When it comes to listening to music, we live in an age where people have shorter spans of attention, and music is something that you download and digest quickly. Its brightly coloured, sweet, and of no intrinsic value. Yes – I could also be talking about fast food, the analogy is the same. If you are a younger person reading this, go buy this Leon Russell album and turn the damn phone off, sit down (be still), and listen to the album in its entirety. It’s music that has been crafted, created and endures, 45 odd years after its release. I doubt you will be able to say the same about the Taylor Swift’s and Katy Perry’s that are so wantonly consumed by today’s youth without much thought about what they consume musically (disparaging old man – ED).
Leon Russell passed away in November 2016 aged 74. The man left behind a stack of enduring music across a wide range of genres- from country, pop, rock, gospel, surf, folk and blues and all points in between. You could dive right into any of his albums and pull up gold, yet if you have never heard the man, let’s go with a classic, 1971’s, Leon Russell and the Shelter People. Many astute rock fans associate Russell with Joe Cocker, as Russell orchestrated and performed with Cocker as part of the mega “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour in 1970. ‘The Shelter People’ is his second LP, following on from his equally classic debut LP from 1970, an album which included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and George Harrison and spawned the monster hit, “A Song for You”, a tune that has been recorded by over 200 artists. Yet I digress.
I’m a big fan of Claudia Lennear (a smoking hot singer who was the inspiration for both the Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ and Bowie’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’. Lennear was back up singer for both Leon Russell and also on Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ tour and live album. She also sung at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 along with Harrison, Dylan and Eric Clapton – as did Leon Russell. A lot of linking going on here – but her back-up vocals on Leon’s second album really add to the distinctive quality of the tunes. 1970-1973 she had it all going on (including the release of her one and only solo album, “Phew”, only to ditch the music biz altogether to become a high school teacher of French and Spanish! Not many school teachers could claim to have songs written about them, by the Stones and Bowie no less. Having to stay back after school with the teacher must have taken on a whole new meaning. Further deviation sorry – back to the album.
Top to bottom, ‘Shelter People’ is a classic. Part of the record was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with Russell handling all the production. The album climbed to number 17 on the Billboard charts, which says more about the calibre of albums being released at that time than anything else.
“Stranger in a Strange Land”, “Crystal Closet Queen” , the lyrically evocative The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Home Sweet Oklahoma” all fit well together. Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is a pure blues indulgence (yet not overblown) highlighted by sax and Lennear’s back-up vocals. The great Jesse Ed Davis on guitar too. I must admit that I thought ‘Alcatraz’ from Nazareth’s ‘Razamanaz’ LP, was a Nazareth tune. Nope. It’s a Russell tune and appears on this LP, great rock song highlighted by Leon’s vocal and some catchy lead guitar. Russell’s take of George Harrison’s ‘Beware of Darkness’ is done with a lot of conviction, feverish piano, and pretty true to the original. Top to bottom – this is a great album worthy of your attention. Alternatively, pick up his debut as a starting point. In an age where the younger people tell me that Ed Sheeran is a once in a generation songwriter, you could do a hell of a lot worse.