Leon Russell, 74, hit songwriter, musicians’ musician

Mr. Russell was chosen for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011.
Mr. Russell was chosen for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011.LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters/file

NEW YORK — Leon Russell, the long-haired, scratchy-voiced pianist, guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader who moved from playing countless recording sessions to making hits on his own, died Sunday in Nashville. He was 74.

His death was announced on his website, which said that he had died in his sleep but gave no specific cause.

Mr. Russell had significant health difficulties over the past five years. In 2010, he underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak and was treated for heart failure. In July of this year, Mr. Russell suffered a heart attack, and was scheduled for further surgery, according to a news release from the historical society of Oklahoma, his home state.


With a top hat on his head, hair well past his shoulders, a long beard, an Oklahoma drawl in his voice, and his fingers splashing two-fisted barrelhouse piano chords, Mr. Russell cut a flamboyant figure in the early 1970s. He led Joe Cocker’s band Mad Dogs & Englishmen, appeared at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, and had hits of his own, including “Tight Rope.” His songs also became hits for others, among them “Superstar” (written with Bonnie Bramlett) for the Carpenters, “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker, and “This Masquerade” for George Benson. More than 100 acts have recorded “A Song for You,” a song Mr. Russell said he wrote in 10 minutes.

By the time Mr. Russell released his first solo album in 1970, he had played on hundreds of songs as one of the top studio musicians in Los Angeles. Mr. Russell was in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra, and he played sessions for Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, the Ventures, and the Monkees, among many others. He is heard on “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “Live With Me” by the Rolling Stones, and all of the Beach Boys’ early albums, including “Pet Sounds.”


The music Mr. Russell made on his own put a scruffy, casual surface on rich musical hybrids, interweaving soul, country, blues, jazz, gospel, pop, and classical music. Like Willie Nelson, who would collaborate with him, and Ray Charles, whose 1993 recording of “A Song for You” won a Grammy Award, Mr. Russell made a broad, sophisticated palette of American music sound down-home and natural.

After Mr. Russell’s peak of popularity in the 1970s, he shied away from self-promotion and largely set aside rock, though he kept performing. But he was a prized musicians’ musician, collaborating with Elvis Costello and Elton John among others. In 2011, after making a duet album with John, “The Union,” he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, John called him “the master of space and time” and added, “He sang, he wrote, and he played just how I wanted to do it.”

Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Okla. An injury to his upper vertebrae at birth caused a slight paralysis on his right side that would shape his music, since a delayed reaction time forced him to think ahead about what his right hand would play. “It gave me a very strong sense of duality,” he said last year in a Public Radio International interview.

In 1979 Mr. Russell married Janet Lee Constantine. He leaves his wife and six children: Blue, Teddy Jack, Tina Rose, Sugaree, Honey, and Coco.


For the next decades, Mr. Russell delved into various idioms, mostly recording for independent labels. He toured and recorded with the New Grass Revival, adding his piano and voice to their string-band lineup. He made more country albums as Hank Wilson. He recorded blues, Christmas songs, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

In 1992 the songwriter and pianist Bruce Hornsby, who had long cited Mr. Russell’s influence, sought to rejuvenate Mr. Russell’s rock career by producing the album “Anything Can Happen,” but it drew little notice. Mr. Russell continued to tour for diehard fans who called themselves Leon Lifers.

A call in 2009 from Elton John, whom Mr. Russell had supported in the early 1970s, led to the making of “The Union” — which also had guest appearances by Neil Young and Brian Wilson — and a 10-date tour together in 2010. Mr. Russell also sat in on Costello’s 2010 album, “National Ransom.” Then Mr. Russell, who had bought a new bus, returned to the road on his own.