In Lawton, Oklahoma, Claude Russell Bridges - age three in 1945 - played classical piano. Eleven years later in Tulsa, fourteen year old Leon Russell (as Claude was then and forever called) was playing honky tonk, backing up the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Ronnie Hawkins at Cain's Ballroom, where Leon lied about his age to get a job. He impressed Lewis enough to hire him for two years of road tours.
In 1958, Leon joined LA's Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians in the business. Following, he played for top producer Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Leon's dazzling piano work was in high demand and featured prominently on such songs as Jan & Dean's 'Surf City,' the Beach Boy's 'California Girls,' and the novelty hit 'Monster Mash.' Sometime along the way, he learned guitar and, young as he was, began producing and playing on sessions with Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darrin, Sam Cooke, and many records with Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.
His solo career caught fire in the 1970s. Early 1971 set the pace. At the Concert for Bangladesh, his live-wire performance style astonished all. He is credited with showing off the piano/keyboards as a major force in rock. He created, produced, and performed in Joe Cocker's famed 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' tour. He shocked everyone by going country, co-hosting Willie Nelson's first-ever July 4th Picnic concert, uniting hippies and rednecks. Their album together, One For the Road, was the Country Music Association's Album of the Year. Finally, his own album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, went gold. But that same year, he had a nervous breakdown and finally took a much-needed rest.
Back with vigor in 1972, Leon's album Carney went gold, as did 1973's three-album set Leon Live. Billboard named him TOP CONCERT ATTRACTION in the world, with tickets selling out instantly. Willie Nelson and Elton John were among his opening acts. Leon continued writing for others, too. 'This Masquerade', recorded by George Benson was simultaneously #1 on jazz, pop, and R&B charts (a first) and won a Grammy as Best Song. He had his own mega-hit 'A Song For You,' on the record label he formed, Shelter Records (later, Paradise Records), which produced his fourth gold album, Will O' the Wisp, and hit single 'Lady Blue.' In 1975 Leon created Shelter Vision to produce videos. This pre-MTV idea was before its time - no one even had VCR's then! Leon is considered a pioneer.
Leon Russell has never stopped writing, producing, or performing since the 1970s. Occasionally, he's released his own albums, including 2004's Moonlight & Love Songs, recorded with the Nashville Symphony. Tickets still sell like wild when tours are announced. His band features Tina Rose and Sugaree Noel, daughters with singer Mary McCreary whom he married in 1975 (since divorced). The signature top hat is still there, as is the showmanship. The crusty voice is crustier. The long hair and beard are snowy white now - resembling Gandalf in 'Lord of the Rings.' Like Gandalf, Leon Russell is a wizard, albeit modern, and one whose musical wisdom is legendary throughout the world of rock, pop, and country.