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Rediscovering Leon Russell

Posted by Richard on December 11, 2010

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):

[YouTube link]

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.

[YouTube link]

“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.

[YouTube link]

Now for something more upbeat. The iconic Leon Russell song is “Stranger in a Strange Land,” from one of my all-time favorite albums, Leon Russell and the Shelter People.

[YouTube link]

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!

[YouTube link]

I hope those gems will motivate you to buy some Leon Russell music. I’m sure you’ll be glad you did.

UPDATE (13 Nov 2016): Leon Russell died last night. I’m terribly saddened.

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8 Responses to “Rediscovering Leon Russell”

  1. jed said

    What, no Lady blue? Shame. I have one Leon Russel LP — Will o’ the Wisp. It’s in a box someplace. Off the top of my head, I don’t know if this ever happened, but Leon with the Neville Brothers and/or Doctor John would be fantastic.

  2. Rick Shultz said

    Elton and Leon were here in Chattanooga at the roundhouse just a few days back. The place was totally packed and they tore the roof off it. :=)

  3. rgcombs said

    And no “Delta Lady” or “Tightrope” or “This Masquerade” or … sigh. I couldn’t post ”everything,” Jed.

    “Lady Blue” is here.

    I’m officially envious, Rick. No sign of a Denver date. Leon was in Boulder in September, but I didn’t even know about it until afterwards.

    I haven’t been to a live concert in years (the last one was Brian Wilson’s ”Smile” tour, and it was awesome!). But if Elton and Leon make it this way, I’ll be there.

  4. Rick Shultz said

    I checked out the intinerary upon finding out they hadn’t come to Denver and it’s not even mentioned! That’s really pretty weird because they would have 10 times the audience in Denver that they had here. Makes totally NO sense.

  5. Hathor said

    Chattanooga? I’d never of thought of it.

  6. rgcombs said

    No Philly date either. BTW, I got an email about [ Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2010]. ”The Union” is #3. But their opinion would carry more weight with me if they hadn’t picked Kanye West’s latest as #1. 🙂

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. […] love song written in the past century. I still prefer the spare, atmospheric album version I posted here, but this is the best live version I’ve […]

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