Leon Russell, who achieved rare fame as a session musician by playing with artists from The Rolling Stones to Elton John and pursuing his own eclectic career, has died. He was 74.
Russell, who remained active and had tour dates in front of him, died in his sleep at his home in Nashville, his wife said in a statement Sunday without further details.
Born in Oklahoma, Russell mastered the piano as a child and soaked up a variety of musical influences from country to rhythm and blues to gospel.
By 14, he was singing pop standards in Oklahoma nightclubs and at 17 he took a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles, seeking out music gigs.
He eventually became a leader of the so-called “Wrecking Crew” of top-notch session musicians in Los Angeles who recorded with top artists.
Key collaborations throughout his long career included The Rolling Stones, Beatle George Harrison, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Beach Boys.
With his long beard, top hat and lively, blues-infused piano playing, Russell was instantly identifiable at concerts.
One of his most famous performances came at the “The Concert for Bangladesh,” the 1971 charity show in New York led by Harrison, in which Russell led the house band and rocked out on an energetic medley that started with the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
By the late 1960s, Russell also became a successful songwriter, starting with Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady,” and co-founded his own label, Shelter Records.
He organized Cocker’s 1970s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour, considered pioneering at the time by bringing together top musicians, but keeping the schedule loose so they did not need to commit full-time. Russell eventually faded from the spotlight, traveling as a country artist under the name Hank Wilson.
He re-emerged in a major way when he collaborated with Elton John on the 2010 Grammy-nominated double album “The Union.”
Russell said that he had been struggling to get bookings when John unexpectedly called his former rock pianist at home, where Russell was watching television, and proposed working together.
“That’s why I tell people he came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life,” Russell told the magazine of AARP, the US organization for senior citizens.
Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, reports AFP, NEW YORK.