Hit-maker, master musician and American icon Leon Russell died on Sunday in Nashville. He was 74.
His wife, Jan Bridges, announced the news on his website on Sunday morning. Russell died in his sleep, though no other information was provided. He had been struggling with health complications in recent years, including a brain fluid leak and heart failure.
Russell made a tremendous impact on American music during his lifetime. All of the classic rock and roll — and a good deal of the country music — you know and love from the 1950’s through today have ties to Russell’s work.
Born in Oklahoma, Russell became a skilled musician at a young age and began his career at 14. In the 1950’s, he relocated to Los Angeles where he became one of the top session players of the day. His talents did not end with session work, though.
He was a master arranger and composer. Russell wrote scores of hits and timeless songs, like and produced and performed with several icons, including Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Bing Crosby, just to name a few.
As a performer, Russell’s style was one of a kind. The long-haired piano player melded soul, gospel, bluegrass, blues, country and rock and roll into a hybrid style that sounded like a Southern drawl, rolling, vibrant and relaxed. He looked like a cosmic cowboy from outer space. Some called him “The Master of Space and Time.”
Known primarily for his work in rock and roll, Russell also made numerous contributions to country music. He was a session played on Glen Campbell’s 1967 album, Gentle on My Mind. He performed at Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July Picnic in Texas, and later wrote and recorded with the Nelson. In 1979, their remake of “Heartbreak Hotel” went No. 1.
In his later years, Russell performed with Elton John, with whom he mentored and produced in the 1970’s. He also produced Elvis Costello’s 2010 album, “National Ransom.” In 2011, Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Elton John. “He sang, he wrote and he played just how I wanted to do it,” John said of him during his induction ceremony.