Leon Russell – tiny curations
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The Master of Time and Space, Leon Russell from Tulsa, Oklahoma passed away 5 years ago today at the age of 74.
Leon played the piano, among other things. In the 60’s, he was a part of the legendary set of studio musicians, known as the Wrecking Crew. Performing with a who’s who, including The Concert for Bangladesh with George Harrison and also along with others in the likes of Bob Dylan, Badfinger, and many more.
- A Song For You
- Tight Rope
- If It Wasn’t for Bad – Elton John and Leon Russell
- Cant Seem To Get A Line On You – The Rolling Stones
Other musicians started finding his music and recording them and making hits with his songs. Like Delta Lady, from Joe Cocker. The song I only really started to dig when watching him recorded live in the 70’s, in the documentary “A Poem is a Naked Person”. The documentary was only released in 2015 at South by. For 40 years, the film went unreleased. It features Leon live and onstage in his heyday. And that’s where I really got to see the man shine as a live performer. The rest of them film is Leon bouncing around Oklahoma, his recording studio, The Church Studio in Tulsa recording country and western album “Hank Wilson’s Back Vol 1” under the moniker of Hank Wilson. He would end up releasing 4 volumes over his career under the alias.
The documentary also showed Leon building a house and hiring a young artist, Jim Franklin, to paint his pool with his own psychedelic art, before it is filled with water. Jim Franklin would become known for his posters, around the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin and featuring Armadillos. Now there stands a full life sized bronze statue of Leon Russell in his signature top hat, and with his beard and longhair, it is located outside The Church Studio, commissioned by non-other than Jim Franklin.
His most well-known song would most likely be “A Song for You” off of his first album on his own Shelter Records, a record company that he started, the album was release in 1970. Many artists have recorded it over the years. Willie did a version in 1973 with just him and Trigger. The song closed out the “Shotgun Willie” album, the first to feature his guitar Trigger. But one of my favorite versions is from Ray Charles. He recorded it in 1993, but the live version he did that same year for Willie’s 60th Birthday Party is my favorite. There is another version out that for another Willie special, featuring him along with both Ray Charles and Leon Russell. But now let’s hear the man do it how he does it on his piano, here is “A Song For You” with the lines “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time”, but these are the words on his own gravestone, his own lyrics from the song: “And When My Life is Over, Remember When We Were Together, we were alone and I was singing this song for you”:
The last song on the “Shotgun Willie” album, the first album to feature Trigger. Trigger would again appear on Willie’s next album “Red Headed Stranger” and then again for all the rest of his albums from that point on.
I was lucky enough to see Leon many times, mostly at Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnics. Robert Earl Keen reminisces here after his car with license plate number RHP997, but it wasn’t the Mustang that burned, as this now iconic photograph would be featured on the cover of his 1997 album “Picnic”. But it was the album before “Picnic”, titled “No. 2 Live Dinner”, where Keen introduces “The Road Goes on Forever” with the story of him attending a 4th of July Picnic, the second one, it was held in College Station. He is in college at ATM, brings a date… well his car burns up. That was a thing back then, catalytic converters would be known to catch grass on fire where they were parked, especially in the Summer heat of a Texas pasture.. His consolation prize is them letting him meet Willie. I hate to throw the punch line at you, but here is what Willie tells him when meeting the young REK on their first encounter. Go listen to the live track, if you want to hear more.
But the best time and most intimate of times that I ever got to see Leon Russell was Poodie’s Hilltop around 2004. And I had the foresight to record most of the concert on a Sony mini DV Digital Handycam, available on Youtube, provide in the show notes, if you would like to see it. It was myself and a hundred other people crammed into Hilltop during a great solo performance.
Willie and Leon would go on to record “One for the Road” together.
Leon was the first person that Willie ever let sign his trusty guitar Trigger. That really set off something, look at that thing now and all of the signatures that it carries.
“Leon started that,” Nelson said. “The first time we did a gig together, he had his guitar there, and he asked me to sign his guitar. I said, ‘Why do you want me to do that?” He said, ‘It’ll make it more valuable.’ I said, ‘Really? Then why don’t you sign mine?’” as said by Willie Nelson.
