Sunday, November 13, 2016

Leon Russell: A Personal Memory and Tribute

I woke up to the news that Leon Russell died. He was 74 years old. There may be a lot of people who really have no idea who I’m talking about, but Russell was an icon in the music world. When you hear Joe Cocker belting out “Delta Lady” on the radio, or “Shine a Light” by the Rolling Stones, you’re hearing the mastery of Leon Russell.

I was fortunate enough to be able to see Leon at the Lockn’ Festival in 2015. Of the entire weekend, his performance with the Tedeschi-Trucks Band and numerous members from Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour was the highlight. By far. It wasn’t even close. The performance was to honor the career of Joe Cocker, who had passed away the previous December. It was a fitting tribute. In fact, as I write this, that concert is playing on my laptop.

We got down to the stage area early so that we got an excellent viewing area for the show. In fact, if you look on YouTube for the footage, you can actually see me, Alissa, Scott, and Poof in one of the shots. The performance was magical. Special guests strolled across the stage, performed and then surrendered the floor to the next. Some of those special guests, aside from the Mad Dogs, included John Bell from Widespread Panic, Doyle Bramhall II, Warren Haynes, Dave Mason, and Chris Robinson.

Leon added his vocal talents early with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.” It was a duet with Claudia Lennear. It was the two of them singing, and Leon playing piano. The rest of the band simply rested their instruments and watched in rapt attention. That song was followed up with the full band backing Leon on a rousing version of “Dixie Lullaby.” He then opened the encore with a solo version of “Ballad of Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” The whole encore (“With a Little Help From My Friends” sung by Chris Robinson) was the perfect cap to a magical evening of music and friendship.

Russell arranged most of the songs that Joe Cocker sang, and was the virtual leader of the band. After Joe’s death, it was Leon who decided that some tribute to the late singer should be organized. What we got was this concert on the evening of September 11, 2015. I will forever be grateful to Leon Russell for that.
Leon Russell (left) and Tedeschi Trucks Band at Lockn,
September 11, 2015
photo courtesy Sam Shinault

Last December, I was very sick with pneumonia. I couldn’t do a lot, but what I did do was listen to that “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” live record. It just made me feel better listening to that while I felt so down about being sick. Music is more than just noise coming out of the speakers. It is therapeutic and healing. Joe Cocker and Leon Russell made this sick guy feel a whole lot better.

Many people may have no idea who Leon Russell was. He did not have the public exposure of Prince or David Bowie, yet he left an indelible imprint on the music world. There are probably songs played on the radio every day that you’ve heard that have had Russell’s fingers in it. Besides releasing his own albums, he worked with other artists and produced countless albums. As a session player, he played piano, guitar, and bass. He appeared on the Beach Boy's "California Girls" and "Surf City" by Jan and Dean.

If you want to check out the incredible concert from Lockn’ about which I was speaking, I am adding the link to the video. It was at this show that I hung out with Alissa and her husband, Scott and some other new friends. Lockn' friends forever, I've run into the people I met at that concert at other concerts. It is a moment of fellowship and love. Some people don't understand when they see us hug when we meet up time and time again. There was just something special about that night, and we were lucky enough to be a part of it. Here's the link for the video:

Leon Russell, the music world will miss you greatly.

Craig Bacon loves music. It is a vital part of the human spirit. Somewhere there is one heck of a rock concert taking place.