Leon Russell
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A decisive figure in the development of white soul music was Leon Russell, an Oklahoma native and a veteran session-man who had learned the trade playing piano for rockers such as Ronnie Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and (after relocating to Los Angeles in 1958) in Phil Spector's many "wall of sound" hits (including the early Byrds). Russell's first singles were two wild rock and roll numbers: Swanee River (Chess, 1959) and All Right (Chess, 1959)

Russell's claim to fame is a mixture of composer/arranger of bluesy albums for friends and of author of albums that mix all the styles he learn as a youth, from rockabilly to gospel to blues to jazz.

His first success (in the former mode) came with country-soul singer Gary Lewis, whose string of best-sellers began with Al Kooper's This Diamond Ring (1965).

Russell debuted with a collaboration with singer songwriter Marc Benno, Look Inside The Asylum Choir (Smash, 1968), an album that displayed his eclectic stew of musical styles, but focused around his frantic boogie piano and emotional gospel arias. Their second album, Asylum Choir II (Dunhill, 1969), was not released until 1971, despite gems such as Hello Little Friend.

While his solo career languished, Russell helped Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett launch theirs with Accept No Substitute (Elektra, 1969), an album in Russell's own gospel-country-blues style.

In the meantime, Russell had become musical director for the career of sensational english vocalist Joe Cocker (a raspier, grittier Ray Charles), who had become a staple of the pub scene with his Grease Band and will pursue a career made mainly of covers. Russell architected Joe Cocker (A&M, 1969), which would remain his best album, and Mad Dogs & Englishmen (A&M, 1970), which turned him into a star, before alcoholism ruined him. Cocker, finally detoxed, will end his career as a romantic balladeer (You Are So Beautiful, 1975, Up Where We Belong, 1982).

When he finally returned with a solo album, Leon Russell (Shelter, 1970), the Oklahoma piano marvel could leverage a stellar cast (Stevie Winwood, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman) and a strong set of songs: Delta Lady, Dixie Lullaby, Hummingbird, A Song For You, Shoot Out At The Plantation.

And The Shelter People (Shelter, 1971) was just a tad less effective, although it included more gems like Alcatraz, Stranger In A Strange Land, Home Sweet Oklahoma, Stranger In A Strange Land. At about the same time, Russell wrote the hit Superstar (1971) for the Carpenters.

Carney (Shelter, 1972) contains two of his most famous compositions, Tight Rope and This Masquerade, but these catchy ditties pale when compared with compositions that are more typical of his style: Manhattan Island Serenade and Cajun Love Song.

Somehow, that album marked the end of his golden era. Russell turned to a more soulful, tender, contemplative, jazzier sound on Stop All That Jazz (Shelter, 1974) and Wil O' The Wisp (Shelter, 1975), and mainly helped his wife Mary McCreary's career.

Two collaborations with outlaw country legend Willie Nelson and an album of bluegrass, New Grass Revival (Warner, 1981), signaled a complete change of direction.

Russell returned with Anything Can Happen (Virgin, 1992), an album that is strongly influenced by his new mentor, pop star Bruce Hornsby.

Joe Cocker died in december 2014. Leon Russell died in november 2016.

(Translated by Ornella C. Grannis)

Una figura determinante per lo sviluppo del soul-rock degli anni '70 fu Leon Russell, un session-man veterano che si fece le ossa suonando il piano al fianco di Ronnie Hawkins e Jerry Lee Lewis e (dopo essersi trasferito a Los Angeles nel 1958) nei complessi di Phil Spector (compare persino sul primo album dei Byrds). Russell pubblico` album cosmopoliti e scrisse/arrangio` i successi di tanti cantanti del suo entourage, fra cui Joe Cocker.


Leon Russell, un nativo dell'Oklahoma, esperto session man che aveva imparato l'arte suonando il piano per rockers come Ronnie Hawkins e Jerry Lee Lewis e (dopo il trasferimento a Los Angeles, nel 1958) partecipando a tanti hits del "wall of sound" di Phil Spector (Byrds compresi, agli inizi) e' stato una figura dominante nello sviluppo della musica soul bianca. I primi due 45 giri di Russell sono due numeri selvaggi di rock and roll: Swanee River (Chess, 1959) e All Right (Chess, 1959).

La fama di Russell e' dovuta alla combinazione compositore/arrangiatore degli album "blueseggianti" dei suoi amici, e alla creazione dei suoi album, che mescolano tutti gli stili appresi in gioventu', dal rockabilly al gospel, dal blues al jazz.

Il suo primo successo (come session man) arrivo' con il cantante country-soul Gary Lewis, che porto' al successo This Diamond Ring (1965) di Al Kooper, il primo di una serie di hits.

Russell debutto' in collaborazione con il cantautore Marc Benno su Look Inside The Asylum Choir (Smash, 1968), un album che mette in evidenza il suo mix eclettico di stili musicali, facendo risaltare lo stile frenetico del suo piano-boogie e e le arie commoventi del suo gospel. Il loro secondo album, Asylum Choir II, (Dunhill, 1971), malgrado gemme come Hello Little Friend, non raggiunse il mercato prima del 1971.

Mentre la sua carriera solista languiva, Russell aiuto' Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett a lanciare Accept No Substitute (Elektra, 1969), un album nello stile gospel-country-blues di Russell.

Nel frattempo, Russell divenne il direttore musicale del sensazionale vocalista inglese Joe Cocker (un Ray Charles piu' crudo e rauco), diventato uno dei punti di riferimento sulla scena dei pub con la sua Grease Band (in seguito Cocker intraprese una carriera fatta principalmente di covers). Russell e' l'artefice di Joe Cocker (A&M, 1969), il migliore dei suoi album, e di Mad Dogs & Englishmen (A&M, 1970), che lo rese una star prima che l'alcolismo lo rovinasse. Dopo essersi disintossicato Cocker concludera' la sua carriera come cantante di ballate romantiche (You Are So Beautiful, 1975, Up Where We Belong, 1982).

La meraviglia dell'Oklahoma ritorno' con un album solista, Leon Russell (Shelter, 1970), avvalendosi di un cast stellare (Stevie Winwood, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman) e su un saldo set di canzoni: Delta Lady, Dixie Lullaby, Hummingbird, A Song For You, Shoot Out At The Plantation.

And The Shelter People (Shelter, 1971) e' un po' meno efficace, anche se include gemme come Alcatraz, Stranger In A Strange Land, Home Sweet Oklahoma. Nello stesso periodo Russell ha anche scritto l'hit Superstar (1971).

Carney (Shelter, 1972) contiene due delle sue piu' famose composizioni Tight Rope and This Masquerade, ma queste memorabili canzonette non reggono il confronto con composizioni piu' tipicamente nel suo stile: Manhattan Island Serenade e Cajun Love Song.

Comunque sia, quell'album ha marcato la conclusione della sua epoca d'oro. Russell e' passato a un sound piu' jazz, piu' tenero e contemplativo con Stop All That Jazz (Shelter, 1974) e Wil O' The Wisp (Shelter, 1975). Si e' inoltre dedicato ad aiutare la carriera di sua moglie, Mary McCreary.

Due album con il leggendario fuorilegge country Willie Nelson, e un album di bluegrass, New Grass Revival (Warner, 1981), segnalarono un cambio totale di direzione.

Russell ritorno' ancora una volta con Anything Can Happen (Virgin, 1992), un album fortemente influenzato dal suo nuovo mentore, la pop star Bruce Hornsby.

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