Bill Janovitz is best known as the singer-guitarist of the guitar-rock trio Buffalo Tom, the celebrated alt-rock band he formed in 1986 with his UMass Amherst schoolmates Chris Colbourn and Tom Maginnis. Though Janovitz has been working his second career as a real estate agent in his hometown of Lexington since 2001, the band still stays busy recording and performing.
But in recent years, one of Janovitz’s side gigs has become more and more prominent: author. Specifically, of two books about the Rolling Stones: the “33 1/3″ series entry “Exile on Main St.” (published in 2005, about the epochal 1972 album) and the more expansive “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones” (2013).
Now comes “Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History” (Hachette), out Tuesday. In this, his first full-length single-subject biography, Janovitz traces the trajectory of the protean pianist/singer/songwriter/bandleader/arranger/producer through myriad musical highways and byways: from his formative years as a Tulsa teen playing with Jerry Lee Lewis to ace L.A. session man, a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew, on countless record dates with Phil Spector as well as the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, and scores of others. Then come Russell’s star turns as musical director of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour and subsequent live album and film, two classic albums under his own name, the cofounding of Shelter Records, top-grossing tours, and an eventual fade from the spotlight until a duo album collaboration with Elton John, 2010′s “The Union,” and Elton’s campaign to elect him to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Through it all, Janovitz shows all the strengths of his previous books: an insider’s understanding of how music is made and a literary flair for bringing that process to life on the page. Over 582 pages, he also manages to be a sure-footed guide through Russell’s extremely complicated personal and professional life.
That said, why Russell, who died in 2016 at 74? An agent had originally rejected the idea of a book on “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” as “too narrow,” Janovitz said when I talked to him at Caffè Nero in Arlington. But a couple of years later came word that the Russell estate was willing to cooperate on a biography.
Janovitz’s obsession with Russell and the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” album goes back to his early teens, when he was just starting out as a musician. “I had a friend with a really esoteric record collection,” Janovitz said. “He had all this [jazz-rock] fusion stuff. He was really into the Dead and Zappa. He had ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen.’ … We used to listen to that record endlessly. The only record I think I’ve maybe bought more copies of is ‘Songs in the Key of Life.’ "
Leon Russell was also a way for Janovitz to take another deep dive into a seminal slice of rock ‘n’ roll history.
“That era of ‘69 to ‘72 is the most fascinating era of rock ‘n’ roll to me,” says Janovitz. In the “post-Dylan” era, Janovitz saw the music newly enriched with country and blues roots. “It was a zeitgeist. The Band, Eric Clapton coming to Laurel Canyon, Delaney & Bonnie, and white soul, and the gospel thing, which has always just floated my boat. So I thought Leon, if nothing else, would be a great way to discuss all of those things.”
He also knew the arc of Russell’s life, the triumphs of the early ‘70s, later collaborations with Willie Nelson and the New Grass Revival bluegrass band, and a steady commercial decline.
And he knew “the redemption story,” with Elton John inducting him into the Hall of Fame in 2011 and Russell famously saying, “Elton came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life.”
“I remember seeing that Hall of Fame speech and going, ‘Oh my God, what a story!’ ” Janovitz recalls. “It’s rare that you find somebody so important who has not been written about [in depth].”
Janovitz conducted more than 130 interviews, with everyone from Clapton and Randy Newman to “20 Feet from Stardom” subject Claudia Lennear (who sang backup on the Mad Dogs tour), and Russell family members. In addition to reading widely among memoirs (including Russell’s own) and rock histories, he also dug into primary sources like studio contracts and real estate deals, in some cases having to sort out the conflicting accounts every biographer faces.
Janovitz also discovered the depth of insecurities harbored by this “master of space and time,” and his self-diagnosis as being on the autism spectrum. “[Russell] saw a documentary [about autism] and he said, ‘That’s me.’ ”
Despite having penned numerous songs that have become standards, including “A Song for You,” “Delta Lady,” and “This Masquerade,” Russell was often dismissive of his own work. “This Masquerade” became a smash hit for George Benson, but Russell assumed that it appealed to the jazz guitarist/turned vocal star because the harmonic structure was based on the chords of the Matt Dennis standard “Angel Eyes.”
“He would get really down on himself,” Janovitz says. Whatever the cause, Russell “couldn’t trust himself and his instincts.”
He could also be self-defeating. Despite the success of “The Union,” Russell turned down the opportunity for Elton John and his team to essentially take on a production and management role.
As Janovitz puts it, “It was right back into the ditch.”
There are few artists today who can claim the stature of Russell at his peak in every category: virtuoso instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, bandleader, producer, arranger, and stadium headliner.
Of the remaining giants, are there any who are comparable? In an exchange of e-mails, Janovitz and I ran down some names: Elton John, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sly Stone. Of them all, you’d have to go back to someone like Russell’s prime inspiration, Ray Charles, as “one of those [who] clicked all the boxes,” writes Janovitz.
It’s a very short list.
In conversation with Tom Perrotta. At Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, March 14 at 7 p.m. 617-661-1515, www.harvard.com/events
Jon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com.