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 Leon Russell - In His Own Words

Blacklight Bar

Perhaps best known as one of the first supersessionmen, multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell has worked with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Joe Cocker to the Rolling Stones. In this early Seventies interview, Leon discusses his career as a well respected studio musician and solo performer and shares his thoughts on politics, art and film.

Leon Russelly major concern in high school was containing my neurosis about school not being the proper way to educate, which I found increasingly difficult as I went on. When I first started in school I was a straight-A student, and as I progressed -- my last year in school I failed three courses and just could barely make it to school at all. I gave up school when I had a chance to go on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis. I'd just spent three days, twelve hours a day, taking entrance exams to Tulsa University and I just thought, well, it's a waste of time, 'cause I have to study so many things I'm not interested in. ROTC I had to take, and right away I knew that I didn't want to do that. I figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants and travel around, play some rock and roll music, which I decided was easier and better.

It was still the last era of The Blackboard Jungle and I remember Jerry Lee in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The band was really playing and he was standing up on the piano bench singing and watching 75 people fight in the audience, just chasing around and running all over the audience. Pretty soon they all advanced on the stage, when they got tired of fighting with each other, and the curtains were pulled and we made a mad scramble out to the cars and packed up as many instruments as we could and got out of town.

I think the first record experience where I really did just what came off the top of my head was the Bonnie and Delaney album, which was true for Delaney as well. We just all got around and had a party. That's what it sounds like.

I used to produce some records with Delaney and Bonnie; that was before I was together or Delaney was together -- the records really weren't that good, and it certainly lacked any kind of a business organization. Then Alan Pariser [their manager] came on the scene, and offered him the organizational capacity he was lacking, and gave Delaney the confidence that he really did have something to say. That was sometime after the Electric Horn band.

I was going to do a group with Jim Gordon, and that's the time that Delaney first met him. Carl Radle was playing with Delaney at the time. Jimmy Keltner was playing. He went back to when I was doing the the Gary Lewis records. Gary Lewis introduced me to Keltner and Delaney met him that way. But the people that were involved with that band were already working with Delaney -- it was like an organized thing, they'd been working for a month or so at a club in town. The only group I actually tried to form myself was that Electric Horn Band. Asylum Choir was a studio thing, we never got around to performing.

Leon Russell's Seventies
Billboard Top 40 Singles

"Tight Rope"  9/72  #11
"Lady Blue"  9/75  #14

I may have played on parts of the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man," and their second single as well. I can't remember. Jack Nitzsche introduced me to Terry Melcher; I supposed I'd done some work for Jack by then. Melcher's an incredible producer. Jim McGuinn was at the first Byrds session; the rest of them weren't there as I recall. We did live tracks and then there were a lot of vocal overdubs. I'm not really sure how many Byrds songs I played on -- three or four I guess. I have a very concise memory for music, and a very unprecise memory for other things, such as playing on Byrds records. I'd come closer to remembering the parts I played on the records than the records. Music I really hear, I can sit down and create it; if I don't really hear it, I can't. I've programmed my memory to remember notations instead of publicity.

Some of those people I really studied -- like with Phil Spector, with Terry Melcher. I studied their style, just because it was so amazing. Style and technique. I was so impressed with Spector's confidence, his apparent awareness of what's going on. I don't look at it in exactly the same light today, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him. He's got an incredibly unique frame of reference for music. The first time I ever went into 1650 Broadway in New York, which is a big music building there, you could hear all sorts of groups like the Orioles and people like that singing and clapping in the hall. Long halls, a lot of echoes. And I said, "Shit, it's a Phil Spector record!"

From my own point of view, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker took a tremendous amount of energy, and I was pretty tired by the end. I was just talking to some people in the band, I don't remember where it was, but at one point something happened on stage, and the crowd just exploded, and they transformed their engergy on stage, and I could actually feel it.

I'd like some day to do a tour with a Ray Charles sort of band, and I'm rhythm-section-oriented -- and choir. It takes a certain amound of spontaneity out of it when you have a horn section to deal with, in front. The rhythm players can just about play anything if their heads are in the right place and it sounds right. The only things that are pre-planned in our band is the vocal group's part -- they're roughly the same every time, and horns would just be another factor, mathematically. It'd be two things that'd be predestined. I love horns but I'd prefer to wait until some time where it's feasible and do it up with horns -- nine horns or something.

