The Unconfirmed Subject Behind “A Song For You” by Leon Russell

It didn’t take long after Tulsa-born and raised rocker Leon Russell released his May 1970 self-titled debut album for its lead-off ballad, “A Song for You,” to find an audience. 

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The multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter and studio musician was a consummate showman. 

Why Is It So Special?

Clocking in at just over four minutes, “A Song for You” begins with downward cascading piano notes that sound like a springtime waterfall, eventually slowing to a trickle. “I had never played it that way before. All off the top of my head,” Russell admitted. The soon-to-be pop masterpiece was tracked in January 1970 at A&M studios in a single take. From the first words of I’ve been so many places in my life and times, as his tremulous, idiosyncratic voice nearly cracks before continuing, it’s clear this is only going to get more intense and personal as it proceeds. I’ve acted out my love in stages, Russell sings, almost missing the high note on the final word, giving the impression we’re eavesdropping as he sings to one person rather than in a studio with the tape running. 

That concept is underlined with: We’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you / I treated you unkindly but darling can’t you see / there’s no one more important to me, he continues as it seems he’s about to break down, unable to finish the thought. A lone, barely there French or tenor horn (oddly uncredited) captures the melodrama before fading away. 

At 1:40, we hear the first lyrical gem; And if my words don’t come together / Listen to the melody / ‘Cause my love is in there hiding.And then the kicker for the halfway point, I love you in a place / Where there’s no space and time / I love you for my life you are a friend of mine, words so sensitive and powerful they have become an archetypal example of Russell’s sentimental prowess, not to mention a go-to for wedding vows. 

Oddly, Russell never released it as a single. Nor did the Carpenters, who famously titled their 1972 record with the song, or soul crooner Donny Hathaway, who most point to as the first to popularize the piece when he covered it on his second album in May 1971. The recording—notably Leon’s favorite—dominated due to Hathaway’s dynamic live interpretation. Many believed, and probably still do, that he composed it. His version, which closely followed Russell’s blueprint, has racked up nearly 80 million streams on Spotify alone. 

In September 1971, pop singer Andy Williams charted with a slick, highly stylized rendition, complete with schlocky, dated, angelic female backing singers and strings. It barely made the Billboard charts, rising to a feeble 82.

Although Frank Sinatra, whom Russell envisioned singing it, never recorded the song, many other artists recognized the tune’s charms. 

“A Song For You” has since been recorded and/or performed hundreds of times by high-profile names such as Aretha Franklin, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, the Temptations (also the title of their 1975 release), Whitney Houston, Herbie Hancock and, in 1993, Ray Charles, who nabbed a GRAMMY for Best Male R&B Performance. The Tedeschi Trucks Band included it in their sets, introducing Russell to a new generation. In 2008, Bizzy Bone made it onto Billboard’s Hip-Hop Songs chart with a rap-infused interpretation that’s at times unrecognizable from the original.

Who Is It About?

That’s unclear. Rita Coolidge, Russell’s old flame and the object of his “Delta Lady,” has said he wrote it for her, but Leon has often disputed that. Some think it might have been about songwriter Greg Dempsey. Leon weighed in with, “I wrote it for somebody I had an argument with…the person was very instrumental in teaching me about songwriting and writing in general.” Ultimately though, the subject has never been confirmed. 

What Have Others Said About It?   

Bill Janovitz—whose 2023, 535-page biography, The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, calls it “a perfect song.” Elton John, who lobbied for, then inducted, Russell into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 said, “‘A Song for You’ is one of the top five songs I wish I had written.” A story in the Janovitz book recounts Aretha Franklin hearing it initially on a tape while riding in a limousine and not leaving until the driver played it twenty times.   

Leon’s Legacy

In 2018, “A Song for You” was belatedly added to the GRAMMY Hall of Fame. Russell, nicknamed “the master of space and time” after its lyrics, tellingly closed his last album, the posthumous On a Distant Shore(2017), recorded when he was in ill health, with another, final reading of his most popular composition. Ornate orchestration swells as he sings it for the umpteenth time, his voice cracking with emotion. That brought the classic full circle, concluding a historic—often troubled and turbulent—but storied career with his most enduring work.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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