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Leon Russell and the Shelter People
Shelter 8903
Released: May 1971
Chart Peak: #17
Weeks Charted: 29
Certified Gold: 2/3/72

Leon RussellAnybody out there have any doubts about Leon Russell's superstar status? If so, take a listen to this latest collection of down-home, hard-grooving blues-rock, and your skepticism will be eased.

Russell's years of dues-paying as a sideman with Jerry Lee Lewis, and as a regular in more recording sessions than he probably cares to remember, finally came to fruition last year when he attracted major public attention as the musical director of Joe Cocker's traveling road show, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." Russell's own album soon followed. (An earlier release on Mercury called Asylum Choir went virtually unnoticed, although the germinal qualities of the Russell style were apparent.)

Now he confirms all the promise, brings it up to date, and makes it clear that the bright mixture of Delta blues piano, Fifties rock-and-roll, soul music, sensuality, and just sheer talent that he has put together has become one of the major styles of contemporary pop music. Listen to the way in which he modifies Bob Dylan's "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," and George Harrison's "Beware of Darkness" to his own ends. And his own songs, especially "Home Sweet Oklahoma," "Stranger in a Strange Land" (yes, named after the Heinlein novel of the same name), and "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen" -- the theme for the documentary film about Cocker's American tour -- reveal not only the range of his skills, but the enormous potential for development that exists in the pop-music style he has developed.

Russell's voice and piano playing, in addition, are unmistakable. Like so many of the piano players whose style traces to the fertile Mississippi tidelands -- from Scott Joplin to the barrelhousers and boogiers of the Twenties and Thirties -- Russell starts a perpetual motion of swing before he gets through the first measure of a song. And his voice, whining, sliding, and slipping, is surely the only human sound in all of pop music that sounds as though it was fed through a guitar's wah-wah preamp. A very special man, Leon Russell.

- Don Heckman, Stereo Review, 10/71.

Bonus Reviews!

Leon Russell didn't get to be the World's Champion Hip Okie by accident. He earned it on Stones sessions, by writing "Give Peace a Chance," by teaming up with Joe Cocker -- and he's just paid more dues with Leon Russell and the Shelter People, one of the best rock albums so far this year. Russell practically invented what might as well be called Okie rock -- with that shit-kicker Gospel sound, heavy on Baptist-revival piano and chorus -- and it gets as good on this album as you'll ever hear. He works wonders on Dylan's "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall," wails through a lovingly ironic piano-pounding tribute to Little Richard on "Crystal Closet Queen" and lopes through "She Smiles like a River," a rolling hill-folky ballad apparently inspired by "Life Is like a Mountain Railway." And there's more -- much more.

- Playboy, 9/71.

Leon Russell has proven himself to be an extraordinary talent. His personal style is by now instanly recognizable: a combination of gospel, R&B and pop. His music is always well thought out and lavishly produced. Russell has a characteristic way of using horns, background voices, and rhythm section so that it sounds like every base is being touched, every space is being filled. These qualities have not only led to some great music, they have resulted in some very bland and predictable work as well. Unfortunately, it is the latter qualities that dominate Leon Russell and the Shelter People.

The form -- the production style -- is still there, but the album is sort of soft at the center. Russell's own determination and conviciton seem to fail him and the results are an album that sounds unpleasantly put together. The fun, as well as the depth, of the first album, Leon Russell, are gone, leaving me with a feeling of perfunctoriness about the work.

"It's a Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" is most typical in this respect. Russell manages to funk the song up a bit and sings it against some very interesting piano. But ultimately the feeling is forced and wrong. Halfway through, it sounds like he is hurrying to get it over with. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" works much better but is not entirely satisfactory.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" is marred by some ineptly topical lyrics, while the music on "Alcatraz" more than makes up for a similar weakness in that tune. "Sweet Emily" is the album's semi-country tune, with a melody and chord progression taken straight away from the first album's "A Song for You" and "Hummingbird," and it is a bore. "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen" is uncomfortably awful and Leon's tribute to Little Richard, "Crystal Closet Queen" is neither very good rock and roll nor very funny.

It all comes down to one fine song, "Home Sweet Oklahoma." It is the only one that conjures up in my mind the brilliance of some of the great tunes on Leon Russell, as well as the looseness and freedom of the performances on that album.

Russell recorded the new album with four different rhythm sections. Perhaps the thinness of the emotional content of this record is a reflection of the fact that Russell is spreading himself too thin. Personally, I would rather hear him try working out one thing and working it out until it's perfect. In the meantime, the man has given us one fine album in the past and I know there are more where than one came from. I'm still looking forward to the next.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 7/8/71.

Russell's second LP, with a little help from his friends, is a dynamite, driving rock package. Heavier cuts include "The Ballad Of Mad Dogs And Englishmen," "Stranger In A Strange Land," Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and George Harrison's "Beware Of Darkness."

- Billboard, 1971.

Russell knows how to put music together, but he still has trouble putting it across. His Okie-cum-Brooklyn (ersatz Nworleans?) drawl is the outcry of a confused homeboy driven to fuse rootsy eccentricities with masscult shtick and flash, and his meaningfulness clarifies nothing. The Dylan covers here are trying to tell us something, but in the end Russell's newfound (and competent enough) zeitgeistery ("Stranger in a Strange Land") and protest ("Alcatraz") aren't nearly as interesting as the in-jokey "Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen." Which tells us something. B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Jam session rock & roll roaring like a tornado across the flatlands of Oklahoma, Leon Russell and the Shelter People will liven up any party and bring back memories of happier times. This was Russell's second solo outing following his associations with Joe Cocker and George Harrison. Several of the strong musicians who make up the Shelter People were alums from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen gang who worked behind Cocker. The fourteen cuts include eight Russell originals -- the best of which , "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Home Sweet Oklahoma," are first-rate -- plus Harrison's "Beware of Darkness," and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" among five Bob Dylan covers. Russell's twangy, twisted voice and piano pyrotechnics keep things moving, but twenty years betray the fact that, talented though he is, Russell is a slick stylist who lacks substance. The CD's sound also betrays its age with some hiss, compression, and mudiness. B

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Released hot on the heels of his Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker, Leon Russell released this spirited outing, which included covers of tunes by George Harrison ("Beware of Darkness") and Dylan ("It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry") and some fine originals: "Alcatraz," "Home Sweet Oklahoma," "Stranger in a Strange Land" (an FM hit) and "The Ballad of Mad Dogs & Englishmen." The CD includes three bonus versions of Dylan tunes. * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Leon Russell and the Shelter People is a rollicking album of backyard blues and well-chosen covers. * * * *

- Allan Orski, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

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