Music » Critics' Picks

Leon Russell

Saturday, March 6; Off Broadway


Few musicians exemplify the notion that "you are known by the company you keep" more than Leon Russell. The 61-year-old Oklahoman broke into the big time as a teenager, when his hometown rock combo was tapped to go on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis, and since then Russell has spent much of his career in proximity to some of the most famous performers of his time.

Evolving from session player with Phil Spector's legendary Wrecking Crew, to bandleader for Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, to opening act for the Rolling Stones, to a frontman who pretty much stole the Concert for Bangladesh from Dylan, Clapton, Harrison, Shankar, et al, Russell eventually became one of the most popular concert draws of the mid '70s. When not scoring hits of his own, such as "Tightrope" and "Lady Blue," he was penning tunes for other acts -- ranging from George Benson ("This Masquerade") to the Carpenters ("Superstar") -- that also turned into million-sellers. Along the way, Russell also become one of the first rock artists who wasn't a Beatle or a Rolling Stone to be entrusted by a major label with his own custom imprint; in addition to issuing several gold Russell albums, Shelter Records also presented the early efforts of musicians such as Tom Petty, the Gap Band and Dwight Twilley.

After his rock career peaked in the late '70s, Russell increasingly turned towards country music, recording a series of old-school honky-tonk albums under the pseudonym Hank Wilson, touring with the New Grass Revival and engaging in an ongoing occasional collaboration with Willie Nelson. But in recent years he's also stayed active in other genres, touring with fellow '70s star Edgar Winter and issuing blues, rock, gospel and standards CDs on his own Leon Russell Records label. In some ways, time has taken its toll on Russell -- he now gets around on two artificial hips -- but he remains first and foremost a musician's musician whose expressive, gravelly drawl of a singing voice, distinctive skills on piano and guitar and extensive catalog of high-quality tunes can still yield a satisfying performance.

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