In 1976, Leon married R&B singer Mary McCreary, the wedding took place at Willie’s new Austin home outside of Austin, with Willie as best man and Willie’s then wife, Connie as maid of honor. The same house was where Willie sat down with his guitar Trigger and wrote and recorded the demo for the concept album “Red Headed Stranger”.
I just passed that house last week, it is off of Fitzhugh Road about 5 minutes from where I live in between Austin and Dripping Springs. You can also get a glimpse of the gated house in the 1984 movie “Songwriter”, featuring Willie and Kris Kristofferson. I went there once in high school for a party, it was bitchin’.
Mary McCreary was in the band Little Sister, the backup singers for Sly & the Family Stone. As Vet Stewart who was also in the group was frontman Sly Stone’s little sister.
The same year, Leon released “The Wedding Album” featuring his wife, Mary Russell.
And the following year, another with with Mary Russell, “Make Love to the Music”.
But it was 1972 when Leon released his third album, “Carney”, and the first for him to score a hit single with “Tight Rope”, here is is now:
Elton John had been Leon’s opening act in the early 70’s and has stated that he was the “biggest influence as a piano player, a singer and a songwriter.”
And upon the passing of Leon Russel, Elton went on to say : “My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me. I loved him and always will.”
Years before his passing, Elton would state: “When Mr. Russell’s “Greatest Hits” album came on one day during the trip, I started to cry, it moved me so much. His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, and it makes me so angry that he’s been forgotten.”
Well, he would do what he could to use his star power to ensure that he was not forgotten. Elton John who has been known to co-tour for many years with fellow Piano Man, Billy Joel, but not known to share piano duties on albums, nor a collaboration. But he did when we initiated “The Union”, the double album released in 2010; Neither man had spoken to each other in 38 years. “The Union” which was equally credited to Leon Russell and Elton John. Bernie Taupin, who had been John’s long-time lyricist and writer of many of Elton John earliest and arguably best and songs about the old West, together with Elton John wrote most songs on the record. There would also be a subsequent tour together. And there would also be 2011 documentary film, The Union” by Cameron Crowe, highlighting the recording of the album.
The album would do exactly what Elton was set out to do and help revive Leon’s career. The opening track, a Leon penned number “If it Wasn’t for Bad” is my favorite…
But first before we hear that great song, listen to Elton induct his old friend into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. And then followed-by Leon’s succinct acceptance speech:
That last song was “Get A Line on You”, but if it sounds familiar to you, you know it now as “Shine a Light”. But “Get a Line on You” was the original title.
That recording right there was made by Leon Russell at London’s Olympic Studios in 1969 with him on piano accompanying Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones. Recording during the debut Leon Russell album of the same name released 1970. This song did not see the light of day until 1993, when it was released as a bonus track to a CD re-release.
Jagger started to write the song about founding Rolling Stones band member, original leader, and slide guitarist, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones while he was still in the band. Jones would end up in several accidents and situations. One where he was arrested for cannabis and unable to secure a visa to tour with the Stones on an upcoming US tour, and less contributions to the music, he was released from the band after the release of “Let it Bleed” in May of 1969. In less than an month, he would find himself in an untimely death at the young age of 27. Also, the one of the leading members of the soon to be exclusive 27 Club, of which Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin would join him in over the next 2 years. Legendary Blues musician Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, is the original founding member of all of these great musicians that died at the age of 27 years old.
Kurt Cobain would join the group by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in April of 1994. And 17 years after Cobain’s death, Amy Winehouse would join the club.
After Jones’s death in 1969, the the Stones pulled out the song again and revised it a little by Jagger and it was re-recorded again in 1970 as “Shine a Light”. The third and final recording again at Olympic Sound Studios in 1971 would be released on “Exile on Main St.” in 1972 at their own label Rolling Stones Records. This recording would not feature Russell, but Billy Preston a successful solo artist who is known to have worked extensively with The Beatles, played both organ and piano on the track.