We mainly went down to Muscle Shoals to record the new Shelter People album because that's where everybody goes for a certain type of music that we like. It's mainly the musicians. They have that unique experience of playing together for quite some different artists, and they really are easy to work with. I also cut a George Harrison song in London with the Dominos over there, which is nice, and there was one that I just kind of wrote on the spot, so there'll be two songs with the Dominos on the album. I did one session with George and Ringo in London, but I haven't gotten around to writing the words for it. The music on the album is considerably more laid-back than in the first album. The songs are just a diary of what I was into at the time.

Leon Russell

"Capitalism itself in itself is a bit of a rip-off, but what are you going to do? I'm certainly not going to be a politician and change it, in or out of the system."

Some guy came up to me in San Francisco and asked -- he told me that he'd quit turning on because he'd heard "Roll Away the Stone." "Is that what that meant?" And I told him, "If that's what it means to you then that's fine, but that's not what it means to me." And he said, "What does it mean to you?" That's not the reason that I do it, so I can't go out and explain. They are what they are.

I'm not an ecology freak... nor Women's Liberation. I'm almost totally politically inactive. I don't play benefits or any kind of fund-raisers. I prefer to play at hospitals, for people who otherwise can't see us. But I can't see playing for causes, unless it's specifically -- for instance, if it's my cause or some poor people's, I'll try to help. But you won't find me playing for any peace candidates -- or any candidates.

Both economics and politics are false sciences. They're based on poor communication. In other words, the reason people don't like to trade -- the reason they prefer to have money is because they don't trust their own judgement of what something's worth. If they have an outside arbitor, who fixes the value for the time certificates -- which is what the dollars actually are -- money just buys time -- it's the same thing with politics, it's based on poor communications.

Leon Russell's Seventies
Billboard Top 10 Album

Carney  9/72  #1

Capitalism itself in itself is a bit of a rip-off, as far as I'm concerned, but what are you going to do? I'm certainly not going to be a politician and change it, in or out of the system. I'm just going to sing my songs, because that's what I do. Some Oriental philosopher -- Tao -- once said that people that want to be political leaders are the least qualified to do it, and that's true. The people who really are qualified won't mess with it. So we always get the second best.

Leon Russell Lyrics
Leon Russell Videos

I was very impressed with the realism of the movie Easy Rider, the heroes and the bad guys. It wasn't a morality play in the sense of a John Wayne western, where the bad guys are obviously bad and the good guys are obviously good. Because the bad guys were as real, if not more real, than the heroes. That little epic, y'know. And that was probably because they weren't actors, they were really... I remember reading something that Dennis Hopper said when they first pulled into that truck stop, those guys were standing around, so he went up to them and explained the premise and said, "What would you say if this was happening," so they just sat down and said what they would say. You can't get any more real than that, I mean you're really one up to Andy Warhol. I subscribe to the theory that films -- and science fiction -- come true. In other words, the people that create fiction are actually creating the future. Because the less visionary type of people are influenced.

It may be sad, in a way, Easy Rider, because it didn't offer a positive alternative. I heard somewhere through the grapevine that Bob Dylan didn't want to do the music to the movie because he felt that Peter Fonda should ride his motorcycle into the truck. Which I don't think he -- he may not have said that, that's only hearsay, but I prefer to think movies like M*A*S*H, which I really can't comment on because I only saw the first 20 minutes of it, but I sat there and looked at all that and everybody was laughin' and shit, and I said, "Well, I know all this but it's not funny." It's just that sort of black humor that's not funny. And that's sort of the way I feel about Easy Rider. Like it was all true, it was all real and it was expertly done, an expert media experience, but I just somehow wish that it could have offered a positive alternative to reality instead of displaying it as it actually now is. 

 Reader's Comments

Joes Barber

Performers' music today is so "predestined" (Leon lingo) they couldn't do a spontaneous inspired riff or suddenly change the song structure if their life depended on it. That was what Leon, Duane, Clapton...all the greats did best. They went for it. They stood out front, unashamed and they were at the mercy of the audience. If it bombed they learned from it, if it shined it was history.


Russell puts [so-called] musicians to shame, these days. It is impossible to convey how massively "popular" his music was in the 1970s. Amazing, amazing talent.

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