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LEON RUSSELL,
1942-2016

Influential songwriter/pianist Leon Russell, who rose from the role to sideman to be a star in his own right and would have influence over generations of pianists, singers and songwriters, died Saturday in Nashville at the age of 74.

According to a post on his Facebook page, his wife Jan Bridges said he died in his sleep. "He was recovering from heart surgery in July and looked forward to getting back on the road in January. We appreciate everyone’s love and support.”

His piano style was a compendium of American music of the 1950s: He rolled R&B, the Nashville Sound, honky-tonk, gospel and Southern blues into a unique sound that help drive the bands of Joe Cocker and Delaney & Bonnie before striking out on his own.

Russell’s Southern drawl was distinct in rock & roll of the early 1970s as he reached FM airwaves with a swampy rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and his own “Tight Rope,” “Back to the Island” and   “Lady Blue.” He excelled at interpreting the songs of Dylan, who employed Russell as pianist and producer for the single “Watching the River Flow” in 1971, which just missed the Top 40.

Russell was also a compelling balladeer as a singer and songwriter. One of his most famous compositions, “A Song For You,” was covered early on by The Carpenters and Andy Williams; became a signature song for Donny Hathaway; and won a Grammy for Ray Charles. Christina Aguillera recorded it with Herbie Hancock; Willie Nelson, who recorded and toured with Russell, included a version in the film Honeysuckle Rose; and Bizzy Bone sampled Hathaway’s version for his own “A Song for You.”

Russell won two Grammys, landed eight albums in the Top 40, the highest charting being Carney, which hit #2 in 1972. Carney featured “Tight Rope,” which would be his biggest single, reaching #11. Another song on that album, “This Masquerade,” would be a crossover smash for George Benson in 1976.

Born Claude Russell Bridges, he was one of the originators of the “Tulsa Sound,” which J.J. Cale said was created when guys who don’t know how to play the blues take a shot at it. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s and would play on countless sessions, including ones that produced hits by The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Glen Campbell and Phil Spector’s artists.

Russell went solo in the mid-1960s, forming the Asylum Choir with Marc Benno; the two would launch Shelter Records together in 1968. From there, he famously led Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen band, worked with George Harrison and provided one of the highlights at the Concert for Bangladesh. Cocker made Russell’s “Delta Lady” one of his signature songs, and Russell’s medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Youngblood” was one of the highlights of Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.

While working as a solo artist, he kept his hand in session work, recording with The Rolling Stones, assisting blues guitarist Freddie King with his comeback, and working twith the funk act The Gap Band. And when he became a top concert draw in the mid-1970s, Russell created a country music alter-ego, Hank Wilson, to record classic country music. He would revisit the character for three more records; he also toured and recorded with the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival.

Russell, who left Shelter in 1976, would create several more labels to put his music but none had the success on Shelter. He became a road warrior, consistently touring clubs for decades.

Convinced he had never received his proper due, Elton John orchestrated a project with Russell, Bernie Taupin and T Bone Burnett that would become The Union, which was released in 2010. Cameron Crowe directed a documentary about the making of the film.

It raised Russell’s profile for a short while as he returned to touring, releasing his last album, Life Journey, in 2014. In July, Russell suffered a heart attack, which kept him off the road.

The Recording Academy's Neil Portnow, who must be as weary as anyone of 2016's death cavalcade, issued the following statement:

"Grammy recipient Leon Russell's passing leaves us with a profound sense of loss. He made an immeasurable contribution to our culture as a musician as part of Los Angeles' famed Wrecking Crew, as a songwriter whose "A Song For You" was recorded by more than 100 artists, and as a recording artist himself with hits such as 'Tight Rope.' His inquisitive musical nature was a model to be emulated. Our condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans."

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