Book Review : Leon Russell The Master of Space & Time - Bill Janovitz
What did we know about Leon Russell before reading this extensive, exhaustive but equal parts enlightening biography by Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz?
Three things come to mind:
The Concert for Bangladesh where he seemed great mates with Dylan, half the Beatles and Jim Keltner amongst others.
Writing "This Masquerade", the definitive version by the great George Benson from the "Breezin" album in the mid 70's.
Being involved with Tom Petty in the early days via the Shelter Records label (and name checked by Petty over the years).
It soon becomes apparent when beginning this nearly 600 page (!) book that there is more, so much more.
Born in 1942 Russell, (real name Leon Bridges , long story), was a child prodigy on piano and was so taken by the power of music that he became involved in bands & performing in his teenage years in proximity to the Killer Jerry Lee-Lewis in the late 50's. A move to LA from his native Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 60's eventually put him in the orbit of Phil Spector and becoming a de facto member of the Wrecking Crew , the iconic group of Session musicians whom underpinned many of the greatest records of all time (anything from the Righteous Brothers through to Darlene Love (think the distinctive piano part in Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) ..that's Leon Russell ( see his reuniting with fellow Wrecking Crew member Glen Campbell in the early '80's below)
Janovitz plots the arc of Russell's life with meticulous detail (one imagines a HUGE whiteboard with many intersecting lines -a massive Venn diagram). Russell had so many connections across multiple locations sometimes all at once particularly from the late 60's where via the Delaney & Bonnie band he crossed paths with the Stones, Beatles and Eric Clapton. There is a case to be made (and Janovitz is very good at this) of tracing many creative choices made by artists of the time (eg the Stones gospel influence ,complete with the horn section from Delaney & Bonnie, with "Exile On Main Street", the entire early Elton John records) through to an influence from Russell.
As an author Janovitz has never attempted an artist biography like this before but he tackles it with both excellent detail and the sort of critical analysis reminiscent of his fine work via "Rocks Off" (written to coincide with the Stones 50th Anniversary) . He was helped by writing this in lockdown when over 100 artists/figures worth talking to were free of any commitments to contribute as primary sources (Jim Keltner, Springsteen's Manager Jon Landau, T Bone Burnett, a host of musicians that worked with Russell over the years). As a successful musician himself, Janovitz knows that bands & musicians can be fraught in both personalities and choices that are made and Russell is no exception. There is a diet of drugs, alcohol, multiple partners/wives all with a personality bordering on ADHD and a ferocious habit of spending money. All of this took a toll by the 80's -"some combination of bipolar disorder, Asperger's syndrome and the effects of his physical health".
There are parallels to both Prince and Stevie Wonder via his multi instrument prowess, songwriting and arranging and establishing recording studios and film projects . Not forgetting a single minded purpose regarding his craft and where the muse decided to take him, veering off into country with Willie Nelson, exploring synthesisers and drum machines and his MO for 30 years or so of touring incessantly to smaller audiences in clubs . While many of his contemporaries embraced and were rescued by MTV, Russell was nowhere to be seen.("He always seemed to be dodging celebrity" according to T Bone Burnett).
Yes it's a big read, best taken chapter by chapter, and seeking out the albums (up until the mid 70's at least) as the songs are described in detail by Janovitz (who is clearly a fan but this is no hagiography). In the process the bar for this sort of writing has definitely been raised.
Hear Bill Janovitz discuss the approach to writing the Leon Russell biography here: