From ‘Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History’
By Bill Janovitz
The following is an excerpt from the new book “Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History” (Hachette, 2023) written by Bill Janovitz, famed singer/songwriter of the influential alt-rock band Buffalo Tom and author of “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of The Rolling Stones.”
Russell’s career had a profound yet widely under-appreciated impact on contemporary music and influenced such luminaries as George Harrison, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Willie Nelson and Tom Petty. Starting his career in the 1950s as a teenager touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, Russell would go on to play piano on recordings by Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Phil Spector as well as hundreds of other songs by prominent artists. Elton John, a huge fan, inducted him in 2011 into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Leon also gets credit for changing Willie Nelson’s career.
Playing any and all styles of music from blues to gospel and jazz to rock and more on keyboards and guitar, Russell made his bones on the road. He played on Joe Cocker’s famed “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour” and George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. In his prime, he filled stadiums on solo tours. He also founded Shelter Records in 1969 with producer Denny Cordell, releasing debut albums by Tom Petty, the Gap Band, Phoebe Snow, and J.J. Cale.
In this excerpted chapter, appropriately entitled “Leon’s Live,” we see Russell in 1972 having just released his seminal album Carney and hitting the road with a gospel group and Marjoe Gortner, a former tent revival preacher , actor and the subject of a 1972 Oscar-winning doc. Here, too, is an exact breakdown of how his tour lost money and how he once asked an audience to remove their clothes for “a relief effort in South America.”
By the time Carney was released in July 1972, it had been six months since Leon’s last concert at the Rainbow in London. To some, it seemed like he reemerged after a long exile, even though his schedule had been nonstop. Pop stars today might not make music for a year or more, but that would have seemed like a lifetime in 1971 – 1972.
Nineteen seventy-two was another incredible year in popular music. In the run-up to the June release of Carney, Elton John released Honky Château; Aretha Franklin issued her live Amazing Grace (her second release in 1972, following Young, Gifted and Black); and The Rolling Stones, their double-LP masterpiece, Exile on Main St. Those three albums all trod similar ground as Leon Russell’s first few records, with plenty of gospel-informed piano on each.
Leon was on the vanguard of white rockers infusing their music with Black church music. On the “Carney Tour,” Leon cranked up the gospel quotient, not merely incorporating the influence but also performing actual spirituals like “Great Day” and “Sweeping Through the City.” He accomplished this with help from four members of the Church of God in Christ, a Southern Pentecostal denomination: Patrick Henderson, Wacy Crowder, and Mary Ann and Phyllis Lindsey – now collectively known as Black Grass – had never performed outside a church. In “A Poem Is a Naked Person,” Les Blank and Maureen Gosling went down to Denton, Texas, to Henderson’s Church of God in Christ to film a remarkable scene of a service.
“I went from church to arenas with twenty, thirty, forty thousand people in them,” Henderson said. “First-class flights, private jets; it was amazing. I was eighteen years old; it was quite a life-changing deal, of course. [The women] were swept up in it all. Of course, they could buy anything they wanted, they could go anywhere they wanted. They had money, real money. He paid us pretty well, it’s more than I could ever have made in a week.”
A breakdown of what it took to put on a Leon Russell show appeared in the New Mexico Daily Lobo on September 1, 1972. Leon’s fee was $15,000 – plus 60 percent of the gross receipts over $27,000 – for his show on August 30 at the University of New Mexico. “Leon Russell’s favorite drink is Jose Cuervo Gold tequila,” wrote Aaron Howard. “He will not do a concert unless there are several bottles of Jose Cuervo in his dressing room before the show.” Beyond the booze, though, the article, titled “How to Gross $30G and Lose Money,” does a thorough job of explaining the costs and risks associated with promoting large-scale rock concerts during the era when those shows graduated from ballrooms and theaters to arenas and stadiums. The promoter in New Mexico, Leonard Levy, lost money on the show, selling only 6,100 tickets. The show grossed $29,800. The Rolling Stones had recently played there and grossed $87,000, netting the band and their production company $63,000.
In the interview, Peter Nicholls explained that Leon and the band were touring with their own sound, stage, and lighting gear carried in two trucks, one of which was owned by Showco. Leon’s fee was relatively modest, and he was traveling with an eleven-piece band. Joe Cocker was receiving $25,000 a night, as were Jefferson Airplane.
