of that stuff better than others. I'm not really a jazz player. I'm a fake, actually. (Laughs) Like those sessions in Los Angeles. I was hired by the writers, basically, so that they wouldn't have to write the piano parts. They'd take down the bar numbers and the chord changes and say 'play classical here' or 'play country her.' They didn't have to write it down, and so when it comes to actually playing classical music I don't do that very well, but I kind of make a stab at, an illusion of those different things.
Well, you make a real good stab, Leon. One album that really came out of left field and knocked my socks off was your 1979 album with Willie Nelson, "One for The Road."
Willie actually has a background in radio. he was a DJ for a time. He actually knows a lot about the record business, beyond being an artist. He had this idea that he was going to do a string of duet records with people he admired, and the one he did with me happened to be the first one of the series. I think he did eight or nine all together. he used to say that if we worked together we would be the biggest thing in country music. We cut 126 songs in five days. So somewhere there's about another 106 songs that didn't make it to the record.
Speaking of country. Like so many others, I loved the Hank Wilson albums. Did you ever do a tour as Hank Wilson?
Yeah, I did. I did a Hank Wilson tour with The Gap Band. I have been told it was the inspiration for that band down in Florida. Who was it? KC and The Sunshine Band. It was me and an all black band playing cowboy songs.
Why could I have not seen that! Man, that's cool!
Yeah, it lasted a couple of months. It was a lot of fun.
Are you planning another Hank Wilson album?
Yeah. It is a record called "Rhythm and Bluegrass," and I cut it with The New Grass Revival about 23 years ago. I never released it because I felt that the powers that be didn't understand what was going on. And bluegrass in many ways has kind of always had a stigma attached to it- at least in Nashville. they kind of freak out. But there's been a resurgence of music by T. Bone Burnette, and the music in that movie "Oh Brother Where Art Thou." Oddly enough, this music is like that. It's got a Ray Charles tune on it, and a Beatles tune. But it's a bluegrass album.
Those New Grass guys were, and are great. Was Bela Fleck in the band then?
Bela wasn't in the band then. It was Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch, and John Cowan on bass. I toured with those guys two years. We went to Australia and around the world. People in Australia walked in, and they didn't see any drums, and they started looking weird. They just kind of sat there and watched us for the first couple of songs. The new wavers got up and started jumping around, doing that funny little pogo dance.There were mixed reviews. We were playing with The Amazing Rhythm Aces. I think they actually liked them better. (Laughs) It was quite a different kind of show than what they were expecting.
Another favorite of ours is Edgar Winter. I know you've done a lot of work with him. Your thoughts on Edgar both as a musician and as a person?
Edgar is a music master. You talk about different genres, he's the real article. I don't think that many people know that there was a series of records done in Las Vegas style . David Lee Roth did one, and Edgar played on it. He plays the sax on the standards album I have coming out after the first of the year.
He was on some Tina Turner records too. Another album of yours I enjoyed was "Anything Can Happen," produced by Bruce Hornsby. How did you come to work with Bruce? Tell us a little about Bruce.
He's a great musician and he makes great records. I think he's responsible for inventing a genre of music that I think of as Shenandoah music. "Mandolin Rain" and stuff like that. Then he started drifting into jazz and away from that. i think he is primarily a jazz musician.
I'd like to talk to you a little about Leon Russell Records. What made you decide now to start your own record company?
I know you had Shelter Records in the '70's. It's a cycle thing in the music business. It ends up where there's four or five record companies responsible for all the records. And when that happens, there's so many people who don't fit the model of whatever guidelines they use for choosing their talent. They're not young enough, or they're not country enough- you know that whole list. Suddenly there are literally thousands of artists floating around who are great, but they can't get on a record label. So then comes the resurgence of small labels like mine that go in there and try to pick up the slack, and get those people exposed that should be heard. The window of music that the music listener would like, is about to the power of four, larger than the record companies would have you believe. I think it takes too much money to take a chance on something they don't recognize, which is largely everything. That's what this deal is for. To give people an opportunity who deserve a platform to be heard by music listeners, because I think they're going to enjoy it as much as I do. Of course my records are going to be on there too, but that's not the primary thrust of it. We have a girl vocalist and a guitar player who may be the best in the world. And we have the New Grass Revival and my son in law has a record and my son has a record. One of the components of the audience is that they like many different types of music, so we are going to put on many styles.
I read that you are working on a children's project.
It started out as a children's book. That is turning into a animated DVD. Me and the guys did the soundtrack for it. It'll be interesting I think. The kids might get a kick out of it.
What are the immediate future plans for you and your record company?
Well, we just want to get the records out there. There is a lot of competition. I was in Tower Records yesterday, and if you don't have some sort of special placement, they don't get seen. I have a record out called "Signature Songs." It is primarily piano and vocals. I noticed they had that sitting out with the new releases. i like that album a lot, actually. That's all the old songs that i have cut with just vocals and piano, mostly.