Leon Russell, a musical genre-blender who played sessions and then did concerts and records with musical greats and earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, died at his home in Nashville Saturday. He was 74.
"With a top hat on his head, hair well past his shoulders, a long beard, an Oklahoma drawl in his voice and his fingers splashing two-fisted barrelhouse piano chords, Mr. Russell cut a flamboyant figure in the early 1970s," Jon Pareles writes for The New York Times. He did "Wall of Sound" sessions with producer Phil Spector, started Shelter Records, led Joe Cocker's band, played at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh and concerts with Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones, had hit records with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and by himself, wrote hits for others, played country music as Hank Wilson, did bluegrass with the New Grass Revival, explored jazz and blues, faded into obscurity and then resurfaced in a late-life collaboration with Elton John. The Tennessean of Nashville has a photo gallery of his career.
Russell was classically trained but a birth injury limited his timing and range of motion on keyboards. He told the Los Angeles Times in 1999, "I invented ways to play in a classical style that was not the real deal." Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Okla., in 1941, he adopted his stage name from a Los Angeles friend who loaned him an ID so he could play clubs when he was under 21. He had "a rich, hearty voice that drifted between country and soul," and his "Union" album with Elton John is "an elegant work that showcases each artist's prowess with the piano and Russell's flair for bridging pop and gospel," writes the LAT's Todd Martens. John called Russell "one of the greatest American treasures."
Russell told the LAT he was hard for radio program directors to figure out because "I was not a brand that they could always expect was going to be the same thing. I'm not as aware of categories in music as some people are. To me it's just music. I'm interested in all kinds of music." In 1978, he issued an album called "Americana" which helped define yet another genre that seemed to fit him best.