Leon Russell, the musician and songwriter who worked with artists including Joe Cocker, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, died Sunday in Nashville at 74. His website quoted his wife, Jan Bridges, as saying that he died in his sleep. He had suffered a heart attack in July.
Raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Russell had a career of more than 50 years playing southern boogie-inflected piano, writing songs, and producing. Among the hit songs he wrote were “Delta Lady,” recorded by Cocker, and “A Song for You,” recorded by Ray Charles, the Temptations, the Carpenters, Amy Winehouse, and Whitney Houston. He played piano on the Stones’ “Get a Line on You,” which he adapted from their “Shine a Light” song and had a No. 1 country hit with Willie Nelson performing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The song “Tightrope,” the lead track on his album “Carney,” reached No. 11 in 1972.
Other notable songs written or performed by Russell include “This Masquerade,” a hit for George Benson,” and “Superstar,” made famous by the Carpenters.
Russell performed at the Concert for Bangladesh with George Harrison and Friends and toured with acts including Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Edgar Winter, the New Grass Revival, Willie Nelson, and Elton John. His piano playing can notably be heard on Badfinger’s “Day After Day.”
During the 1990s and 80s, he played country music under the name Hank Wilson but returned to the spotlight when he recorded “The Union” with Elton John in 2010; the making of the album was chronicled in a documentary by Cameron Crowe.
After performing in Tulsa nightclubs, Russell got his start playing on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis. He moved to L.A. to join the famous Wrecking Crew group of musicians when he was just 17, playing on songs including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and can be seen with them on “The T.A.M.I. Show” concert film.
He was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
Musicians quickly took to social media to express their condolences on Sunday. Elton John called Russell a “mentor” and “inspiration.”
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