By Warren Kurtz
Flip side: Roll Away the Stone (Live)
A side: Queen of the Roller Derby (Live)
Top 100 debut: September 15, 1973
Peak position: 89
On November 13, we lost composer, singer and legendary pianist Leon Russell. He had been known in the ‘60s for his session work with many artists, especially Gary Lewis and the Playboys, along with composing some of their songs, on the Snuff Garrett produced recordings. Gary Lewis told Goldmine, “Leon was with me from the very beginning, in 1964 with ‘This Diamond Ring,’ and all the hits and albums we did thereafter. The last project we did with Leon was ‘Green Grass,’ because in 1966 I was drafted and served in the Army, which brought my recording sessions to a halt. I only saw him a few times after that. Leon played on everything, sometimes piano, guitar, and trumpet and many different keyboards. He did the guitar solo on “She’s Just My Style,” which was my second biggest hit. He was amazing! We both were so young when we worked together. Leon was the best arranger I ever knew and he will be greatly missed.”
By the end of the decade Leon Russell formed a duo with Marc Benno, named Asylum Choir, before releasing solo albums, beginning in 1970, with tracks which gained FM radio airplay.
He was the bandleader for two important musical entourages. Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour and double-album featured his compositions “Give Peace a Chance,” “Delta Lady” and “Superstar,” sung by Rita Coolidge and later made a hit by the Carpenters, from their self-titled album. The other band-leading entourage Leon Russell was known for was George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangla Desh” and its accompanying triple-album. He performed the exciting, lengthy medley, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/ “Youngblood” and joined George Harrison, for a round of applause, on “Beware of Darkness,” as they both had recordings of this George Harrison composition played on FM radio.
“Tight Rope,” from Leon Russell’s album third solo album “Carney,” became his Top 40 singles debut in 1972. Also that year, the Carpenters’ album “A Song for You” included Leon Russell’s composition as the title song, which Donny Hathaway had recorded the prior year.
In 1973, Leon Russell released his 3-record set “Leon Live,” with live versions of “Queen of the Roller Derby,” originally on “Carney,” as the single, and the exciting “Roll Away the Stone” from his self-titled solo debut as its flip side, where he pounded the piano and sang of a “strange land” and a “strange world” and asked the question, “What will they do in 2000 years?”
The Carpenters’ version of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” later a hit by George Benson, was selected as the flip side of their number one cover version of “Please Mr. Postman” in 1974.
In 1975, Leon Russell returned to the Top 40 singles chart for a final time with “Lady Blue” from his “Will O’ the Wisp” album and in 2010 released his final album, a comeback duet with Elton John called “The Union.”