Flashback interview: Leon Russell's favorite musical memories

Craig Rosen
Photo: Rolling Stone

This week, ten months after rock legend Leon Russell’s tragic death at age 74, the prolific Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s posthumous final album, On a Distant Shore, comes out. Back in 2014, when Russell released his album Life Journey and we had him on the phone to talk about his new release and career, we asked him to share some of his favorite musical memories with us. We wanted to celebrate his legacy and new music, and to provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

Yahoo Music: What is the first album you bought with your own money, and where did you buy it from?

Leon Russell: I belonged to the Columbia Record Club, and that’s where my records came from. For some reason I was in the “jazz” category. I got Benny Goodman records and Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, and that kind of stuff. I really was not a jazz guy at all, but I knew some of those names. I had a girlfriend when I was in high school and she was a blues hound, and she kind of introduced me to the blues and took me down to Walgreens, and there was a big cardboard box there full of 78 blues [records]. And they were like 10 cents apiece, and I bought a bunch of those.

What was the first concert you attended, and where?

I think the first one was at the Tulsa Civic Center. One of them was the Alan Freed Show of Stars. They had like 15 or 20 acts on it. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Lloyd Price Show of Stars Orchestra, which was about a 25-piece horn band, and they all came out and did a couple of songs and left. It was very fast. The P.A. system was about the size of a Fender Bassman on each side of the stage. It was very early days. They didn’t really know how to do the sound, but they were great shows. Fantastic. That’s actually where I got the idea for Mad Dogs and Englishmen. That’s what I was trying to do with that.

What was the artist/song/video/album/concert that made you go, “Wow, making music is what I want to do too”?

I started kind of early. I didn’t want to have a real job.

Is there a song by another artist that makes you go, “Darn, I really wish I’d written or recorded that”?

Not really. I hear some that I like a lot, but the song “Homeward Bound,” I was just listening to that the other day and I realized the harmonization on that song is very unusual. It’s not parallel thirds or anything like that. It’s very nice. I like that a lot.

What has been your unfortunate onstage mishap?

I wasn’t onstage — it was in the studio at Capitol Records with 60 Strings. This guy called Stu Phillips is a New York writer and he was doing this series called “The 100 Strings of the Beatles” or something like that. So I ran into this guy and he said, “I’m so glad I saw you, I need you to play this 60 Strings Session tomorrow. You play just the right stuff.” I said, “Wait a minute. That’s an illusion. Don’t think you can write a bunch of stuff down and I can read it, I can’t read it well. … I’m not your guy.” He said, “Don’t worry.” I went to the session, I looked at the music, and it was black with notes. So I called him over, and I said, “Stu, I can’t play this.” He said, “Go ahead and try.” But I couldn’t play it. And he tried, and he couldn’t play it. And then the contractor came in and yelled at me and said, “How dare you take a session you can’t play!” That was the most embarrassing moment of my life.

What’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever done or said to you?

I can’t really think of anything, but I’m sure there have been some. I can tell you one thing, [someone] once took me backstage to meet Elvis and I was shaking hands with him and I heard myself say, “Elvis, how’d you end up in those terrible movies?” And Elvis said, “I don’t know, man. The last thing I remember I was driving a truck.” That experience made me very lenient on people that came up and said stupid s*** to me.

What’s your preshow ritual?

I have to remember to take my hearing aids out. Other than that, it’s not anything special.

What’s your must-have on tour?

Well, I’m in much better shape if I have my bus. If something happens to the bus, if it breaks and we have to fly, it’s a nightmare because I don’t like hotels very much and I have back problems to a certain degree, and I’ve got my recliner on the bus.

Is there any genre of music that you would never attempt to play? If so, why?

I don’t think there’s any danger of me playing Indian music. However, I did a song of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” that was kind of like that. That was an illusion. I was playing that on a thumbtack piano and Jim Gordon was playing tablas. He’s an amazing player. That was as close to India as I ever got.

Have you ever done any karaoke? If so, what’s your go-to karaoke song?

I’ve never done that. I was with my band at a karaoke bar in Japan when it was very big there, and they got up and made fools of themselves without practicing properly. I didn’t understand why they were doing that. It was like they were making fun of the genre by performing badly. But I didn’t get up and sing, so I don’t know what it feels like.

What’s the most surprising song we’d find in your record or iTunes collection?

God, I don’t know. Mo Ostin used to say I had very catholic taste — catholic in the universal sense. I have a bunch of different kinds of stuff on there, but I don’t think any would surprise anyone at this late date.

What’s the last album you purchased?

The last album I bought was at Cracker Barrel, and it’s by Vince Gill and Paul Franklin and it’s called Bakersfield. It’s kind of like modern country standard songs. It’s kind of like my Hank Williams records, but I think they’re much better at it. Vince Gill is a virtuoso. I didn’t know much about Paul Franklin, but he’s quite good. He’s a steel player.

Pick one: the Beatles or the Stones?

It’s a different can of worms. I like the Beatles very much and there are certain things about the Stones that I like. Bill Wyman was playing on my first album and I said, “Bill, play that thing that you do that goes like this.” He kind of looked shocked and went over to Stevie Winwood and he said, “Do you know who you are?” That’s my experience with the Stones.

Elvis or Buddy Holly?

I don’t think of music in that way. There are different varieties of birds, you know.

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