[12 June 2011]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
You can’t write a review for an album released by Leon Russell in 2011 without mentioning the words “Elton” and “John”. By now, we all know the story about how the Brit brought the California-born piano man back from the depths of career mortality by throwing together an album for him to participate in, booking a tour he could tag along on, and essentially re-introducing the words “Leon” and “Russell” back into an entire new hipper-than-thou generation’s musical vernacular.
And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with what John did. Not even at Russell’s height of popularity could he have had the means to play to tens of thousands of people on a nightly basis, let alone be given the opportunity to be thrown into such mainstream outlets as what turned out to be a somewhat awkward performance on Saturday Night Live.
The guy never really fit in. He wasn’t Southern enough to be considered Southern rock. Not pop enough to be considered a star. Not bluesy enough to be considered a bluesman. Not smooth enough to be a balladeer. And not soulful enough to be considered a gospel singer. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t worthy enough to be considered amongst music’s elite songwriters and piano players. That’s why what Sir Elton did wasn’t simply just a nice gesture. It was imperative. The masses needed to be aware of Russell’s greatness, and hell—if it wasn’t going to be the guy who helped pen such classics as “Candle in the Wind” and “Rocket Man”, then who was it going to be? It’s not like the boys from Hanson, who have famously been longtime Leon Russell backers, could have provided such resurgence in a career as seemingly lost and ignored as Russell’s.
So thank Elton (and even the Hanson brothers) for getting Russell a spot within the walls of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Thank them for reminding us all to go back and re-find some of the great piano records of the 1970s. Thank them for the man’s upcoming induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And thank them for the release of his latest collection, The Best of Leon Russell, a set of songs clearly aimed at bringing anyone who had not heard of the man before John’s soap-box-like crusade a little closer to understanding what all the fuss was about when they saw this white-haired, long-bearded dude rolling into town with Sir Elton.
The set begins with “Tryin’ to Stay Alive”, one of three tracks featuring the songwriter accompanied by someone else (this time with Marc Benno from the pair’s final joint effort, 1971’s Asylum Choir II). A great way to lead off something that calls itself “the best of” Russell’s career, the song’s quirky feel and upbeat tickling piano-playing provides one of the most gospel-like songs Russell has ever been a part of. Oh. And yes, the title of this song and its position on the collection is indeed dually noted after all the piano player has been through in recent years.
Considering he made his bread mostly as a session player for other musicians plays perfectly into the notion that some of the best stuff featured here has other people involved. The other two collaborations, “Heartbreak Hotel” with Willie Nelson and “If It Wasn’t for Bad” featuring the aforementioned career-saving John, are standouts in their own right. While the former is a bluesy romp with some great prominent harmonica playing, the latter is Exhibit A when it comes to reasons why Sir Elton and Russell should have made an effort to put out joint albums decades ago. The lead single off the pair’s The Union, “If It Wasn’t for Bad” captures a tremendous moment in time as Leon’s haunting voice echoes poignant lyrics through a mid-tempo, piano-filled journey. Not only was it quite possibly the best on The Union—it’s also among the best The Best Of has to offer as well.
But that doesn’t mean the 69-year-old can’t excel on his own. “Shoot Out the Plantation”, from 1970’s Leon Russell, is funky gospel that bleeds soul, a song Lynyrd Skynrd wishes it was cool enough to pull off. The classic “Tight Rope” from 1972’s Carney, Russell’s most successful album to date (it landed at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 200), carries like an afternoon in downtown London with its staccato piano riffs and jumpy feel. The poppiest Russell has ever been, it’s a song that still sounds as though it could have been a Supertramp outtake. And “It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” has a bass line that’s as infectious as anything the singer has done. The only thing overshadowing it is Russell’s vocal performance, a take that sees him stretch for notes only few could achieve.
“And if I was Jesus / And I built some crosses / Could you see the future? / Could you stand the losses?” Russell sings on Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, a song that’s featured within The Best of Leon Russell’s later tracks. In reality, the performance sums up Russell’s career to date. Not only does the musical composition combine all the elements that make the songwriter great—southern pop rock with soul and piano lines that stick with you for days—but it’s probably also fitting that he didn’t write it. “Could you see the future? / Could you stand the losses?” are a couple of lines covered in a dose of irony when considering the voice behind it.
Luckily for that voice, though, those losses have since been offset by some famous friends who realized his greatness long ago. And luckily for music listeners everywhere, that greatness can be relived time and time again with collections such as this.