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Leon Russell: Signature Songs / Guitar Blues

C. Michael Bailey By

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Leon Russell is an American National Treasure. He should be protected at all costs.

Leon Russell entered my consciousness when I saw the movie and later purchased the soundtrack for Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen. He was this larger-than-life figure, acting as sidekick to the great white Ray Charles. Russell had an immediately identifiable piano and guitar style, and his vocals, that voice, that could come from no one else but an Oklahoma Dust Bowl ghost. Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1941, Russell began his music career with classical piano studies at age three that parlayed itself into the trumpet ten years later. He formed his first band in 1953 and lied about his age to get a gig at a local bar working with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.

From Oklahoma, Russell made his way West, honed his craft and joined Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound." He performed on such recordings as Jan and Dean's "Surf City," Del Shannon's "This Is My Bag," the Rolling Stone's "Let It Bleed," and this is just the beginning. Russell gained notoriety by touring with Delaney and Bonny and Friends and then heading up Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. A year later, Russell appeared in the George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, where he proceeded to reach a critical mass in the most thrilling performance of the show, his 10-minute gospel incineration of "Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood" medley.

Leon Russell and Denny Cordell founded Shelter Records and Russell recorded many notable solo discs for the label. These include 1970's Leon Russell, 1971's Leon Russell and the Shelter People, Asylum Choir (1971) and Asylum Choir II (1971), Carney (1972) and his country tribute, Hank Wilson's Back (1973). Russell left shelter and started Paradise Records where he released The Wedding Album and Hank Wilson, Volume 2. Never allowing grass to grow under his feet, the now 61-year-old Russell has, again, started a record label, Leon Russell Records. Russell has inaugurated this new label with a number of recordings, two of which are considered here.

Signature Songs is an intimate portrait of Leon Russell's craft. In the ultra-exposed format of solo piano, Russell, relaxed, leisurely strolls through 30 years of his songwriting. He opens this disc with a beautiful "A Song For You" complete with extended gospel coda. "Magic Mirror, " Tightrope," and "Stranger In A Strange Land" all possess Russell's swampy, spiritual vision. "Hummingbird" and "Back to the Island" are dryly tropical. The only real clinker is "Delta Lady," where Russell is a bit too relaxed. But this is no matter. Should the listener want to hear a definitive version, he or she may check out Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

Guitar Blues is a 1995 recording originally released only in Japan. It displays the guitar side of Mr. Russell and the listener will immediately identify his guitar playing (It has changed little since Mad Dogs and Englishmen ). Little information is provided on the sleeve inserts, but the best I can tell, Russell plays everything but the drums, which his son, Teddy Jack, plays. This is tremendously fun music. Russell's lyrics are always dry and intelligent, as is Mr. Russell's voice. I would recommend all interested parties to run, don't walk to http://www.leonrussellrecords.com/ right now and check out what the "Master of Space and Time" has been up to.


Track Listing:

Signature Songs:A Song For You; Magic Mirror; This Masquerade; One More Love Song; Tightrope; Stranger In A Strange Land; Hummingbird; Back To The Island; Out In The Woods; Lady Blue; Delta Lady. (Total Time: 49:44).

Guitar Blues:Ways Of A Woman; House Of Blues; Rip Van Winkle; This Love I Have Inside For You; Lost Inside The Blues; Dark Carousel; Its Impossible; Strange Power Of Love; Make Everything Alright; Same Old Song; End Of The Road (Total Time: 43:54).

Personnel:

Signature Songs:Leon Russell: Piano, Vocals.

Guitar Blues:Leon Russell: Piano, Guitar, Bass Vocals; Teddy Jack, Buster Phillips: Drums.

Title: Signature Songs / Guitar Blues | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Leo Records


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