LEON RUSSELL: ACTUALLY, I’M A MAGICIAN
photo by ward robinson
Leon Russell is the Okie Trojan Horse of rock ‘n’ roll music—he dropped acid with Willie Nelson, played the piano intro on ‘Strangers In The Night,’ wrote Gary Lewis’ ‘This Diamond Ring’ and made Elton John cry into his Adidas tracksuit. He grew up in the piano bars of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then made his way deep into the underbelly of the recording industry in Los Angeles, all the while faking that he could actually read music. In the thought-lost but just-released film A Poem Is A Naked Person by the late Les Blank, you get to see the most laconic man in the business—except for when he once stood on top of his piano and shouted down Phil Spector—eat BBQ, preach for twelve minutes and reveal the true connection between Hank Williams and the Lord Jesus Christ’s gospel choir. A Poem Is A Naked Person screens tonight at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel with a Q&A with Leon and Harrod Blank, moderated by T-Bone Burnett, with further screenings at Cinefamily. This interview by Nick Waterhouse.
Your BBQ entrance is the first thing we see when you enter your own film, and I was so blown away by your ease on stage. I wanted to congratulate you for my favorite filmic entrance in any music documentary. You come up with a paper plate and there’s two minutes of it resting on top of the piano while you play—that’s some of the realest I’ve seen. I imagine ten minutes later you push the mic back and take another barbecue break.
Leon Russell: Well, I didn’t get to eat!
Watching the film, I understood that everything might just come from somewhere between Hank Williams and the sanctified church. That was something I always heard in all your tunes, but I felt this was a real accurate—
Leon Russell: —expose?
—well, a documentation of what I was trying to get as a listener of what the feel was at the time. Watching now, do you feel this is a far reflection?
Leon Russell: I think so. I went to my grandmother’s house one time. She was a very elegant lady, and she was doing her hair in the bathroom. It came down and hit the floor and went over about six or seven feet, and she wore it in a bun. So while she was messing with her hair, I went into her bedroom and she had a little phonograph record by her bed and it had a little record on there called ‘Blood On Your Hands.’ I said, ‘Lord, grandma’s listening to murder songs?’ I played that record, and it said, ‘Is there bloooood / upon your hands? Do you daily take his holy name in vain? / By the very fact you do / you can crucify him too / and in evil life you’ll never cleanse the stain.’ I said, ‘Lord, help! I’m a hillbilly!’ And that was my first knowledge of what the family music background was.
That seems to run all the way to present day—‘Blood On Your Hands.’ I hear that in a lot of your work, from the very beginning.
Leon Russell: Not really from the very beginning. I didn’t know anything about hillbilly music until I was bringing the car back to Tulsa from California. I never played any bands or any of that stuff. I always played piano bars, played ‘April In Paris’ and that kinda music. But I was bringing the car back to Tulsa and one of these truck stops, they had thousands of cassettes. They was three dollars apiece. Hillbilly cassettes. We’d always talk to the studio in L.A. about the guys from Nashville and how they were always ready to play—they’d talk three or four minutes, write some stuff out on a piece of paper and we’d play it. They were always ready, they said. I said, well, I’m always ready! I gotta go down there and play with those guys.
How’d you get out here to L.A.?
Leon Russell: It was a Greyhound bus. I was 17 and I got on a Greyhound bus and got down to L.A. I supposedly had a job at a place in Torrance called The Golden Arms. I went out and got in a cab and said, ‘I wanna go to the Golden Arms.’ And he said, ‘Where’s that?’ ‘In Torrance.’ ‘Where’s that?’ And I said oh Lord, I’m in trouble. He said, ‘See that bus over there? Go get on that bus and put in 50 cents and they’ll take you to Torrance, and then you ask somebody where it is.’ I just got off the boat, so to speak.
Where’d you stay?
Leon Russell: If I was lucky, I might’ve stayed a night at the Travelodge. The rest of the time, I was at people’s houses. I used to go to the Palomino all the time and Curtis Lee was the bass player for a guy who’d been there for years named Gene Davis, and he quit and got that job over at the El Rancho Grande and got James Burton to play guitar and me to play piano and that’s where I met James. James played for a month or two and then got a job with Bob Lumin in Vegas when Bob had that record ‘Let’s Think About Livin.’
