Top 10 Leon Russell Songs
The list of Top 10 Leon Russell songs may arrive as a kind of affirmation, if you’re a longtime fan of the singer and songwriter. More likely, however, is that you never knew Russell wrote so many great songs – for himself and for others.
Despite his sweeping talent as a singer, songwriter and sideman, Russell remained doggedly independent and, more often than not, just as consistently in the shadows. He didn’t release his first solo album until 1970, but by then he’d already played on literally hundreds of songs as a key member of the famous Wrecking Crew session band. (Highlights included Beach Boys‘s Pet Sounds album, “Live With Me” by the Rolling Stones and “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, among many others.)
Even after he’d found a short period of consistent recognition in the early ’70s – touring with Joe Cocker‘s legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen troupe, scoring three Top 20 hit albums and stealing the show as part of George Harrison‘s concert for Bangladesh – his biggest hit songs were still voiced by others.
Russell would collaborate with Willie Nelson, Bruce Hornsby and Elton John in later years, but he never lost that sense of rugged individualism. Russell called himself “the wondering wanderer” in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, and this list of Top 10 Leon Russell songs confirms it.
“That’s the whole bag – the songs, the performance, the whole lifestyle: Make people wonder. Make myself wonder, too,” Russell said back then. “And it’s great.”
“Stranger in the Strange Land”
The opening track on Russell’s second album, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is one of his very best ballads – which is no small feat. Nicking the name of a famous sci-fi novel for the song’s title, Russell begins with a message about how alienation can envelop stardom – something that feels like a minor insight into his personal narrative. But as this minor-key musical journey continues to build, stirring in a prototypical blend of rock and gospel with an appropriately proggy keyboard, Russell turns to weightier subjects. By the end, he’s testifying like a country preacher, even as it seems everyone in the known universe is singing, and his message has become far more universal: We’re in this together.
“If It Wasn’t for Bad”
Russell released more than 20, mostly non-charting, albums between 1979’s One for the Road, his Top 25 hit collaboration with Willie Nelson, and his successful comeback effort with Elton John. But he never stopped believing in his own craft. “It’s cyclical, like fashion,” Russell told the Associated Press in 1992. “You keep your old clothes and they’ll be in style again sooner or later.” That day finally came when John, a huge fan, queried Russell about doing an album together. Highlighted by this Grammy-nominated gem, The Union carried Russell back into the Top 5 – and then all the way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a candidacy that John shepherded.
Russell once said he was trying to write a standard when he composed cuts like “A Song for You” and “This Masquerade.” With the latter, he certainly succeeded, as artists like the Carpenters, Shirley Bassey, Helen Reddy and, most famously, George Benson each offered their own memorable versions. Russell’s own take didn’t quite have the cultural resonance of Benson’s Grammy-winning version. But that’s okay; it gave him the space to continue stirring his own distinct blend of sounds as it “put my kids through school,” as Leon impishly told Rock Cellar in 2014. (By the way, Benson’s Top 10 version was produced by Tommy LiPuma, a later collaborator on Russell’s final studio album, Life Journey.)
If “Delta Lady” benefited from Russell’s original, more personal approach, “Dixie Lullaby” works in the opposite direction – finding its own new life in the boisterous atmosphere of Joe Cocker’s career-defining tour. Russell helped assemble a sprawling band of musical aces to back Cocker, after the singer’s Grease Band fell apart just before scheduled U.S. shows. (“A lot of my friends were out of work, so I put it together,” Russell told Best Classic Bands.) Featured players included Carl Radle, Chris Stainton, a 10-member choir and a three-drummer conglomeration including Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner. The colossal, almost tribal sound they made was just what a freewheeling song like “Dixie Lullaby” needed.
When Joe Cocker included his take of “Delta Lady” on a 1969 album, Russell was still finding his way outside of the largely unseen world of sidemen. “I never really thought of myself as a songwriter,” he told Rock Cellar, “so it was exciting to have any recognition at all.” Later, Cocker offered an extended and stunning take as part of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, which also featured singer Rita Coolidge – the inspiration behind “Delta Lady.” Russell’s original version tears the song down to nothing but two-by-fours and foundation: rock, soul and gospel – but with a middle eight powered along by another of those classical-sounding asides.
On the surface, this is another in the long list of songs that earned Southern rock glory for Russell. Dig deeper, however, and you hear one of his earliest piano influences in Little Richard. One of Russell’s very first concert experiences, in fact, was seeing Little Richard as part of the Alan Freed Show of Stars as part of a lineup that also included Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and a huge horn band called the Lloyd Price Show of Stars Orchestra. “That’s actually where I got the idea for Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Russell told Yahoo Music in 2014. Russell takes that basic inspiration and finds a new gear for it on the perfectly salacious “Roller Derby.” A subsequent concert take from Leon Live is somehow even more raucous; it later became a low-charting single.
Russell was eventually given the nickname “master of space and time,” and this spacious song – recorded with the Stax rhythm section of Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson – shows why. Part of his languid genius is purely physical. As a boy, Russell suffered a bout of spastic paralysis. “My chops have always been sort of weak,” Russell said told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1996, “because the right side of my body was paralyzed a little bit.” It had no small impact on his unconventional approach. Sometimes, it led Russell to sound classically inspired. Other times, he simply let silence speak for itself – giving his right hand, and our hearts, an extra beat to catch up.
Also memorably covered by B.B. King, “Hummingbird” begins as a delicately wrought showcase for Russell’s idiosyncratic vocal instrument, before taking a striking turn from bluesy love song toward a rousing gospel number. Throughout, though, you’re struck by his unguarded approach at the mic – as Russell bares everything in the most unconscious of ways. That raw honesty helped garner Russell countless fans, despite his rough voice and offbeat mannerisms. “I still don’t understand it,” he admitted in a 2013 talk with Wondering Sound. “I sounded a bit like [the pioneering African-American comedian] Moms Mabley, no reflection on Moms.”
Born of desperation, the buoyant, ragtime-inspired “Tight Rope” couldn’t sound any different. “I was down in Muscle Shoals cutting a record and I was out of songs,” Russell told Rock Cellar in 2014. “Of course, I was always out of songs.” As he started to leave the facility with drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Carl Radle, inspiration struck in the form of Mary Hopkins’ late-’60s-era work with Paul McCartney. Specifically, you can hear parts of “Those Were the Days” in “Tight Rope,” which rose to No. 11 as Russell’s breakout hit, with the addition of a compelling turn at the piano.
“A Song for You”
The Carpenters later made a huge hit out of this, something that isn’t as odd as it sounds. Russell wrote “A Song for You” with a female singer in mind – specifically Bonnie Bramlett, with whom he’d worked as part of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. But Russell’s deeply moving interpretation of a track, about longing for the love of one person amid a sea of adulation from strangers, serves to add new shades of meaning as it belies the gruff, Southern-rocking persona he’d already established. Instead, everything about this song – home to the unforgettable line, “Listen to the melody ’cause my love is in there hiding” – is reserved, pitch perfect and simply gorgeous.