Leon Russell has hidden in plain sight for much of his career. Once hailed as the “Master of Space and Time,” the Oklahoma native has orchestrated some of rock music’s most vivid moments — he assembled Joe Cocker’s band for the singer’s legendary Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour in 1970, and helped organize the Concert for Bangladesh — and authored some of the most indelible songs of the past half-century ( A Song for You; Superstar; Delta Lady).
After a period out of the spotlight, Russell came roaring back in 2010, with an assist from Elton John and Fort Worth-raised producer T Bone Burnett, on the acclaimed LP The Union.
Four years later, fresh off his 72nd birthday, Russell teamed with another industry luminary, producer Tommy LiPuma, to create Life Journey, an album reflecting upon more than five decades of making music, and touching on everything from Dixieland jazz to soulful blues.
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Russell spoke by phone from an Athens, Ga. tour stop.
1 How did Life Journey come together?
It’s the result of a lot of conversations Tommy LiPuma and I had about what we were trying to do. He’s quite good, actually — about the best I’ve ever been around, as far as making records. When I started doing the record, I wasn’t sure what I was going for — as a matter of fact, the title didn’t come up until halfway through the record — but he was very good at pulling it out of me.
2 You’ve spoken of your deep appreciation for standards — do you think people have lost sight of them in modern music?
I’m not sure it seems to be as important as it was, perhaps, during [WWII]. I attempted quite a few years back to write standards, because they’re songs that are cut by everybody. The saxophone player in Tower of Power came up to me one day and said, ‘How do you do it? How do you get other people to cut your songs?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t really hazard a guess — there are just certain types of songs everybody sings.’ I still try to do that today, to write those songs.
3 What does it mean to you have someone like Elton John behind you?
It’s an unbelievable gift. I met him 35 years ago, but we hadn’t been in regular communication — he opened a few shows for me, back in those days. Then we went our separate ways, and we hadn’t talked in a long time. I was quite surprised to hear from him, and also to hear how much influence he said I’d had on his music. I was grateful for his help.
4 Does it ever frustrate you that the public’s attention waxes and wanes?
I met Elvis one time and I heard myself saying, ‘Elvis, how did you end up in all those terrible movies?’ Elvis said, ‘I don’t know, man — the last thing I remember, I was driving a truck.’ That’s kind of the way it was for me — I woke up one morning and I was famous. So, that stuff happens overnight, and it goes away in somewhat the same time frame. I never expect that stuff to last forever.
5 Do you feel you’ve written a song or songs that will endure beyond your lifetime?
One hopes that that’s the case, but I don’t ever think about that stuff. People kill themselves over less than that.
— Preston Jones