Did you ever cross paths with Mose Allison? Or the Coasters?
Leon Russell: I went to see Mose down at Shelly’s Manne-hole. The thing about Mose … the songs he sang were blues songs, but his piano playing was jazz, like Art Tatum or something. Very strange. I could never figure it out. All the songs he sang were blues and all the stuff he played was not.
You did ‘Smashed,’ one of my favorite tunes of his.
Leon Russell: I just love all his tunes. I saw Bill Evans at the Manne-hole too. I always felt like I didn’t hear the music if I couldn’t sit down and play it after I heard it. Bill Evans was so far above my head. I saw him play for about 45 minutes, then he took a break and never came back. I never met the Coasters either, but I always thought they were cool, in a way.
What’s the first time you heard ‘Young Blood’?
Leon Russell: Probably when I was a teenager—probably at the Circle Theatre. I saw The Girl Can’t Help It there. It was a hangout. They had those kind of movies, and not many other people did. I played standards a lot then. I didn’t really play much rock ‘n’ roll in Tulsa. I did play a little bit.
Did you meet Willie Nelson in L.A.?
Leon Russell: I played on a record of his—
–the Liberty stuff? Those are my favorite Willie tunes.
Leon Russell: —yeah! It was some publisher putting a piano player—me—on there. I was sitting down at Willie’s house in Austin, and Willie swears he was there but he was not there. Cuz if he’d been there and I’d have met him, I’d have remembered. It would’ve been a big deal to me. But he wasn’t. There was this guy whose name I can’t think of—a country music guy—I was sitting with Willie in his house and I was like, ‘That guy’s playing my stuff!’ And I listened to some more—‘Oh, that’s me!’ And then I remembered the session.
I grew up listening to that not understanding why the groove was different than Nashville records. I thought it was a Nashville record for the longest time.
Leon Russell: It was a Nashville record.
But it was all you in L.A. playing on it.
Leon Russell: As far as I know, I was the only one. They cut it in Nashville and took my piano—I was unaware if any other guys played on it.
I’ve been spending all this time thinking it was Earl Palmer drumming.
Leon Russell: It could’ve been, I don’t know. The first time I remember meeting [Willie], he came to one of my shows in Houston. He was out in the front row of the audience watching the whole show, and he came and introduced himself. And I went to his show in Albuquerque the next night. He was traveling in a motorhome about the size of the one I’ve got for sale—if anybody needs a small motorhome?—and he had his whole band in there. About ten or twelve of him. This motorhome was built for two. I met him there and he came to Albuquerque and we just kinda hung around, and he came to Tulsa to my house.
Was Waylon hanging around then to?
Leon Russell: No but a funny thing about it—Herb Alpert called me up one day and said, ‘I want you to come help me—I found this singer in Phoenix, he’s kind of a hillbilly singer and I want you to come help me.’ I went down to Radio Recorders Annex and of course Herb, you know, he’s a dynamo. He’s got his own drum, so to speak. He’d come over to me and say, ‘I can’t quite get this, what do you think?’ ‘Well, do this and do that.’ He’d go do that—or wouldn’t do it, more often than not—and I come to find out it was Waylon Jennings. He’d picked him up in Phoenix and brought him to try and make a star out of him.
Were you the first call guy when somebody like Herb Alpert was like, ‘We got a hillbilly here!’?
