Leon Russell has been called a rock and roll Renaissance man, and indeed there is little that this Oklahoma-bred singer-pianist hasn't done. His quixotic half-century in music stretches from his teen years in Oklahoma in the late Fifties to his best-selling collaboration with Elton John from 2010, The Union. Between his solo work, contributions to high-profile albums by other artists, and screen exposure in the Bangla Desh and Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentaries, Russell became a veritable superstar in the Seventies.
For someone as celebrated as a solo artist and live performer as Russell, it might be surprising to learn that he spent his first decade working behind the scenes. As an in-demand session musician in Los Angeles during the Sixties, Russell played on countless records, including many of Phil Spector's productions and hits by the Byrds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Gary Lewis & the Playboys. He also played piano in the house band for Shindig! ABC-TV's weekly rock and roll show.
Beyond these highly visible roles, he's been a notable music-business entrepreneur, having founded his own studio (Skyhill) and several labels (Shelter, Paradise and Leon Russell Records). During the Seventies, Russell's Shelter imprint released his own output, launched the careers of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, J.J. Cale, Phoebe Snow and Dwight Twilley. It was on Shelter that venerable Texas bluesman Freddie King revitalized his career.
Russell has been a prolific and celebrated songwriter, He composed "A Song for You," one of the greatest love songs of the modern era. The list of artists who have covered "A Song for You" includes Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield, Whitney Houston, Willie Nelson, Christina Aguilera and Michael Buble. Several other songs of Russell's have also been successful for others, including "This Masquerade" (which George Benson took into the Top Ten) and "Superstar" (cowritten with Bonnie Bramlett), a #2 hit for the Carpenters.
Most of all, Leon Russell has enjoyed a remarkable and lengthy career as a performing and recording artist. His all-encompassing style ranges from raucous, gospel-inflected rock to heartfelt romantic ballads. He's also cut albums of country and bluegrass music, delved into the Great American Songbook, and recorded an album of Christmas hymns. He's recognized as one of the best interpreters of Bob Dylan and even recorded with Dylan ("Watching the River Flow") in the mid-Seventies.