As I came of rock 'n' roll age in southeast Kansas in the early 1970s, Leon Russell became the first rock 'n' roll artist to whom I felt any kind of a connection. That's because he was an Oklahoma boy who happened to be from Tulsa, a mere 90 miles south of the small town where I survived high school.
At the too-young age of 74, it was sad, but not all that surprising when Leon died in his sleep on Nov. 13. He'd had heart bypass surgery in July, but was recovering and intended to resume touring. He was scheduled to play at the Tower Theater late last year, but that was postponed to May before being postponed again.
Way back when, Leon started his own record label, Shelter Records, and turned an old church on one of Tulsa's busy streets into a recording studio. On our occasional Saturday shopping excursions into the city, my buddies and I would drive by the church, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man himself. We never did.
Leon was just a country boy like my buddies and me, who left "dusty Oklahoma" behind. But he came back. He was our rock star. We first heard Leon, "The Master of Space and Time," play on Joe Cocker's 1970 double album, "Mad Dogs & Englishmen." In 1972 we saw him on the big screen in George Harrison's concert movie, "The Concert for Bangladesh," in which he nailed George's song, "Beware Of Darkness."
Leon always cut quite the dashing figure: white cowboy hat, long flowing hair and beard, mirrored shades and flamboyant pinstripes and bell bottoms in the early days. Trademarks of his music were his nasally bullfrog voice and rollicking barrelhouse piano, often backed up by a big band with soulful backup singers.
And then there were all the wonderful songs he wrote, which turned into big hits for other artists. Perhaps the most beautiful song he ever wrote (and there were many) is "A Song For You," made famous by The Carpenters. Guitarist George Benson had a hit with "This Masquerade."
To catch the best of Leon, watch the 1971 concert movie, "Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs & Englishmen". Or listen to my favorite Leon Russell album, "Leon Russell and the Shelter People," also released in 1971, which includes the songs "Stranger In A Strange Land" and "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen."
The former song includes some rapping, years before rap became rap. Russell even manages to slip in an F-bomb, but it blends in so well that you really have to listen for it.
The later song is eloquent and silly at the same time. It can make you laugh and it can make you cry. It's poetry rap in slow motion, with indelible lines like, "Spotted dogs, blood-shot eyes," and "Teachers, learners, incense burners." It's such a beautiful song.
Leon may have bid us farewell in this world, but he left behind a vast library of music that we'll enjoy forever.