Leon Russell, keyboard maestro and songwriter extraordinaire, died in his sleep in Nashville on November 13, at age 74. Russell, who had been battling a number of health issues in recent years, was recovering from a heart attack he had back in July. (You can read his full obituary in The New York Times, as well as Bob Lefsetz’s spot-on analysis of his artistic impact here.)
Russell is perhaps best known for songs like “Delta Lady” and “A Song for You,” as well as being the bandleader of Joe Cocker’s infamous Mad Dogs & Englishmen 1970 tour and his appearance at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. “This Masquerade” (masterfully covered by George Benson on 1976’s Breezin’) and Russell’s own covers of George Harrison‘s “Beware of Darkness” and Bob Dylan‘s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” show an even deeper-rooted artistry at melding interpretation and improvisation.
I had the privilege of interviewing Leon in 2014 about his life’s journey in music and his then-current Life Journey album. You can read that interview in full on The SoundBard, but here are a few intriguing excerpts:
Mike Mettler: I’ve been living your Life Journey for a while now, so to speak. With top-drawer production people like [recorder and mixer/engineer] Al Schmitt and [producer] Tommy LiPuma working with you on this album, the bar was certainly raised in making sure the arrangements all worked out just the way you wanted them.
Leon Russell: Well, I’ve known Tommy for over 45 years, but I’ve never worked with him like this before. I met him [in the ’60s] when I was playing demo sessions for Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley at Liberty Records. He was a promotion man then, but he always wanted to be a producer.
When I first asked him to do this record, I was concerned he might have jazz damage. (MM laughs) About the only thing I knew he did was with George Benson, when he did my song [“This Masquerade,” on 1976’s Breezin’], and Diana Krall. It turns out he was an old blues hound like me, which was great. He told me a story about a session where I was in the studio and he was in the control booth, feeling scared to death and sweating blood. He said I came into the booth and he was explaining to me how scared he was, and I said to him, “Do this and do that, don’t worry about this deal, and everything is gonna be fine.” He then told me: “You saved my life!” And I didn’t remember that at all. (laughs) Well, I’m glad I was able to save Tommy’s life, that’s for sure.
You also mentioned Al Schmitt. He was in L.A. working on something at RCA [as a staff engineer], and I thought he was the second to Dave Hessinger [engineer on albums like Jefferson Airplane Takes Off], and Tommy said, “No, you got that all wrong; Al’s the main guy. Dave Hessinger was the second guy.” At that time, I was partners with a guy called Snuff Garrett, and we were cutting a record at RCA, and I thought, “Well, that makes sense; I mean, Al didn’t want to be second with Leon producing.” (laughs) While we were working together, I said to him, “Al, it’s amazing, I don’t ever see you doing anything, but when I’m ready to record, you’re already rolling when I say, ‘Let’s record.’ ” I love that. I hate to be stopped by the technical part of it, because I move pretty fast. And Al said, “Yeah, the engineering is supposed to be invisible.”
Mettler: That’s the Tom Dowd school of recording right there. Tom once told me he always had his engineers rolling tape in the studio because he didn’t want to miss anything.
Russell: I always had the tape rolling in my studios. I just let it roll all the time. Of course, that quickly becomes 8,000 rolls of 2-inch tape.
Russell: Well, I don’t know. I take a different view. When I first started in music, it was wire recorders. To me, vinyl is a step back. I don’t want any scratching and popping. I’m happy with CDs.
This is an interesting story: I had an engineer who was transferring one of my tapes to digital for some kind of an archival situation, and with every track, all he did was take out all of the noise and the unwanted sounds. He didn’t change the sound in any way, but obviously all the stuff that was junk, he took out. It was a 40-track tape, and when we got to the end of it, I hadn’t really said anything, because he wasn’t changing anything or doing anything that was weird to me. He said, “You take out all of that junk, and it all sounds flat on the top with all of those Christmas-tree spikes on it. And you can make the CD much louder.” All of a sudden, and I didn’t know exactly why, I thought he was going to cry. I asked him, “What’s the matter?” He said, “This is only 16-bit.” He thought it was going to be a higher-res deal. That was fascinating to me, since I didn’t have the same expectations as the real high-powered listeners might.