Claude Russell Bridges (born April 2, 1942, Lawton, Oklahoma) known professionally as Leon Russell, is an American singer-songwriter, pianist, and guitarist.
Born in Lawton, Russell attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and began his musical career as a session musician, quickly gaining experience and becoming a high-end keyboardist in demand to notable artists from the 1960s to the present.
By the late 1960s, Russell branched out, first to writing songs, and then working his way from gigs as a sideman to joining bands as a full member. Eventually, he moved into a solo recording position, although he never gave up all his previous roles within the music industry.
First known mostly as a session musician, Russell has played with artists as varied as Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, Delaney Bramlett, Ringo Starr, Elton John, BB King, Freddie King, Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Tijuana Brass, J.J. Cale, David Gates, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Marc Benno, Edgar and Johnny Winter, Glen Campbell, Gary Busey, Jesse Ed Davis, and The Rolling Stones. With a solo career spanning the genres of rock, blues, and gospel, Russell began his musical career at fourteen in Tulsa nightclubs. He and his group The Starlighters, which included J.J.Cale, Chuck Blackwell and Johnny Williams, were instrumental in creating the school of music known as the Tulsa Sound. Two years later, after settling in Los Angeles, he studied guitar with James Burton, and worked sessions with Dorsey Burnette and Glen Campbell.
After becoming a part of Phil Spector's studio group, Russell played backup on many of the most popular hits of the 1960s, including songs by The Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Herb Alpert. He also served as Snuff Garrett's assistant on numerous productions. Russell built his own recording studio in 1967, and recorded his first LP, Look Inside the Asylum Choir, in a collaboration with Marc Benno.
His first songwriting hit was Joe Cocker's 1969 version of "Delta Lady", and Russell went on to organise Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. The Russell-written "Superstar", sung by Rita Coolidge on that tour, would go on to be a big hit by The Carpenters, Luther Vandross, and others. Shortly thereafter, Russell released a solo album, Leon Russell, which included the original version of the popular "A Song for You". Also in 1970, Russell played piano on Dave Mason's album, Alone Together (notably, on the song "Sad and Deep as You").
During the 1960s and 1970s, Russell owned the Church Recording Studio on 3rd Street in Tulsa, which is now owned by Glen Mitchell and one-time Russell studio engineer Steve Ripley of the country band The Tractors. Russell still records there frequently, while his former home on Grand Lake, in northeast Oklahoma, still contains the famous dining room table and chairs made from church pews from his Church Studio. On the property stands a private recording studio that has seen many famous names, including members of The Beatles.
In the summer of 1971 Russell was asked by George Harrison to play piano on Badfinger's third album, Straight Up. The piano which complements Pete Ham and George Harrison's dual slide guitars on Badfinger's radio hit "Day After Day" is played by Leon from those Apple sessions. The sessions were interrupted because many of the musicians on Straight Up left for New York City to participate in the Concert For Bangladesh, organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, at which Russell performed a medley of the songs, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood," and sang a verse on George Harrison's "Beware of Darkness."
Also in 1971 Russell played on recording sessions with B. B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. He also released two studio albums under his own name that year, Leon Russell And The Shelter People and Asylum Choir II. Further, Russell helped Freddie King to revive his career by collaborating with him on three of his albums for Shelter in early 1970s.
In 1972, his album Carney reached #2 on the charts, fueled by the hit single "Tight Rope". In addition, the LP contained a tune called "This Masquerade" that the Carpenters also recorded, and years later, would win a Grammy for George Benson. Russell performed at the Thanksgiving Jam at Armadillo World Headquarters, Austin, Texas in 1972 with Doug Sahm, Jerry Garcia, Mary Egan, Hank Alrich, Phil Lesh, Benny Thurman, Jerry Barnet, and others.
During the 1970s, Russell continued to occasionally perform at the Paradise Club along with other noted music spots around Tulsa. He surprised his fans one night by performing with Flash Eddy and the Eclectics at the Paradise.
His 1975 album Will O' the Wisp was commercially successful, along with its single "Lady Blue". Gailard Sartain, fondly remembered by Tulsans as Mazeppa Pompazoidi (a Saturday night movie host, joined many times by Gary Busey), did the cover artwork for the LP.
Marriage and career
In 1975, Russell married Mary McCreary (Russell Rand), a former member of Sly & the Family Stone's background vocal group Little Sister. The two collaborated on The Wedding Album in 1976. In 1977, Russell and McCreary reunited for another album. Russell and Willie Nelson had a number one duet on the Billboard country music charts in 1979 with the Elvis Presley classic "Heartbreak Hotel". He spent the next two years touring with the New Grass Revival, and released two more albums with Paradise before the label folded.
For several years, Russell stayed largely out of the music spotlight, releasing Anything Can Happen with Bruce Hornsby in 1992, then two more albums in 1998 and 1999. He continues to tour. His bassist, Jack Wessel, has been with Russell close to 25 years. His son with McCreary, Teddy Jack, was born January 1, 1976 (named after Gary Busey's character on Sartain's show), has also toured with his father, as have his sisters Tina Rose (born November 13, 1978) (daughter of Mary) and Sugaree Noel (born October 29, 1982) (daughter of Janet).
Russell also has three other daughters, the eldest (daughter of Carla McHenry) Baby Blueagle (born February 20, 1972) (named after Oklahoman and Native American Artist Acee Blue Eagle), Honey (born January 19, 1986) (daughter of Janet), and the youngest, Coco (born April 29, 1990) (daughter of Janet).
He has been married to artist Janet Constantine Bridges since 1979.