An email from Leon Russell Records to The Associated Press says Russell died in Nashville on Saturday night. The email cites Russell’s wife as the source of the information. Russell had heart bypass surgery in July and was recovering from that at the time of his death. He had been planning on resuming touring in January, the email said.
Besides his music, Russell was known for his striking appearance: wispy white hair halfway down his back and that covered much of his face.
He wrote Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady” and in 1969 put together Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour, which spawned a documentary film and a hit double album.
As a musician, primarily a pianist, he played on The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City.” He also played guitar and bass.
He recorded hit songs himself like “Tight Rope” and “Lady Blue” and participated in “The Concert for Bangla Desh.” John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison played on his first album, Leon Russell.
His concerts often ended with a rousing version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” In 1973, Billboard Magazine listed Russell as the top concert attraction in the world. About this time, he was the headline act on billings that included Elton John and at other times Willie Nelson.
In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, Russell said music doesn’t really change much.
“It’s cyclical, like fashion. You keep your old clothes and they’ll be in style again sooner or later.
“There are new things, like rap. But that’s a rebirth of poetry. It’s brought poetry to the public consciousness.”
In 2011, Russell was chosen for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He also was honored with an Award for Music Excellence from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He and Elton John released The Union, a critically received duo album in 2010.
Russell, born in Lawton, Oklahoma, began as a night club piano player in Oklahoma at the age of 14, also backing touring artists when they came to town. Jerry Lee Lewis was so impressed with Russell that he hired Russell and his band for two years of tours.
He relocated to Los Angeles in 1959, where he became known as a top musician, and later to Nashville.
In the early 2000s he began his own record label, Leon Russell Records.