I first discover Leon in the record bin of Boury’s Appliance Store in Wheeling, WV. I’ve never heard of him before, but I’m struck by the man looking back at me on the album cover. When I put needle to vinyl, I’m as captivated by his music as I am by him.
My friend Eddie and I chance upon Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the documentary about Joe Cocker’s world tour, at the Victoria Theater in Wheeling. In his stovepipe hat, Holy Trinity basketball jersey, Les Paul Gibson, and his “hippy commune” of musicians and singers, he represents the type of free-spirited life I aspire to.
B.B. King is my other teenage musical idol, and I’m thrilled to see Leon playing piano for him as King performs a Russell song, “Hummingbird,” on The Mike Douglas Show.
Here’s Leon’s original version.
During my freshman year at West Virginia University, a friend and I spend the better part of the year listening to Leon Live while drinking daiquiris and learning the Swahili chorus of “Out in the Woods.”
I see Leon for the first of five times at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. He and his carnival of a band open for Three Dog Night, which seemed a reversal of the natural order. One of the things that appeal to me about Leon is how he blends and celebrates country, rock, blues, classical, jazz and gospel, as he does when he gives the stage here to the Rev. Patrick Henderson.
Leon goes on tour to promote The Wedding Album, an record he produced with his then-wife Mary McCreary. I see them at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota with my then-wife. They would also perform the song on one of the earliest episodes of Saturday Night Live.
In the early aughts, I catch Leon at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis. He has aged considerably, is drawing a much smaller crowd and rushes through his setlist on an electric piano. A highlight for the audience (and I’m sure him) is one of his daughters, who supplies backup vocals and a few solos. After playing sold-out stadiums and mingling with musicians from George Harrison to Eric Clapton, he must have felt like he was in a strange land indeed.
A Netflix documentary, The Wrecking Crew, celebrates a largely unknown group of LA studio musicians who backed and provided the sound to many of our favorite songs. Turns out, Leon was one of them, recording on tracks for The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Monkees–even Sinatra and The Rolling Stones.
At the Trylon Microcinema, I see A Poem is a Naked Person, the surrealistic rock documentary by Les Blank. Produced by Russell and Denny Cordell, Leon kept it from release for 40 years. While the film was ostensibly about Leon, he’s rarely in it. With his subject on a worldwide tour, Blank didn’t have the budget to travel along–most of the footage focuses on Russell’s home base and studio in Tulsa.
Leon has a late-life revival, when Elton John repays the kindness Leon had showed him as a young artist. Their joint album, recorded as Russell recovered from brain surgery, is highly acclaimed and puts Leon back in the spotlight. John makes sure Leon can afford to tour in a respectable bus with a real grand piano. Leon is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (introduced by Sir Elton) and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I see Leon for a few last times, at the Dakota and Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. He seems happy to be on stage with an adoring audience before him. RIP, Leon, I will miss you, but your music will always live on for me.