BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
In a musical career spanning more than 50 stunning years, there isn’t much Leon Russell hasn’t accomplished in his field. He has credits as session player with famed Los Angeles pop engine the Wrecking Crew. His sideman gigs include stints with classic rock luminaries Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, George Harrison, and the bandleader’s role for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour.
Russell scored hit singles of his own including “Tight Rope,” “Lady Blue” and “A Song for You.” He even had a No. 1 country single, covering “Heartbreak Hotel” with Willie Nelson. Russell launched successful record labels Shelter and Paradise Records, signing acts including J. J. Cale and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Through it all, Russell placed himself among the top of anyone’s credible list of rock’s great pianists.
Russell’s compositions made hits for other artists, too, including Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “She’s Just My Style,” George Benson’s genre-crossing “This Masquerade,” Cocker’s version of “Delta Lady” and The Carpenters’ “Superstar.”
With Halloween around the corner, it’s also fun to note that Russell’s wide-ranging output includes piano sessions with Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. Russell performs on “Monster Mash Party,” the B-side to 1962’s immortal novelty single “Monster Mash.”
Although Russell slipped below the radar following the ‘80s, a famous fan helped launch a welcome comeback. In 2010, Russell recorded “The Union” album with longtime supporter Elton John, featuring Russell’s single “If It Wasn’t for Bad.”
Russell’s latest album is 2014’s “Life Journey,” collecting spirited arrangements of songs by his biggest influences. Foundational bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” recalls Russell’s time with Delaney & Bonnie. Russell’s own bawdy “Big Lips” is a rollicking piano boogie that tips the hat to Little Richard, and his “Down in Dixieland” soars with the spirit of New Orleans.
Russell’s lineup at the Arcada Theater will include celebrated bassist Jack Wessel, a 33-year veteran of the band.
SPOTIFY playlist: http://bit.ly/LeonSPOT
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.