Rock singer/songwriter Leon Russell, whose bluesy touch, rough-edged voice and flowing white head of hair made him one of the most recognizable recording artists of the 1970s, died Saturday, according to his wife.
Russell died in his sleep in Nashville, wife Janet Constantine revealed on the performer’s website. He was 74.
Russell had heart bypass surgery in July and was recovering from that at the time of his death. Reuters reported that Russell’s health problems also included treatment for leaking brain fluid in 2010.
His more notable songwriting credits include “A Song For You,” “Delta Lady,” “Hummingbird,” “Lady Blue,” “Back To The Island,” “Tight Rope,” and “This Masquerade.”
Russell played a prominent role in a legendary night in Minnesota music history, April 3, 1970, when — working with less than a week’s notice — he served as band leader for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour on opening night of The Depot nightclub, now First Avenue. He frequented smaller rooms in recent years such as the Dakota and Cedar Cultural Center, the latter of which hosted him this past January.
At the Cedar in 2014, his solo version of the gospel standard “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” near the end of the show reiterated his roots in church music and suggested he was already looking toward the next world.
Originally from Tulsa and born Claude Russell Bridges, Russell performed his gospel-infused southern boogie piano rock, blues, and country music for more than 50 years. He was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
Russell, distinguishable by his drawl-meets-slur voice, performed with George Harrison and Friends at the Concert For Bangladesh. He also toured with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Edgar Winter, the New Grass Revival, Willie Nelson, and Elton John.
He and Elton John released “The Union,” a critically received duo album in 2010.
In the 1960s, Russell was among the many musicians who played for one time or another among the “Wrecking Crew” backup artists. The Los Angeles-based crew’s credits include “Good Vibrations,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” and scores of other hits for the Monkees, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, and others.
Russell wrote hits for Gary Lewis the Playboys and played on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind.” As a musician, primarily a pianist, Russell played on The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City.”
John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr played on Russells’ solo debut, “Leon Russell.”
His concerts often ended with a rousing version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Billboard Magazine listed Russell as the top concert attraction in the world in 1973.
Early on in his career, Russell’s look of long hair hanging straight and well down his back set him apart. In later years, he opted for a a shaggier white head of hair and a bush beard, often accompanied by cowboy hat and sunglasses.
While performing in April 2012 at the Dakota in Minneapolis, Russell joked about a jazz club needing to hire a hillbilly musician to fill the place and listed three great things about the Twin Cities: Starkey Hearing (he uses their hearing aids), Prince (“I was told Prince had 20 tailors on staff. That guy’s serious about show business. I have a roadie and a bus driver.”) and the Mall of America (“I like to go there myself”).
He also told funny stories about B.B. King, Bob Dylan and his own ex-wife, singer Mary McCreary.
In a 1992 interview with the Associated Press, Russell said music doesn’t really change much: “It’s cyclical, like fashion. You keep your old clothes and they’ll be in style again sooner or later. There are new things, like rap. But that’s a rebirth of poetry. It’s brought poetry to the public consciousness.”
Russell has been married to Janet Constantine since 1983. They have three children.