The lyrical revisions are small, but these words would be changed and not make it onto the final recording, “Smile on your face for every high school girl that you meet”.
The song is in reference to Brian Jones substance and alcohol abuse and is a reminder to the harm inflicted by addiction on those that we love by those that we love themselves.
“Shine a Light” only entered the Rolling Stones setlist in 1995 on the Voodoo Lounge Tour. The song would also be included on the 1995 album “Stripped” and it’s 2016 edition “Totally Stripped”. The songs new title was also used for the 2008 Martin Scorsese documentary live performance film and soundtrack album “Shine a Light”.
According to Setlist.fm, “Shine a Light” shares the #139 place with 2 other songs as only being played 21 times by the Stones’.
One week from today, on November 20th, The Rolling Stones will play the CoTA Super Stage at the F1 racetrack at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.
They were set to play here last May, but uh Covid.
This will mark only the second time that they have played our fair city. As the first time was in October 2006 at Zilker Park, I along with my wife, family, and friends were there along with over 40,000 others. My dad would get sick and miss the show and would opt to fly my mom, uncle, and Aunt to Las Vegas to see them play there on the same tour.
But the band did release concert footage of their time here in Austin in the form of “The Biggest Bang”, a 4 disc concert DVD collection, documenting several shows from the 2005–2006 legs of their A Bigger Bang Tour, featuring Austin as Disk 1, Live at Zilker Park. They didn’t play “Shine a Light” then, but maybe they will next Saturday when the whole town will go see them again.
However, the song that I know that they won’t play is setlist song rank #2. This said song is only within a couple dozen plays away from the #1 spot of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The song is “Brown Sugar”. First released on “Sticky Fingers” in 1971. But first debuted live during the infamous concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. As the band had been recording the song and others for the upcoming album in the famous Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama on their comeback trek across America. The Stones had hastily organized and announced the Altamont Free Concert as they had missed out on Woodstock. In less than a week and a change of venue, it was decided that the concert and planned concert film would take place at an abandoned speedway. A rough patch of land that they got for free, just for the publicity. They were in a rush because they wanted to release the concert filmed footage before the Woodstock documentary film was set to premier. A crude and low stage was built and over thousands would show up days in advance and drugged out. The final numbers would be closer to 300,000 in attendance. This would be the nail in the coffin of 1969 and would kill the Summer of Love. Altamont was just a few months after Woodstock and didn’t turn out quite like the sequel that it was planned to be as “Woodstock West”. Please listen to an earlier episode of tiny curations about the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock and more info on Altamont. Prior to popular belief or to dispel the urban legend, while “Sympathy for the Devil” was played earlier in the set and stopped and restarted due to commotion in the crowd. Not too unlike the tragedy that happened just last Friday night on November 5 in Houston, Texas at the Astroworld Concert featuring Travis Scott and Drake among others. Where 8 people lost their lives in a crowd surge for a terrible mismanaged venue and concert. At Altamont, the Hells Angels were hired as security and were at odds with the crowd all day long. The Grateful Dead, the icons of the peace and love generation, who played Woodstock and was scheduled to play at Altamont, but when they saw the evil brewing as they had witnessed Marty Balin singer of Jefferson Airplane was knocked unconscious by the bikers. Marty would not join the 27 Club, he would leave Jefferson Airplane by 1971. He would then rejoin the band again later under the newly renamed, for legal reasons, Jefferson Starship, years later. And would have an on again off again tenure with the band, but had the foresight to not be a part of another version of the band with many lineup and name changes, this time to due to trademark issues, simply Starship, and this gem:
And there were other incidents, Stephen Stills was stabbed repeatedly in the leg, with a sharpened bicycle spoke, by a member of the biker gang. The Dead made a wise decision to not go on and get out of the volatile situation that was disintegrating further throughout the day.
Although, Don McLean seems to have alluded to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” during his seminal song, “American Pie.”
“Oh, and as I watched him on the stage / my hands were clenched in fists of rage. No angel born in hell /could break that satan’s spell. And as the flames climbed high into the night, / to light the sacrificial rite / I saw Satan laughing with delight / the day the music died.”