Leon Russell: Yeah—Herb called me a lot! I don’t know if I was first call. Some guys called me for classical music. Bob Costa called me when I played with Johnny Mathis. He didn’t like to write the piano parts. He brought me a little simple melody line and chords and say, ‘Play classical here, play blues here.’ And I’d just make up some stuff to play it. I’d much rather they did that then try and write it out. There was a writer from New York City named Stu Phillips who heard me play one night: ‘Oh, I’m so glad I heard you play! You’re the guy I need from for my Hollyridge Beatles string collection!’ He had sixty strings and writing Beatles songs. I said, ‘Well, Stu, I don’t read well. If you need reading, you gotta call Lincoln Mayorga—he’s your reading guy, not me.’ He was trying to act like I was being falsely modest and I said, ‘No, that’s absolutely incorrect. If I could do it, I’d tell you, but I’m not your guy.’ I later met Lincoln Mayorga. He came to one of my shows and I was so amazed. He came rather a long way—a hundred miles—to see me. He said, ‘Yeah, Stu Phillips—I used to write some of his piano parts for him.’ He was so magnificent. He told me about a session we were on some time, together. Both of us. They wanted an arpeggio on the front of the record, so they said, ‘Lincoln, play an arpeggio!’ and he said, ‘I played an arpeggio, a perfect arpeggio.’ ‘And Leon, you play one.’ And I played one. And the guy said, ‘Well, I think we’ll take Leon’s.’ But I had this fake stuff—these tricks from being paralyzed at birth! I played one of my fake arpeggios.
How do you mean fake?
Leon Russell: I’m an illusionist. I give the illusion of being a great piano player, but actually I’m a magician. If it’s my own playing, I do good. But the guy who wrote the Christmas song—‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …’—he heard me play and said, ‘You’re the guy! I need you for this!’ So he got me on this session and he’d written all the stuff he heard me play and he wanted me to play it on Hammond organ. I said, ‘Look, I’m not an organ player, I can’t read—even though you heard me play this stuff, I don’t know what it looks like on paper.’ It’s hard to tell ‘em that stuff. I guess they didn’t wanna believe me. In Stu Philips case, I was sitting there with 60 musicians and I couldn‘t play it. He insisted I take it. The page was black with notes. I said, ‘Stuart, I can’t even experience this in my mind, much less play it.’ And he tried to play it and he couldn’t play it. I told him he should’ve called Lincoln.
There’s a quote from you I read as a teenager and it stuck with me a long time. You said, ‘Economics and politics are false sciences.’ Someone was asking you right when you were starting Shelter. You said they’re based on poor communication.
Leon Russell: That’s great stuff—I’m not sure who wrote that or said it cuz it doesn’t sound like me. But maybe I did?
I could see that in the way you were operating. Part of what was so fascinating for me about the film was the notion of you going back to Oklahoma. You went inside to get out—you’re like the Okie Trojan horse of L.A. music to me.
Leon Russell: Thank you, I appreciate that.
You do your deal with Danny and work with people like Freddy King, run your own TV—it’s this crazy great American independence that I felt was reflected in that quote. I hate getting asked about things I said in the past, but that was something philosophically I think I see threaded you the film. This wild independence. You talked too about running the Mad Dogs tour as a collective. I dug that it wasn’t overtly political, but it was also a way to remove yourself from the machines of capital. You were doing your own thing.
Leon Russell: It just seemed to me that there were so many Stepford people in the entertainment business. Like that Republican guy, leader of the house—he’s a Stepford guy. Mitt Romney, Stepford. I always get nervous when I see those Stepford champions that they’re gonna get elected as political figures because whether or not they know anything doesn’t make any difference. It’s just how Stepford they are—how politically visually correct they are.
How Stepford were they in the music industry? You built your Sky Hill studio here early on—you were already starting to distance yourself from having to rely on a system.
Leon Russell: Truth be known, I was pretty much scared whenever I was about to go in the studio and the red light would go on. I was real nervous about whether or not I’d be able to play it. So I wanted to build my own studio and practice being in there so I wouldn’t be so nervous. I was still nervous when I went down there and the red light was on. It was the idea—I thought maybe if I lived in one, I wouldn’t be so threatened by them.
Did surrounding yourself with people like Snuff Garrett set you at ease? I know you did a bunch of work with him.
Leon Russell: He actually drove me nuts.
I heard he was a big gambler and a hustler.
Leon Russell: He did all that stuff. I don’t wanna talk bad about the barely living … he had very weird musical taste and I always wondered what my life would’ve been like if I’d met Cheech Marin first instead of Snuff Garrett.
When did you meet Cheech Marin?
