The Best Of Leon Russell
Review by David Bowling
Leon Russell passed away November 13 at the age of 74, about a week after Lenard Cohen’s death. No two artists were more different than Russell and Cohen in style and approach, yet each was a master of his craft as a composer and musician.
The last years of his life validated Leon Russell as one of the legendary performers in rock history. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and released a duet album with Elton John that returned him to the upper regions of the American album charts.
His career began during the 1950’s as a member of The Starliters with J.J. Cale. He moved on to session work, the television show Shindig, and working with Phil Spector.
In 1970, he released his first, self-titled solo album and dozens more would follow during the next four decades with a great deal of commercial success. His big breakthrough came as the music director/ringmaster of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, 1969-1971. He has since worked with many of the legendary musicians of the last half of the 20th century, including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, The Band, and Bob Dylan.
The Best Of Leon Russell is a 16-track retrospective that concentrates on his 1970’s material plus one track from his recent album with Elton John. “Best of” may not be the most accurate way to describe this album. “Representative” is probably a better description as it presents his better known material from various stages of his career. While 16 tracks can’t come close to covering his vast catalogue, the album still provides a nice taste.
It centers upon his 1970’s material. ”A Song For You,” “Shoot Out At The Plantation,” “Delta Lady,” and “Hummingbird” all come from his debut album. They are representative of the gritty rock ‘n’ roll that dominated his early career.
There are a number of other highlights as well. “Lady Blue” is his laid-back brand of Cajun rock ‘n’ roll. “The Masquerade” is a good example of the subdued, melancholy type of material that appears throughout his career. “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” is his rousing version of the Bob Dylan tune which graced his Leon Russell And Hus Shelter People album. “Back To The Island” is possibly his smoothest performance, one that makes you almost smell the ocean breeze.
In 1979 he recorded a country album with Willie Nelson. Included here is their laid-back cover of “Heartbreak Hotel,” which reached Number One on the American country charts. The album draws to a close with his wild and out-of-control performance of the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley from The Concert For Bangladesh.
Leon Russell’s career has meandered through the American musical landscape for over a half century. The Best Of Leon Russell allows the listener to travel with him for a spell and it’s a journey well worth taking.