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Leon Russell and Elton John: A ‘Union’ Made on Late-Night Radio

With his ground-breaking work on “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” in the 1970s, Leon Russell made a name for himself and later, a pop singer named Elton John

I’d heard Leon Russell’s music forever — but didn’t know him from Adam.

I actually know Elton John—but his music escapes me.

With the exception of “Your Song” and maybe “Benny and the Jets” (the same name as a boxing club in Van Nuys), I’d be hard pressed to name more of John’s oeuvre. Oh, maybe “Candle in the Wind”—but that’s not much from a four-decade career.

Nevertheless, he seems to be the soundtrack of our generation (if only someone would put a fork through Abba!). I didn’t decide that, however.

Leon Russell did.

In order to understand, one most go back, way, way back—“into the Wayback machine, Mr. Peabody”—to those halcyon days of yesteryear, the early ‘70s.

Now, you must understand, Woodstock, both the festival and the movie, had already come and gone. On the other hand, many good things had come out of it: Santana, The Who and, perhaps most importantly, Joe Cocker, a bluesy drunken lout from Sheffield, England, who ended up captivating the crowd with everything from the Boxtops ‘60s hit “The Letter” to the Beatles’ “She Came in the Bathroom Window.”

At the time, of course, no one knew what they were watching … except one, Leon Russell.

When Cocker came off the road later that year, exhausted, he suddenly found that his manager had booked another tour for the next year, 1970. Desperate and at wits end, someone convinced Cocker to turn to legendary L.A. session man Leon Russell to put together not just a concert tour but a whole show for him.

Now Russell was not just a top session man—he had played on many of the biggest hits of the ‘60s, with artists ranging from the neo-pop of Herb Alpert to the cutting edge of The Byrds. He’d also had his first songwriting hit with “Delta Lady” on Cocker’s big U.S. album.

So it was a natural in Cocker’s exhausted state to give up his beloved English Grease Band and turn his musical future over to Russell, who made the most of it for both Cocker and himself.

The resulting live album, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” the detritus of the tour he organized, became a huge hit and not only spurred Cocker’s career but Russell’s as the long-haired, be-whiskered piano-playing maestro of the mezzanine.

Having seen the show as a kid by, along with my friends Frank Colin, Bill Levy and others, sneaking into the old Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, by — you guessed it and I'm not kidding — a bathroom window, the Mad Dogs show was one of the first rock shows anyone had seen that, well, let the audience in on the joke.

Please understand, until this point rock-and-roll had been under the hands of the old-fashioned showmen who’d learned their trade in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Everything had to be smoothly pulled off, with no evidence of the furious peddling going on backstage to keep the show moving. Even revolutionary acts like the Beatles and the Stones were kept largely under musical lock-and-key when they performed.

There have been constant rumors that bands weren’t playing their own instruments at those big stadium shows (where the music was largely drowned out by girls screaming anyway). The black artists didn’t even pretend; on many of the Motown shows, it’d just be three girl singers lip-syncing to a recording with nary a musician in sight.

“Mad Dogs” and Russell upended that tradition by putting all the players on stage—and thus making stars out of people like sax player Bobby Keys and trumpeter Jim Price as well as pianist Nicky Hopkins and backup singers like Rita Coolidge. They all of whom subsequently got their own album deals and went on to long solo careers and jobs as backup players for groups like the Stones.

In fact, it was Russell’s championing of the so-called Tulsa sound that brought new life to the rock idiom at the time it was being overwhelmed by ripoffs and repeats like the Turtles (wannabe Beatles) and Gary Lewis and the Playboys (who thought they were America’s answer to the Stones!).

Born in Oklahoma, Russell had been playing on stage around Tulsa since 14 and brought much of that sound with him to Hollywood, including Texan Keys, a neighbor of Buddy Holly’s in another oil town, Lubbock and drummer Chuck Blackwell.

I got to know Keys later that year, while bunking at his house when he was in L.A. recording “Exile on Main Street” with the Stones, another album influenced by the Tulsa sound (which included other friends and cohorts like Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and legendary folk-rocker Graham Parsons.)

The sound didn’t last long. By 1973 the music world had moved on to punk and, later, disco, but Russell’s sound did have a major influence on the 1969-73 scene and, of course, through its progeny, for years to come.

Remember, Coolidge’s hit (written by Russell) “Superstar” from the “Mad Dogs” tour? Later it was turned into a Top 40 hit by everyone from Luther Vandross to Karen Carpenter, while Russell’s own “A Song for You” became a standard for Ray Charles to Christine Aguilera. But it was really Russell’s warm embrace of John that left its biggest mark.

When John first crossed “the pond” from England to America in the early ‘70s, he was roundly dismissed as, well, just another flamboyant gay showman like George Michael a decade later. He was way to middle-of-the-road pop for us AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) hipsters. Then the strangest thing happened — and in my case, I can tell you exactly where.

I was cruising down Route 202 in upstate New York one cold winter night after having come back from the coast hanging with the Stones and Bobby Keys. I suddenly heard the well-known AOR DJ on WNEW-FM, perhaps the most influential album-rock station in the country at the time, Jonathan Schwartz, lead into the new song by Elton John with a disquisition on John and how Russell had adopted him — even, according to Schwartz, introducing John at the historic Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A.

To say I was shocked to hear such a musical purist as Russell backing the pure-pop sound of John was, well, an understatement. And though the subsequent song, “Your Song,” hardly blew me away, it was obvious that, with Russell’s endorsement, I was going to have to give John a reconsideration.

Now, that reconsideration didn’t amount to much; as noted above, I can probably name three John songs. But Russell’s imprimatur served to put John (and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin) on the map with a whole new world of hipsters who would have otherwise ignored them. And I suppose that’s good.

What’s clear from this month’s HBO Cameron Crowe documentary, “The Union,” in which John celebrates the music of his old friend Russell is that, to John’s credit, he remembers who helped him get where he is. And in the cut-throat rock-and-roll world, that’s a rare thing. And good to see.

(“The Union” premiered on HBO February 2 and is available on the channel all month.)