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Leon Russell
Shelter 1001
Released: March 1970
Chart Peak: #60

Leon RussellFine and funky -- that's Leon Russell's first album out on his own, away from his producer/arranger/back-up role with Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Cocker, even the Stones ("Live with Me"). But that word "away" is misleading, since all those folks -- and then some -- are present, if not accounted for, on his album too; gentlemen with such Christian surnames as Harrison and Starr, Wyman and Watts, Clapton and Voorman. An august assembly, you might say.

Yet no sense of heavy-handed helping out, or high-minded seriousness, or superstar-gazing accrues. That's the Russell funkiness at work -- every cut, for all the polish evidenced, still retains a feeling of late-night, good-time get-together.. Like Clapton and Harrison joining up with the Bramletts just to enjoy themselves, you sense that Russell's friends are there because working with him is fun. The earthiness is there too, what Gram Parsons -- who ought to know -- means when he designates somebody as "funky"; "people who don't know nothin' 'cept the bottom of a beer can when they see it through the hole." In Russell's case, that becomes his gospel get-it-on enthusiasm, his mushmouthed and straining vocals, his omnipresent down-home piano, and his Southern subject matter.

So every cut has something going for it. A few of the 12 collapse en route, but most make it. Oddly enough, the very first cut is one of those that falters, a resonating love ballad called "A Song for You" with too much in the way of agony-vibrato and Gershwin piano from Russell. But that number and an amusing novelty, Russell singing "Masters of War" while playing the national anthem, are his only solo outings.

On to the good, good stuff, like two ragged and happy gospel shouts, Russell originals with, for some reason, "borrowed" titles: "I Put a Spell on You" and "Give Peace a Chance." Both feature laughter and false starts, the soulful Bramletts and, on the former at least, the Stones' own rhythm section; and there's a home-grown, mess-around air to each that knocks me out, especially the distinctly unpeaceful tambourine-piano crescendo in "Peace": "Never treat a brother like a passing stranger...It might be the Prince of Peace returning." Russell's piano lies low, as does the bass (by Voorman?), and Clapton picks impressively in his "new," relaxed, flowing manner.

It's the Beatles' turn on the album's nicest ballad, a slow rocker called "Hummingbird." George Harrison alone starts the tune moving in a Mississippi-Delta, "Can't Be Satisfied" vein, then Russell's piano stutters in, clashing just enough to keep things lively -- and can that really be Ringo doing the fingers-and-palm drumming? Too much. And it gets even better as Russell sings movingly and convincingly, "She gets me where I live,/I give her all I have to give,/talking 'bout that hummingbird," while someone's heavily comping organ builds behind and, finally, the Bramlett gang joins in for the spirited finish.

Ringo's supposedly around too on the album's most interesting cut of all, the bizarre "Shoot Out on the Plantation." If any of Russell's tunes is truly low-down and funky, this is the one. First off, it's his retelling of an actual incident that occurred among L.A.'s crowd of transplanted Tulsa musicians (which mean the "Plantation" of the song is probably that building once occupied by Taj Mahal and Indian Ed Davis and the others). An infamously funky cat named Junior Markham got into some "woman poisonin'" trouble with another musician, a Galveston boy who took out after the knife-wielding Markham with a gun. From this barren incident, Russell has constructed an incredible song: "Junior's been livin' in the blackboard jungle with his Elvis Presley hair...And stabbin' your friend is such a drag to boot." Ringo's drumwork is typically straightforward, Russell himself drives things with his flailing piano, and Chris Stainton mixes in as well. Slowly, gradually, the disparate elements behind Russell's slurred yet tense vocal build to an overwhelming cacophony, a creative chaos of jarring, warring sounds that somehow remain...musical. It's a regular tour de funk.

Funky people, deceptively amateurish production, thoroughly professional musicianship, and a Bull Durham barn full of fun -- that's Leon Russell's Shelter album.

- Ed Leimbacher, Rolling Stone, 4/16/70.

Bonus Reviews!

Another newcomer exponent of contemporary blues at its best is American performer/writer Leon Russell who debuts on Blue Thumb-distributed Shelter label. Russell has written for some of today's top record stars and his own virile and gravelly voice is well suited to his songs. Highlights include "A Song For You" and "Delta Lady."

- Billboard, 1970.

This is weirder than what you'd expect from a man whose Phil Spector savvy and slick gospel piano have helped stabilize both Delaney & Bonnie and Joe Cocker. Russell has all of Mick Jagger's whine and shriek and none of his power, so while the singing is distinctive, and valid, it grates -- impressive material from "Dixie Lullaby" and "Shoot Out on the Plantation" would simply be more so with other vocals. If not Delaney, Bonnie or Joe, how about Marc Benno? B+

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

Russell's self-titled debut features his strongest set of songs and performances, with tracks like "A Song for You," "Dixie Lullaby," "Shoot out at the Plantation," and "Delta Lady," which became one of Joe Cocker's early signature songs. The CD includes a brief version of Dylan's "Masters of War." As with all of Russell's DCC-label CD releases, the mastering is excellent. * * * *

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

His major label debut album, Leon Russell, contains many of his best songs, including "Delta Lady," "A Song for You" and "Shoot Out at the Plantation. The reissue adds a bizarre take of Dylan's "Masters of War" sung to the tune of "Star-Spangled Banner." * * * *

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

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