“Can I sing you one more love song…while I’m feelin’ this way”
Once in a while, an awards show can surprise you. At the 2010 Grammy Awards, my surprise came in the form of rock legend Leon Russell. Appearing with a new country group, the Zac Brown Band, Leon performed one of his signature songs from his debut, the classic “Dixie Lulluby”. The performance was characteristic of the career Leon has carved out: full of his gritty vocals, gospel piano flourishes and spectacular lyrical imagery. Leon has released dozens of albums and played hundreds, if not thousands, of live gigs since the early 1960’s. He has also performed with and produced some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Bob Dylan (Leon produced ‘Watching the River Flow’ among other accomplishments) and George Harrison (his scene stealing performance at the “Concert for Bangladesh”). His career began as a session player for Phil Spector’s ‘Wrecking Crew’ and as a weekly piano player on ABC’s ‘Shindig’, but quickly developed his “Master of Space and Time” persona for his solo career and years as a record producer/label head at his own Shelter Records.
The first Leon Russell solo albums werer bona fide hits that made him a superstar. Singles like the smash ‘A Song for You’, ‘Lady Blue’, ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ endeared him to an audience ready for a new type of piano playing superstar. While his contemporaries, like acolyte Elton John, were content to replicate their hit formulas to please the AM radio stations, Leon decided to take the road less travelled. He released albums in multiple genres that confounded radio programmers (i.e. his Hank Wilson alter ego took him to the country charts with ‘Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms’) and released albums via his own labels based in Oklahoma, his home state, and Hendersonvlle, TN. By the early 1980’s, Leon had carved out his own niche as a low key rock icon making music on his own terms.
The album “Life and Love” was released on his own Paradise Records in 1979. The album did not sell the quantities his Shelter Records releases did, but quality production and writing were on a par with his best work. The song ‘One More Love Song’ should have been a smash akin to ‘A Song for You’. The beautiful piano melody and thoughtful vocals show Leon’s balladeer side, with a touch of his flair for new production techniques. The song was redone in 1981 on another one of Leon’s side projects, the Bluegrass project known as “Leon Russell and the New Grass Revival”, which was represented by the live album of the same name. While the New Grass Revival had a following within their own genre, Leon Russell fans again would need to take a turn toward uncharted waters. But that is what the Leon Russell fan experience gives you…the ability to explore new territories with a musical virtuoso who seems to have one ear to the ground and one to his heart.
Leon has continued to perform on his own terms. His tours take him across the U.S. several times a year, yet he still finds time to record for his own Leon Russell Records. Since the 1990’s, his bands have included his family and feature his biggest hits and some less known singles, like ‘One More Love Song’. This author can say with great authority that every Leon Russell performance is a special event, one to be treated as a musical history lesson through the eyes of one of the industries true living legends.
(Here is a streaming version of the track that I finally found: