Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History
By Bill Janovitz
Hachette, 592 pages, $31
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A selective list of Leon Russell collaborators reads like a list of rock godhood: Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Elton John. His debut album, released in 1970, featured the participation of George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. He is credited with inspiring Willie Nelson to grow his hair out and embrace the hippie counterculture. And yet, outside of a circle of dedicated fans and music aficionados, Russell never became a household name like his contemporaries, which seems to be exactly how he had designed him.
Throughout his six-decade career as a musician, singer-songwriter, and composer, Russell gave few interviews; he kept friends, family and associates at a distance; and he was notoriously brooding and taciturn. Hailed as the “master of space and time,” Russell spent the last half of his career fighting (with varying degrees of effort) to stay relevant and debt-free. Such a distant and inscrutable life does not lend itself easily to dramatization, which may help explain why only now, six years after his death and 50 years after his height of fame, do we have the first biographical treatment. complete. The figure that emerges at the end, however, remains just as inscrutable.
“lion russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History” by musician and author Bill Janovitz is the most ambitious effort yet to pull back the curtain on one of the most talented and least understood rock artists of the 20th century.
Born Claude Russell Bridges in Oklahoma in 1942, he displayed an early genius for the piano; at 14 he was playing Tulsa nightclubs and toured briefly as the opening act for Jerry Lee Lewis, whose searing Pentecostal style impressed the young Russell. In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles and found steady work as a studio musician, playing recording sessions for such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Herb Alpert, and Barbra Streisand. He and his fellow southerner Glen Campbell were part of the now legendary Wrecking Crew, which was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the decade and formed the nucleus of Phil Spector’s famed Wall of Sound.
Skyhill Studio, the four-bedroom house and home recording studio Russell purchased on Skyhill Drive in Studio City, hosted Los Angeles’ top session musicians, fellow Tulsa expats and international superstars like Harrison, Starr and Clapton. The house was also a den of bacchanalia; drugs and orgies were as common as jam sessions. At the center of it all, like a lone king at his sun-drenched court, stood Russell: shaggy hair, top hat, flowing beard, and faraway eyes behind reflective sunglasses.
By the early 1970s, Russell had all the makings of a bona fide rock god. The success of Cocker’s 1970 “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour established Russell as an inimitable composer and arranger; his original composition “A Song for You” (from which he derives his nickname “master of space and time”) would be covered by Donny Hathaway, the Carpenters, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and many others. His second album, 1971’s “Leon Russell and the Shelter People,” went gold in the US, the first of five albums to reach that milestone before the decade was out. (His sixth of his would not arrive until 2010, after the devoted Elton John brought him out of relative obscurity for his collaborative album, “The Union.”) But as Janovitz shows in his book, Russell had an infuriating habit of wasting opportunities, turning friends into enemies, and seemingly doing everything possible to torpedo his career and sabotage his legacy.
Rock biographies often follow a familiar formula: the road to success, fame and wealth, a spectacular crash and burn (the inevitable result of drugs and hubris) and, if you’re lucky enough to survive this ordeal, the long and heroic road. to recovery, culminating in a rebirth late in life. “Leon Russell” hits the first two stations of the cross solid, but Russell didn’t crash but slowly fade away.
The causes: bad artistic, business and personal decisions. He invested large sums of money in old houses and cars, only to quickly abandon them; he seemed to disdain acting; he became curiously obsessed with troubled actor Gary Busey. Russell also suffered quietly from increasing health problems and a general irritability, possibly stemming from autism and/or undiagnosed bipolar disorder. These little things create some drama, though maybe not enough to fill 600 pages.
Janovitz, the author of two books on the Rolling Stones and a musician in his own right (a founding member of the 1990s-era alternative rock band Buffalo Tom) writes like a rock enthusiast and addresses other rock enthusiasts rather than to casual readers. He draws on dozens of personal interviews with titans, as well as anonymous session musicians, recording engineers, business partners, friends, family, and lovers. Quotations, reflections, and reminiscences abound, giving the impression that “Leon Russell” might have worked better as a direct oral biography.
In fact, the author rarely interrupts the flow of rock trivia like recording sessions, tour dates, and sidemen. He offers little context about the turbulent times in which Russell and his contemporaries were creating and perfecting his art, and he seems reluctant to look too critically at Russell’s more repellent behavior.
As a southern-born white man who became rich and famous performing music heavily influenced (or appropriated) from black art forms such as gospel, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll, Russell might seem oblivious to racism in his own right. orbit. The most disturbing example came after he married her showgirl, a black woman named Mary McCreary, who faced racist abuse night after night from Russell’s audience as he refused to defend her.
“Leon dealt with these racists in his roundabout way,” Janovitz writes. Which seems to mean, as singer Maxayn Lewis unhelpfully explains, “just let the music speak for itself.”
This might be the best advice on how to appreciate the subject of this biography. While it will satisfy Russell’s legions of loyal fans, the self-described “leonlifers” — and rock biopic completists, what matters most in the end is the music, which at its best is still beautiful, exciting and magical.
Holley is a journalist and author of the upcoming book “An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created.”