At 71, Oklahoma native and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Leon Russell has packed a lot into his over five decades of grand musical adventures.
His new studio album, Life Journey, is an apt title as the record finds the acclaimed singer /songwriter /pianist coming full circle and essaying songs purloined from the Great American Songbook, past and present, ranging from a deliciously roosty take of Robert Johnson‘s Come in My Kitchen to New York State of Mind by Billy Joel along with a few brand new Russell originals (Big Lips and Down in Dixieland).
“This is a record of my musical journey through life, “reveals Russell. “It reflects pieces of things that I have done and things I never did, for one reason or another.”
Over the years, Russell has lent his keyboard prowess to records ranging from The Byrds to Frank Sinatra, Gary Lewis & The Playboys to The Monkees along with playing on a string of Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” hits emanating from Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios.
His career as an artist kicked into gear with his 1970 debut, Leon Russell, a perfect marriage of inspired songwriting and swampy musicianship; the record included his signature classic A Song for You. A high profile appearance at 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh helped to further solidify his rising star status.In terms of commercial success, 1972 was Leon’s year, racking up two top 10 albums, Carney (# 2) and Leon Live (#9) and a # 11 smash hit, Tight Rope. And while the hits became more sporadic (1975’s Lady Blue landed at # 14 and he shared a # 1 country hit with Willie Nelson for their duet on Elvis‘s Heartbreak Hotel), Russell continued to record and tour incessantly.
A surprise phone call from Elton John in 2010 led to the duo collaborating on a studio album, The Union, which became a surprise # 3 hit and even more importantly helped reintroduce the listening audience to one of America’s greatest musical treasures.
Now with Life Journey, Russell is back and in typical Leon fashion he remains characteristically humble. “Nearing the close of my adventure, I feel that I may be the luckiest guy in the world.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve done many studio albums over your career as an artists going back to your 1970 debut, what was the mindset behind Life Journey?
Leon Russell: Well, thanks for giving me the benefit of a doubt that I know what I’m doing, first of all. (laughs) When we started out working on this record I didn’t know what I was doing with this. I was at one of my shows with Elton (John) and the President of Universal and the President of EMI came up to me at the exact same moment and said they wanted a Leon Russell album so I know that there was interest there.
But they wanted me to use a producer. I’ve worked with a lot of producers as a studio musician but on my own stuff I didn’t work with a producer – I always made my own records in my own studios. It was kind of tricky. I was looking around and thinking about different possible guys to work with and I just happened to run into Tommy LiPuma. I’d known Tommy for forty five years—we’d never done anything together but he put my kids through school with This Masquerade, which he produced for George Benson. Actually, he cut five of my songs; I didn’t even realize that.
So I asked Tommy if he had time to produce me and he said, “I’ll make time, I’d love to do it!,” which was exciting for me because he’s Mr. Serious Guy when it comes to producers. So the new record started out that way.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Didn’t the concept/direction of the record come into clear view midway into recording?
Leon Russell: Yeah, the title of the album, Life Journey, came to me when we were three quarters of the way through the record. I did that Robert Johnson tune (Come On In My Kitchen) and I did a couple of tunes that I wrote and then we did four big band tunes. A lot of those tunes like The Masquerade is Over I’d played for tons of singers but I’d never sung it. I told Tommy I played on a version of that song before and the guy told me, “I’d like for the orchestra to sound like it’s behind a scrim, like a Walt Disney movie.”
This guy wrote these charts and he had eight modulations in the first intro. He was playing piano and I was trying to figure out what my starting note was; the whole record was so complicated that I couldn’t play on it. So I told Tommy, “I feel like I’d like to play my own changes” and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s great.” So I made a demo of The Masquerade Is Over; on that demo that’s probably the first time I sang that song. I got a message from Tommy telling me he’d been going around playing this demo for everybody. He said, “This is great, this is great!” Well, I didn’t think it was great; I was just glad to get through it, actually. (laughs) I wasn’t used to singing that song.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Working with an outside producer like Tommy took off the pressure on you and allowed you to be more creative.
Leon Russell: Oh yeah, it absolutely did. It’s funny, as we were working Tommy would say, “I want to do this, is that okay?” and I’d say yeah. Then he’d say, “I want to do this, is this okay?” And I said, (speaks forcefully) “Tommy, do whatever you want, you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to ask me.” (laughs)
Do you know how many times I’ve ever said that to anybody? Never. Tommy is something. It was tremendously helpful working with him. Tommy knows what he’s doing. It started out as us just having conversations with him saying, “What do you like?” and “Play me something you like.” I explained to him that a lot of times when I’m playing my piano on parts in certain kind of songs, standards, I was imagining the ensemble would be the (Count) Basie Orchestra. So when we started doing the record, there was Tommy standing there, the guy who’d written a lot of his charts in the later part of his life.
Tommy stood next to him and gave him his cues so he’s connected to that community and was responsible for putting the right stuff in there for Basie.