The first biography of influential, shadowy rocker Leon Russell


Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History

By Bill Janovitz
Hachette, 592 pages, $31

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A selective record of Leon Russell’s collaborators reads like a roll name of rock divinity: Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Elton John. His debut album, launched in 1970, featured George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. He is credited with inspiring Willie Nelson to develop his hair lengthy and embrace hippie counterculture. And but, exterior a circle of devoted followers and music aficionados, Russell by no means grew to become a family title like his contemporaries — which appears to be precisely how he’d designed it.

Throughout his six-decade profession as a musician, songwriter and composer, Russell gave few interviews; stored associates, household and collaborators at arm’s size; and was notoriously brooding and taciturn. Hailed because the “master of space and time,” Russell spent the latter half of his profession struggling (with various levels of effort) to remain related and out of debt. A life this distant and inscrutable doesn’t simply lend itself to dramatization, which can assist to clarify why it is just now, six years after his dying and 50 years previous the peak of his fame, that we’ve got the primary complete biographical remedy. The determine who emerges on the finish, nevertheless, stays each bit as inscrutable.

“Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History” by musician and creator Bill Janovitz is probably the most bold effort but to peel again the curtain on probably the most gifted, least understood rock artists of the twentieth century.

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Born Claude Russell Bridges in Oklahoma in 1942, he confirmed an early genius for piano; by 14 he was already gigging at Tulsa nightclubs and briefly toured because the opening act for Jerry Lee Lewis, whose scorching Pentecostal taking part in fashion made an impression on the younger Russell. In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles and located regular work as a studio musician, taking part in on recording classes for such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Herb Alpert and Barbra Streisand. He and fellow Southern transplant Glen Campbell have been a part of the now-legendary Wrecking Crew, who have been liable for a few of the largest hits of the last decade and shaped the core of Phil Spector’s famed Wall of Sound.

Tulsa expats, from left, Jim Karstein, Leon Russell and Carl Radle in Hollywood in 1962. Russell rapidly hooked his fellow Oklahomans into the L.A. music scene.

(OKPOP Museum)

Skyhill Studio — the four-bedroom home and residential recording studio Russell bought on Skyhill Drive in Studio City — hosted L.A.’s greatest session musicians, fellow Tulsa expats and such worldwide superstars as Harrison, Starr and Clapton. The home additionally was a den of bacchanalia; medicine and orgies have been as widespread as jam classes. At the middle of all of it, like a reclusive king in his sun-drenched courtroom, was Russell: shaggy hair, high hat, flowing beard and faraway eyes behind reflective sun shades.

By the start of the Nineteen Seventies, Russell had all of the makings of a bona fide rock god. The success of Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour in 1970 established Russell as an inimitable composer and arranger; his unique composition “A Song for You” (from which his “master of space and time” nickname derived) could be coated by Donny Hathaway, the Carpenters, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and lots of others. His sophomore album, 1971’s “Leon Russell and the Shelter People,” went gold within the U.S. — the primary of 5 albums to succeed in that milestone earlier than the last decade was out. (His sixth wouldn’t come till 2010, after longtime devotee Elton John dragged him out of relative obscurity for his or her collaborative album, “The Union”). But as Janovitz exhibits in his e book, Russell had an infuriating behavior of squandering alternatives, turning associates into enemies and seemingly doing all the pieces he may to torpedo his profession and sabotage his legacy.

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Rock biographies sometimes observe a well-recognized method: the street to success, the celebrity and riches, a spectacular crash and burn (the inevitable results of medicine and hubris) and — if she or he is fortunate to outlive this ordeal — the lengthy and heroic street to restoration, culminating in a late-in-life renaissance. “Leon Russell” solidly hits the primary two stations of the cross, however Russell didn’t a lot crash as slowly fizzle away.

The causes: poor inventive, enterprise and private choices. He sank giant sums of cash into homes and outdated automobiles, solely to rapidly abandon them; appeared to disdain performing; grew to become curiously obsessive about the troubled actor Gary Busey. Russell additionally quietly suffered from mounting well being issues and an all-around cantankerousness, presumably stemming from autism and/or undiagnosed bipolar dysfunction. These tidbits make for some drama, although maybe not sufficient to fill out 600 pages.

Three musicians on a stage, with Leon Russell at a keyboard.

Leon Russell, left, performs with Steve Ripley and Taylor Hanson of the band Hanson at Tulsa International Mayfest in 2005.

(Kelly Kerr / Tulsa World)

Janovitz, creator of two books on the Rolling Stones and a musician in his personal proper — a founding member of ’90s-era different rock band Buffalo Tom — writes as a rock fanatic addressing fellow rock fanatics relatively than informal readers. He attracts from scores of private interviews with titans in addition to in any other case nameless session musicians, recording engineers, enterprise companions, associates, household and lovers. Quotes, musings and reminiscences abound, leaving the impression that “Leon Russell” might need labored higher as a straight oral biography.

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Indeed, the creator not often interrupts the circulate of such rock trivia as recording classes, touring dates and sidemen. He presents little context on the turbulent occasions wherein Russell and his contemporaries have been creating and perfecting their artwork, and he appears reluctant to look too critically at Russell’s extra repellent habits.

As a Southern-born white man who’d grow to be wealthy and well-known performing music closely influenced (or appropriated) from such Black artwork types as gospel, blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Russell may appear oblivious to racism in his personal orbit. The most annoying instance got here after he married his backup singer, a Black girl named Mary McCreary, who confronted racist abuse evening after evening from Russell’s audiences whereas he declined to defend her.

“Leon dealt with these racists in his own indirect way,” writes Janovitz. Which appears to imply, as singer Maxayn Lewis unhelpfully explains, “just let[ting] the music speak for itself.”

This is likely to be one of the best recommendation on tips on how to admire the topic of this biography. While it would fulfill Russell’s legions of loyal followers — the self-styled “LeonLifers” — and rock biography completists, what issues most in the long run is the music, which at its greatest stays stunning, thrilling and magical.

Holley is a journalist and creator of the forthcoming e book “An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created.”