Leon Russell on his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, his upcoming tour with Bob Dylan and the success of his 2010 album with Elton John, The Union. The legendary musician appears in Millville Saturday, June 18.
Leon Russell headlines the Southern Shore Music Festival in Millville, N.J., this Saturday, June 18 at 6:30pm. Also on the bill: Deer Tick, Justin Townes Earle, Sharon Little, Patty Blee, Jaimoe's Jasssz Band, and Joel Plaskett & the Emergency. See southernshoremusicfestival.com for details.
Just hours before being inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in New York on Thursday, June 16, veteran musician Leon Russell is sitting in a Manhattan hotel room talking to a reporter, first on his cell phone and then, after some drop-outs, on the land line.
Russell, 69, who has been active as a studio musician, producer, arranger, singer-songwriter, recording artist and performer for five decades, is in the midst of an extraordinary recent resurgence thanks to 2010's Grammy nominated album with Elton John, The Union.
Over the past year, along with the tremendous response from both fans and critics to The Union, a project that was born out of an "unexpected" phone call Russell received from Elton John in "January of last year, I think," he says, and that sparked Russell's current comeback, the Oklahoma native was also inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and consequently booked at festivals across the world, including Millville's Southern Shore Music Festival at the Cumberland County Fairgrounds this Saturday, June 18.
The man who wrote the oft-recorded modern-day standard "A Song for You," the pop hit "Tight Rope," "Delta Lady" (a hit for Joe Cocker in 1969), and in 1979 scored a No. 1 hit on the country charts with his version of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," will surely show no signs of rust when he headlines the annual Southern Shore Music Festival. Russell, almost hidden beneath his long white hair and beard, and behind dark sunglasses and a big Stetson hat, may have been out of the limelight for a while, but he's never stopped performing or recording.
Even after the whirlwind of the past 12 months, with all of the performances and engagements — and interviews — related to The Union, Russell has shows booked, mainly at festivals in the States, Canada and abroad — clean through the week before Thanksgiving 2011.
Later this summer, it has recently been announced, Russell is slated to perform as a special guest with Bob Dylan for a string of shows, including dates in New Orleans (July 26), Memphis (July 30), Scranton, Pa. (Aug. 19) and Bangor, Maine, (Aug. 20). According to some reports, Russell will be opening up for every Dylan show on the latter's summer tour of North America, the dates of which are starting to be solidified.
Dylan, who just turned 70 in May and is currently on a ("Never-Ending") world tour that will take him and his band to places like Milan, Tel Aviv, Hamburg and Oslo this month, kicks off his North American summer tour on July 14 in Santa Barbara, California.
A few year's back — Russell's memory is admittedly shoddy — Russell says he recorded some tunes for a Willie Nelson project. Russell doesn't remember much about the sessions, like when they happened, but says that the songs have never been released and remain "in the can."
Russell recalls that it was at these recording sessions with Nelson that he saw Bob Dylan for the first time in years. He says he hasn't Dylan since.
Russell's direct connection to Dylan dates back to January 1965, when the renowned studio musician was called into a Columbia Records recording session.
The Byrds, featuring David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, were trying to lay down a version of a then-unreleased Dylan song called "Mr. Tambourine Man." The Byrds must have been having trouble with the song because the producers brought in ace studio musicians to play the parts the real Byrds members, except McGuinn, weren't able to nail themselves.
One of those studio musicians was a young Leon Russell, who had been a go-to studio player since moving to Los Angeles in the mid-'60s. (Even though he says he moved to California initially intending to start a career in "advertising"; see interview below.) It's Russell and other top-tier studio pros who one hears on the now classic Byrds rendition of the 1964 Dylan tune, with its trademark, chiming electric 12-string guitar work by McGuinn.
However, one could argue that Russell's and Dylan's musical connection dates back nearly a decade before that session — to 1956, when a 14-year-old Russell lied about his age to get a gig at a nightclub in Tulsa, playing behind Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, a band that would eventually morph into Levon & The Hawks (and later The Band).
About nine years later, by August 1965, the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" had become the first of many of the West Coast group's No. 1 hits, and Levon & the Hawks were spending the summer at the Jersey Shore, booked as the resident band at the legendary nightclub Tony Mart's, located in Somers Point, about 15 minutes from Atlantic City.
As Levon Helm describes in his autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, it was at Tony Mart's (which closed in the early '80s) where the Hawks were playing when Bob Dylan called and asked them to be his band.
The rest, as they say, is rock 'n' roll history.
Russell, who has performed and recorded a few Dylan gems — such as "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" — on his own albums, worked with Dylan in 1971 on several occasions, primarily as a producer on four sessions in March that took place in Greenwich Village, New York City, and bore the fruits/new Dylan songs "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece."
Both songs were released later that year on the Columbia double-album Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. 2, which hit the shelves in November 1971.
That same month, Russell and Dylan would team up yet again, with Dylan producing this time and Russell on piano, for the single "George Jackson," a song Dylan wrote after reading about the death of the jailed black activist.
(As an indication of Russell's slightly foggy sense of history, he tells this writer the same thing he told — mistakenly so — Rolling Stone's veteran music critic David Fricke earlier this year in an interview for the magazine — that he is certain he played on Dylan's 1976 song about the Paterson, N.J., boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, "Hurricane," and not the 1971 single "George Jackson." The facts and albums prove the opposite occurred.)
But that was four decades ago! Hey, some of us can't even remember last week.
In fact, it was 40 years ago this August when Russell and Dylan appeared on stage for the first time together — for a 20-minute set at New York's Madison Square Garden for The Concert for Bangladesh, a pioneering benefit concert put together by ex-Beatle George Harrison and India's sitar master Ravi Shankar.
Russell, who was already a part of the show, was asked — last minute — to play bass with Dylan, who was also backed by Harrison on electric guitar and Ringo Starr on the tambourine.
Like going on his first electric world tour with the Hawks, this benefit concert, which consisted of two shows on Aug. 1, 1971, was also a pivotal moment in Dylan's career, playing for just about the first time in public since his motorcycle accident in 1966.
And Russell was there for it all.
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