In early January, Leon Russell underwent brain surgery at an undisclosed hospital in California to correct what was described as a chronic condition. Some news reports also claimed that the 68-year-old Oklahoman had suffered heart failure. Whatever his condition, he recovered, and by the end of the month he was onstage performing at the Grammy Awards on January 31 in Los Angeles. His songs “Lady Blue,” “Song for You,” “Tight Rope,” and “This Masquerade” were mellow hits for a generation of popsters who by now are all carrying AARP cards, but Russell has the distinction of being the archetype for generations of arena rockers that followed — he was playing a black Les Paul long before Slash’s parents knew each other.
Russell is a bona fide slice of pop culture; when the press writes that he was a member of rock’s first case study in arena lavishness — that being Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen — I wonder how many know that it was the other way around. Cocker was only the front man of a band that Russell had put together from his many associations as a sideman for rock and pop stars ranging from the Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra. Cut from the same cloth as Jerry Lee Lewis, Russell’s live cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” at The Concert for Bangladesh was an exercise in waking the dead.
He’s still like that. Mildly adenoidal, Russell’s singing voice is slightly off-key, such that he has to scoop up to the note to find pitch. It lends a quirky, conversational aspect to his singing. His voice can amuse, but then it can turn around and mete out some hard blues. Maybe this time around in the hospital they rebuilt him. Maybe Leon Russell’s good for another 70 years.
- Wednesday, July 7, 2010, 8 p.m.
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