One reflection on the ravages of the Grim Reaper is that it offers the opportunity for folks to be reminded of the breadth of talent offered by those on the wrong side of the grass. And what a talent Leon Russell’s was. One of the founding fathers of contemporary American music, Russell got his start in sessions with the Wrecking Crew, that seasoned band of players, gilding the lily of any number of better remembered performers. Next, he took on the task of ringmaster for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, thereby inventing the whole milieu of raggedy roots revues.
Thereafter, Russell cemented his reputation producing and playing for and with everyone, from Bob Dylan and George Harrison to most of the Rolling Stones. An early adopter was Elton John, much later able to repay the influence with 2009’s The Union, a record co-credited to each of them, boosting once again the standing of then then-ailing Russell. Seven years later, he was to die in his sleep, a heart attack complicating previous surgery, at 74. No more would he grace the stage in the guise of an Old Testament prophet, bedazzling in his white suit, with his mane of white hair and beard crowned usually by a hat, ten-gallon or top, white too.
A side arm of his career included a series of albums under the nom de guerre, Hank Wilson, wherein he took on the mantle of a country bluegrass rocker, with four albums of honky-tonk music, with another being his mentoring and production duties for funk outfit, The Gap Band; they also backed him on ‘Stop All That Jazz’, in 1974. Another fun fact: his 1978 album Americana was potentially the first sighting of the word, a full 21 years ahead the Americana Music Association coming into existence. So yeah, a whole lot more to him than just “Delta Lady,” “Superstar” and “A Song For You.”
With a body of work stretching to nearly 40 albums, solo or collaboration, studio and live, the problem for a Leon Russell tribute album is what not to cover, and what stones to leave unturned. A Song for Leon truly has its work cut out for it; for the most part, it does proud to both the tribute album genre and the Master of Space and Time himself.