By Rush Evans
The guys in ZZ Top have seen each other’s faces more recently than Claude Russell Bridges has seen his own. He’s hidden mysteriously behind those shades, a cowboy hat, a different name, and that long white flowing hair and beard for 40 years now. Equally mysterious is the intangible magic of the two beautiful love songs he contributed to popular culture: “Superstar” (co-written with Bonnie Bramlett) and “A Song for You.” Both songs were recorded dozens of times and both were made famous with the haunting voice of seventies pop singer Karen Carpenter.
Such memorable melodic masterpieces are reason enough to celebrate Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges) of Tulsa, Okla., but they are not the reason he is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall’s “Sideman” category has been replaced this year by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Award for Recording Excellence, and there is no better candidate to fill the title as this one. In the business of music, Russell has truly done it all, as a writer, singer, performer, label owner, session musician, producer, and above all else, distinctive Southern-styled boogie-woogie piano player.
His sound is a swampy gumbo of gospel, country, and blues, but make no mistake: Leon Russell was and is a contributor to American rock and roll in its truest definition. He was already playing the clubs as a Tulsa teenager in a band called The Starlighters, which included J. J. Cale. A move to Los Angeles led the piano player to session work with recording artists like Glen Campbell, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Herb Alpert, The Byrds, and perhaps most notably, producer Phil Spector’s studio band, The Wrecking Crew. By 1964, he would appear as himself, pounding out piano-driven versions of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “High Heel Sneakers” looking like a more sophisticated Jerry Lee Lewis, but sounding even more Southern, with his trademark vocal drawl (check out the clips on YouTube.com for the only views of Russell’s clean shaven face). He wasn’t half as flashy as Jerry Lee, but that was never the point. Stardom wasn’t the goal, just music.
Russell had built his own recording studio well before penning the song, “Delta Lady,” which Joe Cocker would make his own. By the time of his association with Cocker, Russell’s influence and abilities were becoming well known. It was on Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman tour that people began to take notice of the unusually hairy hippie with the profound understanding of the piano as a rock instrument (thanks to the documentary film of the tour).
He would soon be his own front man, releasing albums as Leon Russell while still working behind the scenes on the work of others. Appearing with George Harrison and Bob Dylan at the famous Concert for Bangladesh further boosted his career, and his own hits would soon be coming: “Tight Rope,” “Lady Blue,” “Back to the Island.” Along the way, he would continue with other side projects, by founding the Shelter record label, which would be instrumental in the career of another Hall of Famer, Tom Petty.
Russell’s love of country music rooted in rhythm led to an alternate career under the pseudonym Hank Wilson, through which he would bring the songs of Hank Williams to the rock and roll generation. His long-standing musical relationship with fellow musical outlaw Willie Nelson has rendered the hard lines of delineation between genres unnecessary and irrelevant. Good music is good music, and sometimes it rocks to a country beat, as a listen to the Nelson/Russell collaborative effort, "One for the Road," bears out.
A similar collaboration in Russell’s musical life happened just last year, when longtime Russell fan, Elton John, tapped Leon for a rocking piano summit, documented in their duo album, "The Union."'
This year, Leon Russell is still on the road, taking his music to the people as he approaches 70, just as his fellow Tulsan (and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee) Bob Wills did, night after night. Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and those other bearded guys in ZZ Top do the same thing. Like Wills before them, they have canons of work to back it up. Just like Leon Russell has. And there’s nothing more rock and roll than that.