It was on my 12th birthday, in 1970, that the music of Leon Russell first made itself at home in my head.
Among my gifts that year was a 45-rpm record — you know, those two-sided vinyl miniatures with the big hole in the middle — of Joe Cocker singing Cry Me a River.
The history of the song was unknown to me at the time. I knew nothing of its existence decades earlier as a hit for Ella Fitzgerald and Julie London. No, my introduction to Cry Me a River was through Cocker's soul-blasted carnival version that transformed the tune into a brassy, gospel-tinged, psychedelic ragtime confessional.
Cocker's scorched vocals sold the arrangement, but what hit me hardest was Russell's piano work: the strides of boogie-woogie piano runs that were the catalyst not only to this performance but for Cocker's entire album Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a chronicle of his ensemble tour with Russell earlier that year.
Russell had enjoyed a hearty decade of recording studio work before the summit with Cocker. He played almost anonymously behind such pop stars of the day as The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys and even Glen Campbell. A decade would pass before I would witness Russell in performance. That came by way of a performance with Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris at Rupp Arena in 1979. By that time, Russell's fierce Okie-bred pop-soul charge was already showing signs of settling down.
So it was during the '70s — particularly the first half of the decade — that Russell's signature music surfaced. In rapid succession came three career-defining albums: Leon Russell (1970), Leon Russell and the Shelter People (1971) and Carney (1972).
The first boasted the titan piano ballad A Song for You, which would live on through the years thanks to cover recordings by Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles. Shelter People then pushed the Mad Dogs and Englishman sound to the forefront, with gospel-singed rockers including Crystal Closet Queen and Alcatraz.
1971 saw the release of another live recording in which Russell again worked as a sort of hired hand. For George Harrison's all-star The Concert for Bangladesh, Russell provided some tent revival-style pop-soul for a medley of Jumpin' Jack Flash and Youngblood. Harrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan sounded stately, regal and fine. Upon a renewed listening to the album last weekend, Russell sounded positively primal in comparison.
Carney became the true breakthrough, though. Still perhaps Russell's finest recorded work, it tempered his sound considerably. With the exception of the rollicking Roller Derby, Russell's new tunes were leaner, darker and much more contained. The modestly jovial Tightrope became a radio hit, and the ballad This Masquerade would reappear four years later to redefine the career of pop-jazz star George Benson. But a fresh listen to Carney revealed the album-closing Magic Mirror as the most lasting highlight. It was a quiet portrait of lyrical and perhaps personal unrest recorded with only piano, a primitive electronic percussion beat and an atypically reflective variation of Russell's by-now popular Okie drawl.
After that, the seemingly restless Russell began to experiment. He went country for a fine roots-music cover collection, 1973's critically lauded Hank Wilson's Back, that in retrospect places the later Nelson collaboration in more appropriate context. 1974 brought a record of Mose Allison-style swing and blues, Stop All That Jazz, which triggered Russell's first serious critical setback ("Stop all what jazz, Leon?" was the headline to Rolling Stone's less-than-enchanted review). For 1975's Will o' the Wisp, he retreated to more streamlined pop pronouncements, underscored by synthesizers and the multitracked backing vocals of wife-to-be Mary McCreary.
Russell was never a darling of the pop charts. Despite the popularity of Tightrope, Lady Blue and Back to the Island (the last two came from Will o' the Wisp), the closest thing he earned to a No. 1 hit was, , a countrified cover of Heartbreak Hotel with Nelson in 1979. It went as high as No. 2.
After a grievously underappreciated foray into bluegrass with the New Grass Revival in 1981, resulting in The Live Album and high-speed string-band readings of The Beatles' I've Just Seen a Face and his own early-'70s chestnut Prince of Peace, Russell went into a mode that would last for nearly 30 years. He recorded independently and toured constantly, content to play rock clubs instead of the arenas he headlined during the early '70s.
In the years to come, two other pop piano men stepped up to showcase the influence Russell has had on their music. Bruce Hornsby co-produced 1992's Anything Can Happen, furthering the fascination with electronic keyboard voices and creating at least one Russell classic (No Man's Land).
But the real renaissance began with 2010's T Bone Burnett-produced The Union, a full, collaborative album with Elton John. It was not exactly a return to the wild soul-revival sound of decades past. After all, Russell turned 70 this year. But it was easily the finest recording that either artist had put his name to in decades. The Union became a top-5 hit, put Russell in front of TV audiences with John on Saturday Night Live and set the stage for a 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"I just play," Russell told London's Telegraph newspaper before the release of The Union. "When it comes natural, you don't know what unnatural is."