Anyone who can write a song that has the word ‘baby’ sung seven times in the chorus, five of them in a row without a hint of irony, possesses some kind of magic. Superstar was actually written with Delaney and Bonnie as a B-side, but was immortalized by The Carpenters reaching No.2 in the US cart in 1971. Leon Russell’s song writing skills didn’t stop there, The Carpenters went on to record two more Russell classics, A Song For You and This Masquerade. Russell went from local band member in Tulsa, Oklahoma to session musician, to songwriter having some early mid-sixties success with Gary Lewis & The Playboys. But it was his song Delta Lady recorded by Joe Cocker in 1969 and produced and arranged by Russell that was his real major breakthrough. Russell’s career in music has had many heights, producer, arranger songwriter, singer and session musician for George Harrison, Badfinger, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Frank Sinatra, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and many others – memorably appearing on the Concert For Bangladesh. He had a No.1 single on the country chart in 1979 with Heartbreak Hotel – a duet with Willie Nelson and he invented a persona (Hank Wilson) to sing country songs. In 2010 Russell toured with Elton John supporting the Union album.
This short overview is a precursor for the release of his latest album, the aptly titled Life Journey. It’s mainly an album of standards, and it takes a soul like Leon Russell to make it work. Opening with Robert Johnson’s Come Into My Kitchen, Russell’s weathered, raspy vibrato is quite spectacular. Sounding something like a cross between Dr. John and Axl Rose, it’s his authenticity that makes the album a success. Funky slide guitar and boogie piano give it life and although Russell had faded away somewhat from the public eye prior to his resurrection with Union and the encouragement of Elton, Russell never lost it, he couldn’t because he has it in spades. Produced by veteran Tommy Lipuma who has worked with Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, George Benson (who recorded This Masquerade ) and many many more – it’s a match made in heaven and Lipuma captures the authenticity perfectly on this album.
The second track is one of the two Russell penned songs on the album and an accompanying video is available. It’s straight ahead nostalgic boogie rock and it’s unlikely to turn an alternative indie follower into a fan, but if this is your bag it’s easy listening boogie will bop you from your BMW to your backyard, unable to turn it off when you turn into your driveway. It’s romantic strings and Jazz will excite any easy listening weekend plans.
Georgia On My Mind, That Lucky Old Sun and Fever, three classic standards in a row, are so easy on the ear and so well produced and arranged that it reminds me of sitting at home watching music my Dad liked on the television when I was sixteen, anxiously waiting for The Old Grey Whistle Test to start. I suppose I couldn’t appreciate Nelson Riddle or Billy May in those days but age has seen me appreciate craft in all areas and it certainly exists here.
The next track, Think Of Me says it all, written by Mike Reid, pro-football player and country singer songwriter (Yes, you heard that right). It’s a moving song like something Willie Nelson might have written with that thin line between bland cliché and poignant and meaningful, capturing whatever it is that makes the difference.
So now it seems like this world has turned on you
The night now burns a deeper shade of blue
It feels there’s nothing left that you can do
Think of me, Remember me
When those you thought were friends have cut and run
So easily forgetting all you’ve done
Cross time and distance battles lost and won
Think of me, Remember me
You were the one that found the best in me
You rescued me from myself
You gave me precious love
That part of you
Remains a part of me
When your weary heart is in retreat
And higher ground is crumbling at your feet
The taste of life now lingers bitter sweet
Promise me you’ll think of me
The one alone and lost I stood accused
You refused to leave my side
Never caring about what you might lose
You were a friend and you’ve always been
When there’s trouble raging at your door
Leaves you wondering what your life’s been for
You won’t have to wonder anymore
Just promise me, You’ll think of me
The Clay-Hamilton Jazz orchestra appears on three tracks of the album, Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia On My Mind, Billy Joel’s New York State Of Mind and Duke Ellington’s, I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good. The swing and swagger perfectly executed by this hot jazz band. New York State Of Mind has the big brassy jazz sound and explosive drumming. One wonders if this might have been suggestd by Elton John as Joel and John performed in a similar series of concerts as John and Russell. Strings appear on I’m afraid This Masquerade is Over and Russell sounds comfortable in all these guises – brash brass, piano ballads, easy listening strings, boogie piano, it all works.
The last third of the album keeps to tradition, I Really Miss You is a Paul Anka song and another soft string romance. (Anka famously wrote the English lyric to Comme d’habitude’ composed in 1967 by Claude François and Jacques Revaux better known as ‘My Way’). Fool’s Paradise is the last of the standards and is more of a bluesy romp, sounds like a Ray Charles song. The album closes with the second Leon Russell composition, Down In Dixieland and it’s New Orleans Trad Jazz.
This is a record that I really like but can’t recommend to anyone because I don’t know anyone that would like it? What I do know is that there’s people out there that love this kind of thing and they would be extremely satisfied with this record. He’s had a magnificent career as a songwriter, session man, producer and arranger, his voice never tires and if this is his last album (there’s been some health scares) then this is a dignified finale. Sincerity, authenticity, expertise and last but not least anyone that played piano on Badfinger’s Day After Day will always be alright by me.