5 Things We Learned from the New Leon Russell Biography by Bill Janovitz

A new book is offering fans a guide to the man, the myth, and the music of Leon Russell. From author-musician Bill Janovitz, Russell’s never-before-told story is a nearly 600-page exploration of the legendary artist’s 60-year career.

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Here are five things we learned from the new biography, Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, which is available now.

1. Where Russell Got It From

Leon Russell (born Claude Russell Bridges) learned the ways of the rockstar by watching country piano man Jerry Lee Lewis work a crowd into a frenzy.

The book opens with “Killer Education,” a chapter on how a 1960 show opening for Lewis – often referred to as The Killer – in Cheyenne, Wyoming, shifted Russell’s perspective. “After the band finished their set,” Janovitz writes in the book, “Bridges watched from the side of the stage as The Killer brought the crowd to a boil. Jerry Lee might have fallen from his pinnacle, but he could still whip an audience into a frenzy, glaring at the crowd like a cornered and wounded wild beast, kicking back the bench and playing with his feet.”

That show, in particular, broke out in a riot and ended with Lewis waving a gun over his head before slipping out the back. “The tour with Lewis gave Bridges a glimpse of what it felt like to be the star of the show,” the passage continued.

2. Russell (Quite Literally) Made Music Nonstop

Russell was making music all of the time. When he wasn’t recording up to four sessions a day for eight days straight, sometimes forgetting to eat in the interim, he was recording music in his home studio. Russell had fashioned nearly every inch of his four-bedroom, three-bath two-story Skyhill Drive home into one big recording studio.

A passage from the book reads: “the garage was turned into studio space. Leon installed double walls, added soundproofing, and upgraded the electrical wiring to support the equipment. A bedroom was converted into a control room and a den into the live studio room. A grand piano sat in a corner of the living room, all miked up. Bathrooms were used as vocal booths and echo chambers.”

“The whole house is a studio,” Russell is quoted as saying. “The money in the two rooms is worth thirty or forty percent more than the rest of the whole house. I like to record all the time. I can do a whole record myself— starting with a metronome, working my way through all the keyboards, guitar, bass, valve trombone, bass trumpet, baritone horn, and percussion. But I can’t play all the drums at once. I have to bang them one at a time.”

3. Russell Partially Inspired a Muppets Character

Russell – along with fellow eccentric rockers Dr. John and Elton John – served as inspiration for the top hat-clad Muppets character, Dr. Teeth, who fronted the colorful group The Electric Mayhem.

Watch the felt frontman perform in an eclectic Doctor–John–Russell style below.

4. There Were Just as Many Downs in Russell’s Career as Ups

Stories that herald the legend of Russell always speak of his musical prowess and untouchable skill. While Russell and his success seemed unstoppable, by the 2000s, his career was, for the most part, down and out.

A passage from the book, touching on his downfall, read, “Everyone, including him, understood that aside from his health issues (and even some of those), Leon was mainly responsible for the state of his own career and finances.”

Janovitz then wrote the questions on every reader’s mind: “How could the author of some of the most-recorded songs of his generation be struggling financially? How could the Master of Space and Time, who had commanded the biggest stages during rock music’s golden era, end up as the ‘Miser of Space and Time,’ driving his own duct-taped bus down the highway to the next joint?”

“I don’t know how I managed to pull that off,” Russell is quoted in the book as if answering the author’s questions. “I’m just an idiot, I guess. The fans come up to me at my shows and say, ‘Thank you, Leon, for staying out here on the road and playing for us. Thank you so much.’ I don’t have any choice. If I had more money, I’d probably at least travel a different way. I mean, it’s fun to play. I’ve got a good band.” He summed it up by saying, “It’s a rough business.”

5. It Was Elton John Who Fought for Russell’s Return to the Spotlight

Russell made his comeback when John urged for a collaboration that would result in the 2010 album, The Union. The record was a success, debuting at the top of the charts, earning a Grammy nomination, and re-throning the legend.

By the end of their collaboration, John was determined to get Russell a rightful spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. John put in the leg work, writing letters, making calls, and bringing up Russell to the powers that be in order to get his name in the Hall of Fame among the greats. And he did it.

“This is not to gloss over the fact that Leon was inducted not as an artist but under the ‘Award for Musical Excellence’ category,” the author points out in a passage of his book. “It had previously been the ‘Sidemen’ category until it changed in 2010, the year Leon was nominated. You can pick many names from the list of artist inductees and shake your head in disbelief when you compare their accomplishments to those of Leon Russell. That’s not fair to those others. But neither was it appropriate to limit Leon to a category with undeniably accomplished accompanists who never had significant records or headline tours of their own.”

Watch John induct Russell into the coveted Hall below.

Photo by Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

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