Always a Carney at Heart

There’s a moment in the 1972 concert film Concert for Bangladesh where Leon Russell comes in on the third verse of George Harrison’s song “Beware of Darkness.” He’s at his piano and the band includes Harrison up front with a guitar, Eric Clapton playing an opiated lead, Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner on drums. It was a tune Russell covered on his 1971 album with the Shelter People. Like every other song Leon covered, he inimitably made it his own. It is this type of presentation that a song stops being a cover and becomes a new song. Leon Russell’s music was like every cover he did: unique and clearly done by Leon Russell. Russell played, wrote and interpreted rock and roll, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz and more and he did so with vocals that not only had their origins in gospel, but rocked gospel harder than many a service at any Pentecostal church.

When Leon Russell died in 2016, many music writers had relegated him to a footnote long ago. In doing so, they proved their ignorance. Not only was Russell one of the biggest rock and roll artists of the early 1970s, his influence was even greater. Of course, in the corporate-driven world of popular entertainment, a musician is only as great as the sales figures of his last recording. Russell’s numbers in that regard had been down for decades. However, those who worked with him over the years knew better. Their praise meant more than all the sales numbers in the world. Rock writer Bill Janovitz agrees. His recently released biography of Russell, titled Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, does genuine justice to the music and the man. Voluminous in size and multilayered in its composition, Janovitz’s text is a masterwork in rock biographies.

Janowitz, whose discourse on the Rolling Stones record Exile on Main Street as part of the critical book series 33 1/3 proved his ability to go beyond the obvious sources and meanings for a rock song, excels here in his discussion of Russell’s music and life. It is a sprawling tale that ends up being a history of much of post-World War Two popular music. Opening the book with a description of Russell’s high school band going on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis through Oklahoma and maybe a little bit of Texas, Janovitz narrates a story that should be the envy of any rock musician and rock music fan. Not long after that tour with Lewis, Russell moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma and began a career that ended only with his death in 2016. His credits would include some of popular music’s best-known recordings, including a number that he wrote and performed himself. Many of the latter would also be recorded by other artists in a number of different genres.

By the time he began recording his own songs in the late 1960s, Russell had established himself as a go-to studio musician and arranger. He lived in a sprawling house which included one of the first home studios in rock music. In the spirit of the times, the house was also a communal living space and a twenty-four hour party. In fact, Russell ended up renting another apartment just to have some privacy. In other words, it was a classic hippie scene. His friends and acquaintances included Bob Dylan, members of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Brian Wilson, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Darlene Love and countless other musicians, producers and rock music hangers on. This scenario defined the band and tour he put together with a less-than-enthusiastic Joe Cocker in 1970. That band became known as the Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It was a band in the mold of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends—big bands with horns, at least two guitarists and drummers and numerous vocalists. The tours were traveling extravaganzas and traveling parties. As Janovitz tells the story, it was incredibly successful and stressful. Besides the stars and Los Angeles insiders, Russell had brought along a few friends and musicians from his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. By the time his album Leon Russell and the Shelter People came out in 1971, he had moved much of his operation back to Tulsa.

Janovitz makes it quite clear that Leon Russell had no use for racists and racism. His bands reflected this, as did his love life. His songs did, too. The song “Alcatraz” was inspired by the American Indian Movement’s 1969 takeover of the prison on the island. As far as the antiwar movement went, his songs “Ballad of a Soldier” and “Down on the Base” are antiwar tunes from the perspective of a conscript. The songs he chose to cover included his own take on John and Yoko’s Give Peace a Chance” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” It seems that among the GIs I knew then, these songs of Russell’s rivaled other antiwar tunes like Creedence Clearwater’s “Fortunate Son,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” in terms of playing time.

Given Russell’s long career—from the studios to rock and roll fame followed by inclusion in the world of outlaw country with Willie, Waylon and the boys, then back to small clubs and theaters—his life might seem tragic. I would argue that it was, instead, a rock and roll life and a well-lived one at that. The author includes warts and the megalomania, all of it occasionally exacerbated by drugs and ego. However, the real story here is the music and the man. Reading this biography is tantamount to reading a history of rock music since the early 1960s; from pop to soul and from the blues to bluegrass. Janowitz’s work includes so many names and connections one loses track of over time. I found myself going back pages, even chapters to connect a name with a situation, a song or a show that Leon was part of, if not instrumental to. No review can truly do this book the credit it deserves in its telling of Russell’s time on earth making music, just like no book can truly give Leon Russell the credit he deserves for the music he made for nigh on seventy years.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: