Leon Russell was always something of an enigma. By the time he released his first solo album in 1970, he’d already helped shape the sound of hundreds of the biggest hits of the previous decade as a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew session band. After he decided to step out of the shadows and transform from sideman to frontman, he enjoyed a short period of success with songs like Tight Rope and A Song For You. But it was always other people that got the biggest chart success with his songs. It didn’t seem to bother him too much though, and he continued writing and recording his rock albums right up to his death in 2016. In tribute to his extraordinary talent, here are the 10 best Leon Russell songs of all time.
10. Dixie Lullaby
Before Russell decided to make his switch to Americana permanent, he was already giving us a taste of what was to come on Dixie Lullaby. A freewheeling, bar room blitz built around Russell’s drawling vocals, a piano, and not much else, it’s got Southern comfort down to a T.
9. Stranger in the Strange Land
Ultimateclassicrock.com has described Stranger in the Strange Land as one of Russell’s best ballads. Considering his prowess in that particular area, that’s no mean small claim, but it’s far from unjustified. Using a title borrowed from Robert A. Heinlein’s famous novel, Russell builds an exquisitely crafted tune that serves as an exploration of the feelings of alienation that come with stardom. The melody is nothing short of divine. The delicious blend of gospel and rock isn’t far short either.
8. Roller Derby
Like a lot of his contemporaries, Russell was heavily influenced by Little Richard growing up. In 1972, he reached back to those early sounds to craft the deliciously raucous Roller Derby. It might sound like a typical piece of Southern rock on the surface, but it’s pure rock and roll at its heart, with a verve and a pace that even Chuck Berry would have been impressed by.
7. This Masquerade
Despite his gruff southern persona, Russell could be sweet. On Lady Blue, he’s at his sugary best, creating what All Music describes as one of the finest wedding songs of the era. This Masquerade flips the coin and looks at what happens after the honeymoon period has ended. It’s tender but cutting, taking a moody, unsentimental look at the slow disintegration of a relationship. It’s an incredible piece of pop craftsmanship that’s since been cut by dozen of artists, most notably by George Benson who turned it into a Grammy award-winning crossover hit in 1976. While Benson’s version is smoother, there’s something about the ragged energy of the original that’s unshakable.
In fairness, B.B. King did a better version, but there’s still an awful lot to be said for Russell’s original cut of Hummingbird. His vocals are as distinctive as ever, leading the charge as the song marches from its tender, bluesy opening to its exhilarating, gospel-infused climax. It’s not necessarily the most lovely voice in the world, but that was always part of his charm – it’s not mannered or polite, it’s honest and raw. It wouldn’t win him a place on American Idol, but it did win him an army of fans, even if he didn’t always understand why. “I sounded a bit like Moms Mabley, no reflection on Moms,” he later said.
5. Roll Away the Stone
After making its debut on Russell’s self-titled 1970 album, Roll Away the Stone got a second life on the 1972 triple-disc live album, Leon Live. If the studio version was good, the live version was better, catching Russell at his most freewheeling, roof-raising best. It sounds less of a song than it does a revival, with Russell doing his best impression of a country preacher to the backing of a jubilant gospel choir. From start to finish, it’s utterly riveting.
4. Lady Blue
When Russell wanted to go tender, he went tender. Lady Blue caches him in a particularly romantic mood. The lyrics – direct and to the point as always – are the opposite of the song’s grumpier musical cousin, This Masquerade. Whereas This Masquerade captures the bitterness of the end of a relationship, Lady Blue captures its first flush. It’s a warm caress of a song, sweet without being saccharine, and with a truly sumptuous melody. If This Masquerade is the ultimate divorce song, Lady Blue is the ultimate wedding song.
3. Tight Rope
In the middle of cutting Carney, Russell ran into a problem – he still had space to fill on the album but was fresh out of songs to fill it with. As he started to pack up and leave the recording studio, inspiration struck in the form of Mary Hopkins’ Apple-era recordings with Paul McCartney. The end result was Tight Rope, a jaunty piece of ragtime with distinct echoes of Hopkins’ 1968 No.1 hit single, Those Were the Days. The multiple keyboards and slide guitar infuse the song with a retro vibe, but it’s Russell’s piano solos that bind the whole thing together. Released as the b-side to This Masquerade, it sauntered to number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.
2. Delta Lady
As Joe Cocker was turning Russell’s Delta Lady into a timeless standard in 1969, Russell was still figuring out if he wanted to be a sideman or the main event. By 1970, he’d decided to give it a bash. His self-titled debut is a treasure trove of classics, Delta Lady being one of them. Written about Russell’s then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge, the song is, as Paste Magazine says, a masterclass in how tone and tempo can be varied within the structure of a song, cutting from a rollicking refrain to an almost sentimental middle break where Russell longs to be back home with his lady.
1. A Song for You
Of all the songs Russell ever wrote, A Song for You is perhaps his best remembered. A painfully impassioned plea for clemency from one lover to another, it’s since been recorded by over 200 artists, including Ray Charles, who earned a Grammy Award for it in 1994, and Donny Hathaway, whose gospel-inflected interpretation is, of all the cover versions, perhaps the most electrifying. But it’s the stunningly moving, pitch-perfect original the leads the pack. Elton John called it an American classic. He wasn’t wrong.