Leon Russell, Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer, Dies at 74

Singer-songwriter worked with Joe Cocker, Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones

Leon Russell
Leon Russell

Rock singer and songwriter Leon Russell died in Nashville on Sunday at the age of 74.

His wife stated on his website that he died in his sleep. Russell had a heart attack in July.

The musician worked with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and The Temptations.

Russell’s career spanned more than five decades. As a teenager he began playing in Tulsa, Oklahoma clubs with his group the Starlighters, which also included guitarist J.J. Cale. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s and became an in-demand session pianist, playing with the famed Wrecking Crew on hits including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”

Russell, who played boogie-style piano and with strong country and gospel influences, began making records with the Asylum Choir in 1968, and then became a part of the Delaney & Bonnie and Friends troupe, which toured and backed Joe Cocker and performed on the 1970 “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour, which spawned an album of the same name.

Russell launched a solo career on the heels of that tour, playing with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and becoming one of the top-grossing concert performers of the early ’70s. He was known for drawn out versions of rock classics like “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Youngblood,” using his exaggerated, drawling vocals and gospel-style, call-and-response interactions with his background singers to whip up crowds.

He worked with Harrison, Bob Dylan, Badfinger, bluesman Freddie King and others. He also wrote a number of hit songs, including, “Shine a Light,” performed and recorded by the Stones, “Delta Lady,” recorded by Cocker, and “Tight Rope,” which was his biggest solo hit.

His two best-known songs are “Superstar,” which was originally recorded by Rita Coolidge and later became a hit for The Carpenters and Luther Vandross; and “A Song for You,” whose more than three dozen versions include recordings by Ray Charles, the Carpenters, Donny Hathaway and Herbie Hancock with Christina Aguilera.

Other collaborators included Willie Nelson, with whom he worked frequently over the years, and Elton John, a huge fan of Russell’s, who collaborated with him on a 2010 album of duets produced by T Bone Burnett, “The Union.” Director Cameron Crowe filmed a documentary about the making of that album.

Russell was also the subject of a documentary film by Les Blank, “A Poem Is a Naked Person.” The film was shot in 1974, but remained unreleased until its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2015.

Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2011, the same year he was honored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Steve Pond contributed to this report.