A song for you

I am sorry to report that Leon Russell died today in Nashville at the age of 74. He was an incredibly accomplished pianist, songwriter and performer in the world of popular music. As a member of the Wrecking Crew he played behind just about everybody. He famously recruited and led the band that accompanied Joe Cocker on the raucous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of 1970. He followed up with a successful career as a songwriter and performer in his own name. Jon Pareles chronicles Leon’s story in the New York Times obituary. Permit me to remember him in these personal notes.

I think I first saw Leon perform outdoors at Parade Stadium in Minneapolis in 1973 or so. My close friend Scott Sansby, who had anchored the rhythm section on drums for Leon’s wife Mary McCreary on her debut album and subsequently toured with her, wangled me a pass.

The next time I saw him was again with Scott, this time with a backstage pass to his show at the old St. Paul Civic Center (now demolished) in 1976 or 1977. Firefall was the warmup act and Leon played to a house that couldn’t have been more than half full. Mary was performing with Leon and great with child at the time; Leon tenderly escorted her on and off the stage.

Among the hangers-on that night was Gary Busey, then just another one of Leon’s unknown Oklahoma friends. I remember hearing that Busey had just finished filming a movie in which he played Buddy Holly. Leon had been touring nonstop behind a succession of hits to the point where his value as an act had eroded considerably by the time I saw him in St. Paul, and I lost track of him thereafter.

Thirty years later we caught up with Leon at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. How did Leon end up at the Dakota? Owner Lowell Pickett told me he’d gotten a call from out of the blue offering Leon’s act for one night.

We saw the first of Leon’s two shows at the Dakota that night. Leon looked slightly older than Father Time though he sounded great and the three-piece band backing him on piano cooked with gusto. Leon and the band were extremely tight. In addition to the band, Leon was accompanied by two of his daughters on vocal back-up, one of whom I’m sure is the child Mary was carrying when I last saw him perform in St. Paul. They too sounded terrific.

When Leon emerged from his status as a premier studio musician to front his own act in the early ’70s, it was impossible to miss the quality of the writing he brought to compositions like “Delta Lady,” “Superstar,” “Tightrope,” and “A Song for You.” He was special, though his star seemed to fade almost as rapidly as it had ascended. I had the impression that he was something of a soul-man wannabe as a performer, however, not entirely sure of his own voice. Seeing him in 2005, I understood that I was a fool; I had completely missed what he was up to.

Former Byrd and Flying Burritos Brother Gram Parsons dubbed the union of rock/country/soul music that he sought the Cosmic American Music. When we saw Leon in 2005, he dug deep into the vein of the Cosmic American Music, beginning the set with Bill Monroe’s “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” continuing with his own “Stranger in a Strange Land,” moving on to Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and Ray Charles’s “I Believe To My Soul,” with his daughters channelling the Raelets behind his vocal on the latter.

In all, Leon performed three Charles numbers, two Rolling Stones numbers (plus a vamp on “Paint It Black”), one Jimmy Reed via Elvis Presley (“You Got Me Runnin'”), one Carter Family number (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”), and one Temptations (“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”).

Of his own hits, Leon included “Back to the Island,” “Delta Lady” and “A Song For You” (original recording below) but the show was hardly an oldies act. This was the work of a vital performer in touch with the soul of the Cosmic American Music. RIP.

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