During the Stones set they do get it back together and finish “Sympathy for the Devil”, play a couple more songs, and then a cover by 27 Clubber Robert Johnson. Then they play “Under My Thumb”, this was the song and not “Sympathy for the Devil” that was playing when the now famous incident was caught on film, later released as their planned “Gimme Shelter” in 1970, when you can clearly see Meredith Hunter, 18 years old in a green “Joker” looking suit, pull a pistol and the Hells Angels bikers jump him and stab him 5 times. He died on the scene. The crowd breaks out into chaos and screaming can be heard through the song and after the song is over. At that point, the Stones launch into the debut of their new song “Brown Sugar” after the death that just occurred, that they did not find out about until after the show ended. Travis Scott and Drake went to a gentleman’s club after Astroworld and blew a million dollars where they presumably found out about the tragedy that occurred right before their very eyes.
Nobody will cancel the Stones, they are woke to the song “Brown Sugar” and as of 2021 the band announced that the song would be removed from the setlist of their upcoming US tour.
An extremely popular song that would typically either kick off and open the show or would close they show as the encore.
The song that was stuck in my own head when I left from seeing them that only time at Zilker park. Humming all the way out of the park.
When 18-year-old Meredith Hunter pulled a handgun to defend himself against the bikers, one of them stabbed him five times while his leather-clad cohorts beat him senseless. He died at the scene. The slaying happened within sight of the stage as the Stones played “Under My Thumb.” Selvin recalled hearing the terror in the air in a chilling audio recording of the Stones’ set.
In total, 4 people died at Altamont.
Today, there are many in critical condition from the Astroworld concert, we can only pray that those numbers do not increase.
Whether McLean was actually talking about Altamont or not, that certainly has been how fans have interpreted that lyric, and to make that lyric work almost literally (as fans of “American Pie” seem to love to do), you’d almost have to take it as referencing “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The one that they did play that night was when they covered Waylon Jennings “Bob Wills Is Still The King” (sharing the last #249 spot with many other covers that they have only played once).
Here is what Waylon had to say about the writing of this song, recorded at the Willie owned Austin Opry House in 1974.
The live version was released first in 1975 as the closing track on “Dreaming My Dreams”.
A studio version was released the following year for a film soundtrack.
So what you are hearing in the live version is Waylon playing this song for the very first time. And the crowds reaction to hearing a this song for the very first time. It is interesting to hear their reaction to parts of the song, including every time Waylon sings about the great state of “Texas” in the song.
He is throwing some shade at Willie in the song, but also here as well:
As earlier in the set before playing the Willie Nelson penned song “Pick Up the Tempo”, Waylon exclaims the following to the the packed house.
He was in rare form that night, good that it was caught live for future posterity.
“It’s the home of Willie Nelson, the home of Western swing
He’ll be the first to tell you, Bob Wills is still the King.”
Finally, “Shine a Light” was the influence for Liam Gallagher’s favorite Oasis song “Live Forever”, where the vocal melody is employed. It was the third single from their debut album “Definitely Maybe” in 1994.
Noel reportedly wrote the song prior to having anything to do with his brother Liam’s band, back in 1991 recuperating from a foot injury working in a storeroom for a builders merchant. Noel would go to say the following about the songs inspiration: “It was the bit that goes, ‘May the good lord shine a light on you,'” as he remembered. The song didn’t progress the line “Maybe, I don’t really want to know…”.
Noel lyrics were a response to the negative attitude of grunge music, particularly Kurt Cobain’s song writing for Nirvana’s 1991 album, “Nevermind”.
“It struck me that this fucker, an extremely talented guy, had everything I wanted,” Gallagher explained. “He was rich, he was famous, he was in the greatest rock and roll band of its time – and he’s writing songs saying he hates himself and wants to die! My way of thinking was, Well, I fuckin’ love myself, and I’m gonna live forever, man!”
He would later join brother Liam’s band Oasis and the rest is rock and roll history.
And to which The Master of Time and Space allows this to happen.
Thanks for listening.