In 2010, Elton John surprised his fans by releasing an album in collaboration with the pianist, singer and songwriter Leon Russell, whom he described as “my biggest influence”.
Russell had been out of the limelight for three decades, but in the early 1970s he had been at the heart of some of pop music’s biggest events. He led and organised the touring ensemble Mad Dogs and Englishmen, headlined by the soul singer Joe Cocker. Then, he was featured at the Concert for Bangladesh, set up by George Harrison and others to raise funds for the victims of severe flooding.
In his trademark top hat with stars and stripes decoration and with flowing hair and long straggly beard, Russell performed a medley of the Coasters’ Young Blood and the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash, in what Rolling Stone magazine called his “driving, lurchy, churchy” style.
Russell, who has died aged 74, first made his mark as a songwriter by co-writing, with Bonnie Bramlett, Delta Lady for Cocker. He subsequently supplied The Carpenters with their 1971 hit Superstar, and George Benson with This Masquerade, a Grammy winner in 1977. Russell’s most widely recorded composition is A Song for You, of which there are more than 40 versions, by singers as varied as Andy Williams, Whitney Houston and Willie Nelson. Prior to these achievements, Russell had excelled as a studio musician in Los Angeles, as a member of the Wrecking Crew, a team of versatile instrumentalists who added lustre to hit records by the Ronettes, the Byrds and many others.
He was born Claude Bridges, in Lawton, Oklahoma. He began piano lessons at the age of four and played the trumpet at high school. At 17, his band, the Starlighters, were appearing in Tulsa clubs when he was presented with a stark choice: study for entrance exams to university or go on the road in support of Jerry Lee Lewis. The group went on tour, following which the renamed Leon Russell decided to try his luck in Los Angeles.
He found work in nightclubs and was soon in demand as a pianist for recording sessions. Russell found himself working alongside such figures as the guitarist Glen Campbell and the drummer Hal Blaine. Among the tracks on which he can be heard is the Ronettes’ Be My Baby, produced by Phil Spector, Mr Tambourine Man by the Byrds, California Girls by the Beach Boys and A Taste of Honey by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
Russell took the role of arranger on This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Feelin’ Groovy by Harpers Bizarre. In 1968 he struck out on his own, building a studio at his home in the Hollywood Hills. There he worked with the guitarist Marc Benno on an album released as the Asylum Choir.
Next he worked on Cocker’s eponymous album, released in November 1969, and set up Shelter Records with Cocker’s manager and producer Denny Cordell. When Cocker’s backing group disbanded, Russell took charge of rehearsals for a 68-concert American tour in 1970 using a 10-piece band and the same number of singers.
“We all lived at Leon’s house,” Cocker recalled. “We ran round in the nude and had some pretty wild times. Leon was into this revivalist thing. Before a meal he would say a little prayer.” According to Russell, Mad Dogs and Englishmen was designed as a mobile commune of musicians, friends and family members.
The tour was a great success, spawning a film documentary and earning Russell an invitation to join the star-studded line-up of the 1971 Bangladesh events. In the same year he recorded with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Proof of Russell’s promotion to the pop world’s A list came when numerous superstars including ex-Beatles and Rolling Stones members made guest appearances on his 1970 debut, self-titled, solo album.
Russell was now at the height of his popularity in live performance and on record. Carney (1972) reached No 2 in the US album charts and the following year Leon Live, a triple-album recorded in front of a 70,000 crowd at Long Beach Arena in California peaked at No 10.
By the end of the decade, Russell had also turned his attention to country music. Using the pseudonym Hank Wilson, he had recorded the first of four albums of classic country songs in 1973 and became a regular guest at Nelson’s annual music “picnics”, collaborating with Nelson on the album One for the Road (1979).
By then, he had returned to Tulsa and in the 1980s he established a pattern of issuing low-key records of his own compositions and touring sporadically. This continued until 2009 when Elton John persuaded him to make the album The Union. A film documenting this process was directed by Cameron Crowe. The renewed interest in Russell’s career triggered his election to both the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2011.
Russell’s first marriage, to the singer Mary McCreary, who duetted with him on The Wedding Album in 1976, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Janet Lee Constantine, and their children, Sugaree, Honey and Coco; by two children, Teddy Jack and Tina Rose, from his first marriage; and by a daughter, Blue, from a previous relationship with Carla McHenry.
• Leon Russell (Claude Russell Bridges) musician and songwriter, born 2 April 1942; died 13 November 2016
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