People think I don’t like Leon Russell, and nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s my own fault. On the way out the door as pop music critic for the Tulsa World newspaper back in 2002, I reviewed one of his shows and kinda let him have it.
It was a sad night, a huge letdown from some impossible hype. He and Joe Cocker — the mad dog, the Englishman — were touring together for the first time since they made their names together back in the year I was born. Separate sets this time, but expectations were impossibly high.
Leon’s opening ramble, however, was — well, it was exactly like most of his sets back then and afterward. “There’s no showmanship. There’s no entertainment. There’s absolutely zero passion,” I barked in ’02. He sat motionless at his tinny synthesizer, barely looking at or speaking to the audience, reading his lyrics off a screen and playing at the speed of flight — seemingly slow enough to appear as if he was actually performing (and thus earn his check) but fast enough to get off the stage as soon as possible.
It was a shock, a letdown, an aggravation from a unique performer who’s being remembered even today — he died this morning at age 74 — as “one of rock ’n’ roll’s most dynamic performers.”
But the haughty, presumptive review I delivered was a love letter, not an attack. It was the voice of a well-meaning fan — someone who danced obsessively as a little kid to “Tight Rope” and who had spaced-out undergrad conversations about the genius of “Stop All That Jazz” — contributing a meager offering to the uncalled-for project of making Leon great again. Absurd, but it’s all I had to give.
I meant it when I called him “one of the greatest showmen in rock ’n’ roll,” and I stand by it. If you’ve never seen the 1971 documentary of the previous year’s tour, “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” it’s well worth the effort it’ll take to dig it up. Leon unveils an intensity perhaps only known to those who’d worked with him throughout the previous couple of decades in studios with everyone from Sinatra to the Beach Boys. Even better, for an account of those days see the excellent documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” on Netflix (or read the book by Kent Hartman). The sheer volume of great musicians he not only worked with but who recognized greatness in him remains a marvel.
But once we wisely mercifully let go of Leon's rock-era dynamism we're left with what really matters from him, after all — his songs. His brief heyday as a wild-eyed stage stalker was a fluke. Leon’s real legacy will be in the body of song he left behind for others to keep singing.
Leon was not a classic rocker, he was a classic. He wrote more than pop songs, he wrote standards. He was a fine interpreter himself — check out his country albums under the alias Hank Wilson, or listen to his cover of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” — but his lasting work will be in his interpretation by others.
“A Song for You” is one of the greatest ballads ever written, hands down. (See also: "This Masquerade.") My spouse and I have become enamored recently with actor and singer Cheyenne Jackson. He released an album earlier this year, and among his cabaret selections — “Besame Mucho,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” “Your Song” by Leon’s 2010 benefactor Elton John — is Leon’s hallmark. Nothing about the tune, the trembling strings, or Jackson’s strong delivery signals the aberration of a rascally rock song slumming on a Broadway album. The song is timeless, and will remain so. Leon’s legacy ultimately will, too, hopefully winding up as less mad dog, more cool cat.
For whatever it’s worth, Leon got the last word with me. We'd spoken before, and I'd written about his influence on the Tulsa Sound umpteen times (even just last year — speaking of Leon docs worth tracking down — I wrote about the belated release of his great lost Les Blank movie), but a few years later I was dining out with friends just prior to leaving Tulsa. Leon entered the same restaurant with a small entourage. We made each other, and on a trip to the restroom Leon steered by our table, leaned down, and whispered in my ear, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write journalism.”
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.