Leon Russell: Sometime in the past. He was a great guy, though.
You got any Bobby Keys stories? Did he drive you nuts?
Leon Russell: I got a million of ‘em. I try not to be driven as much as possible. I try to do my own driving. I’ve heard a lot of stories about him that I didn’t have anything to do with, cuz he got the job with the Rolling Stones—him and Jim Price—primarily cuz Jagger saw him in the Mad Dogs And Englishmen movie. Jim Price told me a lot of stories about him going to restaurants when he was on the road with the Stones and running up $60,000 champagne bills.
So you got lucky.
Leon Russell: I consider myself lucky.
As a bandleader and producer and arranger, it’s keeping a lot of plates spinning.
Leon Russell: It’s a weird thing, you know? Herb Alpert was a friend of mine and he is a friend of mine, and I used to come down when they had their little office on the Sunset Strip. There’s boxes of product—Tijuana Brass was hitting real big. There was more merchandise than there was employees in there. And he came to see me when I was leading that band, after he’d bought Charlie Chaplin’s studio—I’ve used that big room over there to rehearse the band—and he said, ‘This is so amazing to me—I’ve been around you for years and you never said anything, and suddenly you’re doing this!’
Did you get that a lot? I get the impression you got that a lot.
Leon Russell: Well, yeah. When I was playing on people’s records, I attempted to keep my mouth shut and do the job. But when I was doing it … I mean, I know how to do that. That’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always been a band leader. Sometimes when they hired me to play piano, they didn’t want me to do that routine.
And you played guitar as well?
Leon Russell: I try to play guitar. I do a bad Albert King imitation.
Did you take lessons from James Burton?
Leon Russell: I did but he didn’t know it. I watched him like a cat. He was great and then some. Back in those days, there wasn’t any Ernie Ball—specifically gauged strings. James told me when he started playing, he bought an A banjo string at the drug store and he used that in this way, and he bought a different kind of string and used it this way … he told me how he strung his guitar. He told me a lot of stuff. Also he was always very big on—he’d play me his new record with Merle Haggard or whoever he was playing with and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Listen to this!’ Make sure I heard all of it. Usually we’d be riding around in one of his Cadillacs. James was my idol, musically and sort of just historically.
Was that who you ended up with when you first came to L.A.?
Leon Russell: I ended up in a band with James out in the San Fernando Valley—me and James and a guy named Curtis Lee who was a bass player at the Palomino and a drummer I can’t remember. I was a pretty bad drunk when I was a teenager, and in those clubs, that was the first chance I had to get drinks, and I’d get drunk on my ass every night and they’d carry me back to my hotel which was a couple blocks away. James’d come pick me up the next day and take me down to see Ricky Nelson who he was playing with at that time, take me out to eat, take care of me.
I heard a rumor Tommy Tedesco talked about taking you on tour as a revival preacher.
Leon Russell: There’s one period of time where we’re playing a Phil Spector session, and I had a trumpet player named Roy Katin who was my copyist for all my writing for orchestras. We’re sitting there together and he suggested we go to the liquor store next door to get something to drink. So I got a bottle of apricot brandy and drank all of it and was drunk on my ass, and ended up standing on top of the piano yelling at Phil Spector. After that Tommy came over to my house the next day, and told me he wanted to take me on the road as an evangelical preacher. Said he’d buy the tent, pay all the expenses. All I had to do was get up there and do the same thing again.
I see a little of that in the film. There’s a lot of standing, preaching—it carried over.
I try not to do that too much anymore.
DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK AND CINEFAMILY PRESENT A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON WITH Q&A WITH LEON RUSSELL ON WED., JULY 8, AT THE THEATRE AT THE ACE HOTEL, 929 S. BROADWAY, DOWNTOWN. DOORS AT 7 PM / SCREENING 9 PM / $18-$35 / MORE INFO HERE. ENCORE SCREENINGS BEGIN FRIDAY, JULY 10, AT CINEFAMILY AT THE SILENT MOVIE THEATRE, 611 N. FAIRFAX, LOS ANGELES. MORE INFO HERE.