Going on a Musical Journey with Leon Russell
Right from the opening notes on any Leon Russell song, you know you’re in for the ride of your life, and his new album, Life Journey, is no different. His unmistakable bluesy, barrel roll piano runs careen around the dirt roads of swampy jazz and funk, swerve around the stomping blues of the roadhouse, and massage gently the longing aches of lounge ballads. Yet, it’s Russell’s distinctive gritty and smoky melodic voice as much as his piano that captures the grit, the desire, and the downright funk of any song he sings, whether it’s a country honker like “Hey Good Lookin’” or “She Thinks I Still Care” (from his 1973 album “Hank Wilson’s Back”) or a soaring ballad, like his oft-recorded “A Song for You” or a raucous call-and response stomp, like his “Delta Lady,” that Joe Cocker made so memorable.
As a musician, Russell wove his way through the music of many of the great acts of the 1960s and 1970s, ranging from Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Byrds, and Eric Clapton to Badfinger, George Harrison, B.B. King, Freddie King, and Glen Campbell. When he was a teenager, he was playing in a band with J.J. Cale, and he spent some time as one of a group of session musicians that became known as “the Wrecking Crew,” which in various incarnations included Glenn Campbell, Dr. John, and drummer Hal Blaine, among others. Russell’s canny way with a keyboard brings to every song he touches a fresh perspective; he can hear just what that sound might be, and at his singular touch those sounds jump right off the keys.
In 2010, Russell and Elton John teamed up and released their critically acclaimed, The Union. The songs on that album took Russell down a musical path he hadn’t before traveled, but he wasn’t finished embarking on other journeys. On April 1—one day before Russell turns 72 on April 2—he releases Life Journey, which, as he says, is “a record of my musical journey through life; it reflects pieces of things that I have done and that I never did, for one reason or another.” The album contains two of Russell’s original compositions and ten songs by other writers whose music has so deeply influenced Russell that its strains can be found in his own work. Even so, Russell infuses each of these songs with his own jaunty, boisterous, mystical, and energetic style. In fact, it’s Russell’s energy that lights up every track of this album; he’s certainly not weary of exploring new musical paths, and he invests every ounce of pouncing strength in turning out memorable versions both of the older songs and his new compositions.
The album kicks off with Russell’s roadhouse piano runs as he takes flight on Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen.” Boisterous and swampy, Russell’s shouts his growl against to the strains of Chris Simmons’ slide guitar, even as his piano runs weave under and around Simmons’ jagged blues. The opening riff of “Come on in My Kitchen” recalls those famous bars of The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” so from the start we know we’re in for a sonic take on the everyday give-and-take, come-and-go moments of life. Russell’s “Big Lips” is reminiscent of “Delta Lady”—the last few notes of the piano intro are exactly the same as in the older song—and it’s an ingenious interweaving of Fifties doo-wop, swampy blues, and flat-out rock and roll that would be at home alongside the albums of Jerry Lee Lewis and feature Simmons’ Clapton-like blues licks in the song’s last note. With his characteristic tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at life lyrics, Russell reminds us late in the song that “Little Richard/he’s a southern trip,” all the while tinkling the ivories in sold Little Richard fashion. Russell’s version of Haogy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia on My Mind” opens with Russell’s stately piano rolls and then slowly builds, with the help of the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, into a crescendo of a big band while maintaining the intimacy of a lounge song. Russell’s jumpy piano rolls mimic the ardent, agitated, and heated nature of desire in the classic “Fever,” while he stretches out his smoky cabaret skills on Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” The album closes with a Russell original, “Down in Dixieland,” a joyous and rambunctious tune that struts it celebration of Dixieland jazz as Russell marches off toward another musical destination.
The most affecting song on the album is the Haven Gillespie/Beasley Smith written “That Lucky Old Sun.” Russell turns this into a shouting call-and-response gospel song, replete with a heavenly chorus that includes William Cantos, Alvin Chea, Perry Morgan, Louis Price, and Russell himself. The song opens with Greg Leisz’s aching pedal steel which Larry Goldings’ haunting B3 soon joins; the B3 provides both a jazz-inflected bridge and a church organ feel that almost perfectly captures the struggle that the singer expresses in the lyrics. At the end of the song, Russell calls out the lyrics as he urges responses from the chorus. The singer, whose wrestles daily with the difficulties of life, envies that lucky old sun whose only job seems to be to rise, to travel across the sky, and to set. In his creative genius, Russell matches just the right musical style to the toils and disappointments expressed in the song.
On his liner essay, Russell writes that “nearing the close of my adventure, I feel that I may be the luckiest guy in the world.” We’re all lucky that Russell shares his musical journey with us on Life Journey, for we’re all richer for having accompanied him along these various roads he’s traveled and continues to travel in his musical life.
I caught up with Russell by phone a few weeks ago. After a brief conversation about the origins of No Depression, we talked about his new music.
HC: How did this album come about?
Russell: Well, I did that record with Elton John, and I wanted to do my own record next. I’ve used to doing pretty much whatever I want to do since I usually produce my own records. But, then I ran into Tommy LiPuma, whom I’ve known for fifty years, and I asked him if he might want to work on this record. He has worked with so many great artists like Diana Krall and Paul McCartney. He’s the best I’ve ever worked with.
HC: How did you choose the songs for the album?
Russell: Tommy started pulling songs for me to choose from. A lot of these songs I played for other singers, but I never sang on my own. I was a big Count Basie fan growing up, and I wanted to include big band songs on the album. I was happy when Tommy chose the Duke Ellington song, “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” for the album. When we had recorded about six or seven songs, I knew the direction the album would take; it’s about my musical life journey: these were songs I had played and sung, songs I knew in the past, along with songs I had always wanted to do and never done.
HC: What’s your approach to songwriting?
Russell: When I first started out, I used to sit for a long time waiting for inspiration because I thought that’s how you were supposed to write songs. When it didn’t come, I thought I might not be cut out for this. Then I got hold of a book called “How to Write a Popular Song,” or something close to that, and looking at that book gave me a level of confidence that I didn’t have before. I realized I didn’t have to sit around waiting for ideas to come to me, but that I could just start writing down ideas that grew out of my observations on stuff going on around me. I can’t be the performer and the audience at the same time, and I have to write what feels good to me. I’ve learned to rewrite, too; that’s a big part of my process.
HC: What’s next for you?
Russell: Lord, I couldn’t hazard a guess. One knows what one is doing all the time, so it’s hard to say what might come next.
HC: You’ve done so much in your life, played so many different kinds and styles of music. When all of this is said and done, how would you like to be remembered?
Russell: I hope people will look at me and say that I’ve always had a job. To me, playing music is a job like any other job; it’s what I know how to do. I hope that my music—and the job I’ve done—will speak for itself; either you like it or you don’t.