Friends Remember Advice and Lessons from Leon Russell
Fourteen months ago, the music world lost legendary rock and roller Leon Russell. His keyboard wizardry, clever songwriting, and unique, gravelly voice are sorely missed, but he left us a posthumous present, On a Distant Shore, to savor forever.
Mark Lambert produced the 12-song album, and Ray Goren, a young songwriter/guitarist who was mentored by Russell, plays on one song, “Black and Blue.” I asked both men to discuss the new album and reminisce about Russell.
Lambert, who worked with Russell as a producer, engineer, and musician for about 30 years, says the album’s songs were recorded in 2015 and 2016.
“Leon would have a melody or musical idea and put it down on piano against a drum loop with some lyric or just what he called ‘moaning.’ Then he would edit and rewrite the music and lyric into a finished song.
“Leon was constantly writing lyrics on his laptop and had an extensive catalog of lyrics and ideas. Occasionally, he would come to the studio with a finished lyric on his computer and the complete song in his head. ‘Just Leaves and Grass’ was one of those songs. We recorded it to a drum loop as he played piano and sang it the first time. Most of that first-take vocal and the entire piano is what ended up on the record. He played it so flawlessly that I asked him if he had played it on piano before. He said ‘no’ but that he had been thinking about it and knew what he would play.”
How does On a Distant Shore differ from other releases in Russell’s catalog?
“I think Leon enjoyed making this record more than any other one he ever made, and he said that a number of times during the process,” Lambert recalls. “He was very happy and inspired by Larry Hall’s orchestrations. He was also very serious about making sure his vocal tracks really held up. We were constantly singing and improving as we worked through the record. In the past, he often prided himself on being a spontaneous first- or second-take singer, which is part of what makes his early recordings so powerful. I think he felt like the style of this record made him stretch or reach a bit more vocally. His vocal work really shines through.”
Goren says that, during a school break a few years ago, Russell asked him to come to Nashville to write songs together. In a studio there, Russell unveiled “Black and Blue” and asked Goren to sing the lead.
“I kept telling him, man, those lyrics fit you way better than they do me. So, of the five songs we recorded while I was there, this is the one song that Leon sang the vocals. He just killed it.”
Before meeting Russell, Goren made a name for himself as a hot, young blues guitarist. At age 12, he shared the stage with Buddy Guy and Robby Krieger, and, soon after, opened for B.B. King. He met Russell at a show in southern California and began writing, as well as performing, music.
“When Leon and I were sitting in his tour bus together, I asked him how he wrote such amazing lyrics,” Goren recalls. “He’s one of the best lyricists of all time. He told me that he spent about 40 minutes a day just writing down random things — anything that came to his mind — in a special notebook. He told me that he did this every single day and that I should do the same thing.
“He said he didn’t read the notebook for weeks or, sometimes, months, but when he finally did go back to it, he got ideas or lines for songs. So I started writing in a notebook, and I still do to this day. I have taken his idea a step further — I record ideas for melodies or hooks. On my album Me, I pulled lyrical ideas that came from my notebook. I thank Leon every day for setting me on that path.”
Goren says his favorite Leon Russell song is “Delta Lady.”
“I love the vibe of that song — so strong, and the hook sticks with you like glue,” he says. “I remember first meeting him and spending time with him when I was 11. I was always listening to ‘Delta Lady’ on the way to my fifth- grade classes — and the lyrics would stick in my head all day!”
Lambert says he “pretty much wore out” his vinyl versions of four Leon Russell albums: Carney, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, Asylum Choir II, and Leon Russell. “I was in high school and an aspiring musician at that time, and those songs and records had a big influence on me.”
What’s Leon’s legacy in the history of pop music?
“His songs speak for themselves.” Lambert says. “I think Leon had a huge impact on music by kind of being a bridge between the British musicians and artists and the musicians and artists from the US. He also brought a Pentecostal gospel rock influence to the pop vocabulary that influences artists to this day. Also, the traveling circus aspect of his live shows made an impression on many performers that came after him.”
Goren says the best show he saw Russell perform was the first one he witnessed at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California.
“I had never seen or heard him before, so it was amazing to see the immense talent — performance and songwriting ability — that he had. It’s not that the other concerts weren’t as good; it’s because the first time I saw him it was such a great shock, and it really stands out in my mind.”
Lambert, who played guitar in Russell’s band, says one show that especially stood out was in the early 1990s on a bill with B.B. King at the Ventura Theater in Ventura, California.
“Leon had a nine-piece band with three outstanding keyboard players and a great percussion section,” Lambert recalls. The band and Leon were in great form that night, as was the audience. B.B. was, of course, amazing.”
Lambert says the best concert of any artist that he attended was an Elton John-Leon Russell show when they played together in 2010 to promote their album The Union.
“The show in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was really a good one,” Lambert says. “We had front-row seats about 10 feet from Elton’s piano. He was particularly amazing that night as a player, singer, and entertainer.”