Leon Russell, Master of Musical Styles, Dead at 74

Studio Musician Led Bands, Wrote Classic Songs and Embraced Country Music

Leon Russell — the musician, producer, singer and songwriter who scored minor country hits as “Hank Wilson,” recorded with Willie Nelson and toured with New Grass Revival — died in his sleep Sunday morning (Nov. 13) at his home in Nashville. He was 74.

Later to become a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, Claude Russell Bridges was born April 2, 1942, in Lawton, Oklahoma. He began learning the piano when he was 4, and by the time he was in high school in Tulsa, he was performing in local nightclubs.

In 1958, he moved from Tulsa to Los Angeles, where he would build a towering reputation as a studio musician, arranger and producer. As a member of the famed Wrecking Crew team of studio musicians, he worked with such luminaries Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Jan & Dean, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Herb Alpert, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, Elton John, the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson.

“Heartbreak Hotel,” his 1979 duet with Nelson, was Russell’s only No. 1 country single, although in his Hank Wilson guise he did chart four other songs.

With Denny Cordell, Russell co-founded Shelter Records in 1969 and kept it in operation until 1981. Besides Russell himself, Shelter recorded such artists as J.J. Cale, Phoebe Snow, the Dwight Twilley Band, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Freddie King.

As a songwriter, Russell successes included the often-recorded “A Song for You” and “This Masquerade,” along with “Delta Lady” (a hit for Joe Cocker), “Superstar” (a hit for the Carpenters) and his own “Tight Rope,” and “Bluebird.”

A musical chameleon, Russell was as much at home with the supercharged bluegrass of New Grass Revival, with whom he recorded and toured for two years in the early 1980s, as he was with the jazzier country style of Willie Nelson and the hard-driving rock of Joe Cocker, whose self-titled album he co-produced and whose band he played in during the fabled Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of 1970.

At the height of his success as a arena-rock headliner, he released the hard-core country album, Hank Wilson’s Back, in 1973. Featuring country classics originally recorded by George Jones, Hank Thompson, Bill Monroe and others, he recorded the project with an all-star cast of Nashville musicians and singers including Billy Byrd, Grady Martin, Charlie McCoy, Curly Chalker, Pete Drake, Johnny Gimble, Buddy Harman and Melba Montgomery. He went on to release three more albums in the Hank Wilson series.

In 2010, Russell worked closely with Elton John in creating the double-album, The Union.

Russell released the album Life Journey in 2014.

Still recovering from a heart operation at the time of his death, Russell was scheduled to resume touring in 2017.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.