Leon Russell Survives Heart Attack, Postpones Summer Tour

Iconic songwriter and session man Leon Russell isn’t about to let a heart attack bring the curtain down on his long and illustrious career. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer made it through brain surgery in 2011 and is expected to make a full recovery from the coronary event he suffered last week, reports Tulsa World.

Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, on the second day of April, 1942, the iconic musician began playing piano in Tulsa nightclubs when he was barely into his teens. Upon graduating from Will Rogers High School in the late 1950s, he and his band, the Starlighters (which also included J.J. Cale), hit the road as part of Jerry Lee Lewis’ traveling road show. In 1959, at the ripe old age of 17, Claude Russell Bridges relocated to Los Angeles, changed his name to Leon Russell, and found work as a studio session player with the fabled Wrecking Crew.

Russell recorded and released a single entitled “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the Young” in 1965. The song failed to climb the popular music charts, but it did garner the attention of Gary Lewis & The Playboys who took two Leon Russell compositions, “She’s Just My Style” and “Everybody Loves a Clown,” into the top 10.

During Russell’s tenure with the Wrecking Crew, he performed on dozens of recordings, usually without credit or inclusion in album liner notes. Here he is playing organ on the Ventures’ classic 1963 hit “Telstar.”

To say that Leon Russell was an integral part of the Los Angeles music recording heyday is an understatement. The list of songs that feature Russell’s keyboard skills is phenomenal. Leon appears on records by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, The Byrds, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Pat Boone, Delaney and Bonnie, and the Everly Brothers. He recorded “Day After Day” with Badfinger, “Danke Schoen” with Wayne Newton, and “Surf City” with Jan and Dean.

When the Beach Boys needed a first-class pianist to play on “Help Me Rhonda” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” they turned to Leon Russell. Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, the sprightly surf-flavored “Help Me Rhonda” also features the work of drummer Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye on bass, Billy Lee Riley on harmonica, and Glen Campbell on guitar.

Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady” was a big hit in the late 1960s for British blues rocker Joe Cocker. In 1970, Russell signed on as band leader for the sensationally spastic Cocker’s fabled Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour which featured ballsy West Coast vocalist Kathi MacDonald.

After the tour, Kathi MacDonald appeared on Russell’s album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, according to Merrimack Records. The live album Mad Dogs and Englishmen made it to No. 2 on the rock and pop charts.

Rock ‘n’ roll trivia buffs will appreciate the fact that the green top hat worn by Leon Russell on the MD&E tour was a gift from the late country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who received the hat from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Before that, the historical top hat was worn by blackface comedian and MGM movie singer Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Russell related the story to Tulsa World in 2010.

“I was out at Burbank airport about to get on this old transcontinental gas scary airplane, and Gram came out there and gave me this green top hat. I was fond of ’em at the time. I took it on the road, wore it, played catch with it, somebody sat on it, and the inside started coming out. And inside it said ‘MGM 1938, Al Jolson, the Jazz Singer.’ So I was in tall cotton there for a minute.”

Leon Russell made recent appearances at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa. It was during the first leg of a summer-long tour when Leon Russell suffered a heart attack that landed him in the hospital. His last full show before his coronary event was at City Winery in Nashville, Tennessee. According to Russell’s website, the remaining tour dates are indefinitely postponed.

[Photo by Jeff Daly/Invision/AP Images]