Marjoe Gortner appeared onstage with Leon at this New Mexico show as well as at least one other on the tour. Marjoe had been a tent revival preacher at the age of four, preternaturally charismatic, with curly golden locks and a bow tie. He was the subject of the 1972 documentary “Marjoe,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Evangelism was the family business, and business was good. But his father flew the coop, taking much of the fortune that Marjoe had accrued. Gortner had abandoned the holy-roller circuit as a teenager, taking up with beatniks and beach bums, only to return to his calling when money ran low. The film covered his last tour as a Pentecostal preacher, when he pulled the veil back on the tricks of the trade and confessed it was always all about the dough-re-me. Still blessed with golden-boy looks, Gortner went into acting, appearing on seventies and eighties TV shows like Kojak, Falcon Crest, and Circus of the Stars.
In the film about him, Gortner discusses how he incorporated rock ’n’ roll elements into his shows and points out the specific move he lifted from Mick Jagger: one hand on hip, the other holding the microphone, prancing back and forth. Jagger swiped the move from Tina Turner, who was raised singing in the choir of her Baptist church. The documentary serves as a vivid reminder of the inexorable circular influence of the Black gospel and tent-revival Pentecostal traditions on rock ’n’ roll. As the faithful approach Marjoe to be healed with a laying-on-of-hands, their knees buckle, and they are caught by an assistant and patted down or draped with “prayer cloths” from the preacher himself, the supply replenished by another assistant. The scene will be familiar to anyone who recalls Elvis Presley’s seventies ritual of bestowing sweat-laced scarves on his adoring public.
Leon and Gortner shared a mutual fascination with one another. Leon made the same proposal to Marjoe that Tommy Tedesco had made to Leon back in 1963. “He had this grand idea,” Gortner said. “He got a hold of me through my agent at the William Morris office. And he was staying up at the Chateau Marmont, down on Sunset Boulevard. And he called me up and he said, ‘Marjoe, I want to be your musical director. We’re gonna get tents and trailers and tractors. You’ll do the preaching and I’ll do the music, we’ll get a big Black choir, and we’re going to go on the road.’ I said, ‘Who’s going to finance that, the Lord Himself?!’ That’s where it all started.” But the idea of a full-scale tent revival produced by Leon did not get past the idea stage. Instead, Leon had Marjoe make appearances during his sets on the “Carney Tour.” Marjoe continued, “He was playing at the Forum at that time, a twenty-thousand-seat arena, packed. And he asked me to introduce it. And I did. I jumped up on top of the grand piano and I did one of my hallelujah speeches.”
Leon’s sets became even more well-oiled. The setlists were consistent, and though spontaneity and improvisation were built-in elements, the performers watched Leon closely as he dictated the dynamics and energy. The loose-limbed feel of the grooves belied the band’s precision. The intense pacing was carefully choreographed and the shared spotlight-featured vocal performances from Don Preston and the other singers partially allowed Leon to catch a breath.
“Everything was original unless we did something by Dylan or the Stones,” Henderson said. “Everything was really set in stone, and people still came back year after year; they didn’t care. He would have people take something of value from their purse or their bodies and ask them to give it to somebody they didn’t know, to show real love.” In “Marjoe,” Gortner and other preachers ask the gathered to dig deep for their monetary contributions, to make it hurt as a “sacrifice.”
Leon explained this practice: “One time on Long Island, I suggested that everybody in the audience take their clothes off and put them onstage so we can send them to some relief effort that was going on in South America. That was an interesting concert.” Henderson, laughing, remembered, “Oh God, I remember Long Island! I remember people would throw their clothes on the stage, especially the women. They would throw stuff, but that was their offering. That’s the way he looked at [it]. It wasn’t just enough that they bought the ticket; they wanted to give more.”
The first show of the Carney tour was at the Tulsa Fairground Speedway on June 18 – a Shelter festival of sorts, with Freddie King, J. J. Cale, and Willis Ramsey on the bill. Kay Poorboy had dressed Carla in white to match Leon, who wore a loose-fitting, open-collared white shirt, mirrored shades, with his long, flowing hair topped with a white fedora. Carla, who had given birth five months earlier, looked ravishing in white Daisy Duke cut-offs and a puffy white halter top.
She joined the singers in throwing tambourines emblazoned with the original Shelter logo from the stage (Shelter’s first logo was an upside-down Superman insignia; it was redone after DC Comics filed a copyright-infringement suit).
Good vibes between Carla and Leon were short-lived, however, because Leon began a fling with Phyllis Lindsey…
(Excerpted from “Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History” by Bill Janovitz. Copyright © 2023. Available on March 14 from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.)