Leon Russell, legendary musician and longtime collaborator of Elton John, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, has died. He was 74.
“Leon Russell died on Nov. 13, 2016 in Nashville at the age of 74. His wife said that he passed away in his sleep,” according to a statement on Russell’s official website. “The Master Of Space And Time was a legendary musician and songwriter originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma who performed his gospel-infused southern boogie piano rock, blues, and country music for over 50 years.”
Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, Russell’s first brush with music started at age four at the piano. Throughout his teenage years, he performed at various nightclubs and formed a band called the Starlighters while attending Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. By the late ’50s, Jerry Lee Lewis picked him up for his own touring band and changed his life remarkably.
Shortly after, a 17-year-old Russell moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly became one of the most valued session musicians around the city, working with the Byrds and Bobby “Boris” Pickett. Upon joining Phil Spector’s “Wrecking Crew,” his piano work appeared on both the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High”.
Following collaborations with Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Brian Hylund, and Glen Campbell, Russell finally started releasing his own compositions, starting with his debut 1965 single, “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young”. In 1967, he formed the Asylum Choir with guitarist Marc Benno and the two released an album together, 1968’s Look Inside the Asylum Choir.
A year later, Russell co-produced and arranged Joe Cocker’s 1969 self-titled album, which featured the song “Delta Lady” and rocketed up to No. 11 on the Billboard 200, making it his first commercial smash. He would join Cocker on the equally successful Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour throughout 1970, during which he co-wrote Rita Coolidge’s iconic single “Superstar”.
That same year, Shelter Records, which he co-founded Denny Cordell, released his debut solo album, Leon Russell, which included what would become his best known composition, “A Song for You”. Since then, the song has been covered and re-recorded by the likes of Donnie Hathaway, Whitney Houston, The Carpenters, Ray Charles, and Amy Winehouse.
Throughout the ’70s, Russell would go on to work alongside legendary musicians such as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, The Rolling Stones, and Willie Nelson. By 1976, he would leave Shelter Records, after earning five gold records to his name, to start his own label Paradise Records. The label would go on to issue several of his collaborations with his wife Mary Russell.
Russell continued to release music and work with musicians behind the scenes during the ’80s and ’90s. In 1991, Bruce Hornsby produced his comeback album, Anything Can Happen, for Virgin Records. Three years later, Russell started a third label, Leon Russell Records, which continued to issue his various works alongside Paradise.
Around the late aughts, Elton John sought Russell out for a unique project alongside producer T-Bone Burnett and lyricist Bernie Taupin. However, recording was stalled around January 2010, when Russell was hospitalized and treated for a brain fluid leak and later heart failure and pneumonia. He bounced back, however, and recording ensued for what would become the critically and commercially acclaimed double album, The Union.
Released in October 2010, The Union marked Russell’s sixth Gold album and brought him back into the spotlight, where he appeared with John as musical guests for both Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with David Letterman. Together, the two would tour across the world and see their successful collaboration iconized in a 2011 documentary by Cameron Crowe.
In 2011, he was inducted in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.