Leon Russell, musician and songwriter known for his work with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and George Harrison, died in his sleep today. He was 74.
Russell first rose to acclaim as a session musician in the 1950’s and 60’s, playing with a diverse range of artists, from Ray Charles to Gram Parsons. His piano playing can be heard on the Beach Boys’ early albums, including their landmark “Pet Sounds,” The Rolling Stones’ “Live with Me” off of the album “Let It Bleed” and The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Many of his songs have become hits for other artists, such as “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker, “Superstar” for The Carpenters and “The Masquerade” for George Benson.
On top of his work with other artists, he has also produced plenty of original hit songs. His single “A Song for You” has been covered by over 100 artists. Other hits include “Tight Rope” off of the album “Carney” and “Lady Blue” off of “Will O’ the Wisp.” In 1978, Russell and Willie Nelson recorded a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” that was a number-one hit on the Billboard Country charts. After performing as a country star under the moniker Hank Wilson, and years of obscurity, singer-songwriter Elton John recorded a duet album with him entitled “The Union,” which led to a resurgence in output and touring until his death.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2015, Les Blank’s documentary “A Poem Is a Naked Person” about Russell was finally released 40 years after it was first filmed. It was shelved due to creative differences and music clearance issues.