I was terribly saddened this morning to learn that Leon Russell died last night. He was a tremendous singer, songwriter, and musician, and one of my all-time favorite artists. He was 74, and his death comes much too soon.
Leon Russell was also Sir Elton John’s idol and biggest musical influence. In 2010, the two of them reconnected and recorded a highly-acclaimed album, The Union. See my post about that to learn more and listen to just a few of my favorite Leon Russell performances. It includes Jumpin’ Jack Flash / Young Blood from the Concert for Bangladesh, one of the finest live performances ever recorded, a ten-minute tour de force.
I’ve admired Elton John and his music since Tumbleweed Connection (1970). But this year, he did something that increased my esteem for him considerably. No, I’m not talking about performing at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding (although I did enjoy seeing the left become apoplectic at the news that Sir Elton and Rush got along famously).
No, I’m talking about the fact that Sir Elton remembered his idol and biggest musical influence, Leon Russell — who had fallen into complete obscurity — reconnected with him, and persuaded him that they should record an album together. Here’s Sir Elton telling the short version of the story (he tells the long version in a 4-page essay in the CD booklet):
I’m listening to the resulting album, The Union, as I write this, and it’s terrific. But the story is even more terrific, and I don’t mind telling you it brought a tear to my eye and some wonderful memories to my heart. It also caused me to reconnect with Leon Russell’s marvelous music from the 70s. I have all those albums on vinyl — I have tons of vinyl — but have never found the time and energy to rip them to digital form. Now I’ve bought several of them on CD.
If you’re under 40 (or maybe even 45), you may have never heard of Leon Russell. Well, allow me to introduce you to a bit of his work. “Back to the Island” is the song that made Sir Elton weep. It’s one of my favorites, too.
“A Song for You” has probably been covered by more artists than any other Leon Russell song, ranging from Ray Charles to Karen Carpenter. It’s one of the most beautiful love songs I know, and I still think the original studio recording, with its spare instrumentation and haunting air, is the best of them all.
I’ll finish with a live recording. A commenter at YouTube called this “The ten greatest minutes in rock n roll history.” It’s certainly one of the greatest live performances. From 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh, here’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Young Blood.” Turn it up!