Tail of the Weak 1.18
Updated: Jan 24
Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
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 And when my life is over --- Remember when we were together We were alone and I was singing my song for you
- “A Song For You” by Leon Russell
My good friend and former boss man at Crosstown Music, Paul Lee, was home for the Christmas holidays in 2014. We were enjoying each others company at a Waycross bar when he leaned over and asked me if I would like to open some shows for Leon Russell the next month.
I've been a fan of Leon's music since the early Seventies. Through the years, he has exemplified brilliance, humility, and grace in a long life of music.
Claude Russell Bridges was born April 2, 1942 in Lawton, Oklahoma. By the age of 14, he was playing in Tulsa nightclubs with a group called the Starlighters, which included J. J. Cale.
In 1958, he packed up and headed to Los Angeles, where he gained a spot as a first-call studio musician with the Wrecking Crew, the top L.A. session musicians of the Sixties. Through the years, Leon's piano playing and music arranging skills were heard on records by the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, The Band, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and many, many more.
Russell was a gifted songwriter as well, co-writing “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She's Just My Style”, Top Ten hits for Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965. In '69, his song, “Delta Lady”, was recorded by Joe Cocker, with whom he helped organize and perform on the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and album.
He created his own record company, Shelter Records, operating from 1969 to 1981, with offices in L.A. and Tulsa. Shelter Records released his first solo album, Leon Russell, in '70, which included one of his best-known and most-recorded hits, “A Song For You”. Over 40 artists have covered the timeless classic, including The Carpenters, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse.
“Groupie (Superstar)” was a co-write with Bonnie Bramlett that was also covered many times over, but most-popularly by The Carpenters, who took “Superstar” up the charts to Number 2 in 1971.
1971 was a busy year for Mr. Russell, producing and playing on the Bob Dylan singles, “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”.
That's Leon and his piano on Badfinger's big hit, “Day After Day”. In August of '71, at George Harrison's invitation, he performed an incredible show-stopping medley of the Stones's “Jumpin' Jack Flash” and The Coasters' “Young Blood” at the Concert for Bangladesh in New York City.
In 1976, he left Shelter Records to start his own record label, Paradise Records, and released Wedding Album, with his wife at the time, Mary Russell, formerly Mary McCreary, backup singer for Sly and the Family Stone. A beautiful and richly-textured album of harmony and soul, this is still one of my favorites.
From the Seventies on, I don't think Leon knew what is was like to be off the road. A constant touraholic, in '92 he was scheduled to play in Jacksonville, Florida at Magnolia's Beach and Barbecue, a low-slung eatery with a dive bar atmosphere. My kinda place!
My future wife, Lynne, and I had worked the graveyard shift at the Waycross Post Office, got off at 11:30 that morning, and headed to Jacksonville. We slept in the parking lot outside Magnolia's and woke up to see Leon's bus parked next to the club.
In those years, he was traveling as a 3-piece group with a small equipment trailer in tow. I was thrilled to help roll his piano, which disassembled into two sections, into the bar and help set it up.
Eventually, Leon ambled off the bus and we greeted him with, “Hey, we're from Gram Parsons's hometown, Waycross, Georgia”! He nodded and smiled as he autographed my old Leon album, and graciously allowed us to snap a couple of treasured pics with him. We caught him again a year later at Magnolia's, with good friends, Coy Crews, Tom Alderman, Sharon Gillis, and Deb Rouse. It would be 16 years before Leon and I crossed paths again.
In 1998, I organized an informal backyard gathering of local musicians that evolved into the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival. We have had the likes of Charlie Louvin, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Bernie Leadon, Ian Dunlop, Phil Kaufman, Kevn Kinney, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Jim Lauderdale, Jimmy Hall and the Capricorn Rhythm Section, Walter Egan, Jay Farrar, Jim White, Daniel Romano, and Fayssoux Starling grace the stage as headliners for the yearly event.
In early 2009, I started a series of conversations with Leon's booking agent, Zach Jiles. It came to pass, on September 18, Leon Russell, in a white cowboy hat and a Hawaiian shirt, poured his heart out to a Waycross audience, who hung on every word.
Lamar Deal introduced the legendary music man and band—Brandon Holder, Brian Lee, Chris Simmons, and Jackie Wessel. Leon sang and told tales about Gram Parsons, like this one.
Sometime in the 60s, Gram purchased a green silk top hat in L.A.; and, after wearing it for a while, he bestowed it as a gift to Leon. Leon wore it proudly throughout the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
He then told the crowd, “That hat had been worn, sat on, puked on, and stepped on through the years. One day, I happened to notice a tag sticking out of the inside hat band. I looked closer and read the words, 'MGM 1938, Al Jolson, the Jazz Singer'. So I was in tall cotton there for a minute”.
The man had certainly had some tall cotton moments during his illustrious career; but, by the new millennium, he had become a forgotten star, except for those of us who could never forget, including one of his biggest fans, Sir Elton John, who said, “Leon was my biggest influence as a piano player, a singer and a songwriter. When Mr. Russell's Greatest Hits album came on one day during my trip, I started to cry, it moved me so much. His music takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life; and, it makes me so angry that he's been forgotten”.
Elton and Leon collaborated on The Union, a double album project in 2010, that put Mr. Russell back in the spotlight once again. On March 14, 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and, Elton John was there to present the award.
Paul Lee closed the doors to his Crosstown Music Store in Waycross in October 2008 and moved to Athens, Georgia. He opened PL Pro Audio, a sound engineering outfit, providing professional audio, lighting, and portable staging.
In 2013, a buddy of his called with the news that Leon Russell had just fired his sound man; and, if Paul was smart, he would get his rear end to Nashville before the day was done. He did, Leon hired him, and Paul started work on October 1. He quickly gained Leon's respect and was soon handling the duties of road manager as well.
Without Paul Lee, I would have never realized a dream come true—opening six shows for Leon Russell in January 2015. Not that I had ever envisioned it; but, now that it was an option—well, pinch me—please!
The first two shows were in Atlanta at Terminal West, followed by dates in Ponte Vedra Beach, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Clearwater. The audiences were the same at all the shows—mainly 50-70 year olds, with some musically savvy younger folks scattered in. All dedicated fans—Leon Lifers.
Leon's entourage traveled by bus most of the time; but, due to a breakdown in Alabama, they were hauling around in a passenger van and sleeping in hotels until the bus was ready.
The night of the Ponte Vedra Show, the Leon tour bus—good as new again—arrived from Alabama. Leon's guitar player, Beau Charron, and drummer, Brandon Holder, gave their hotel room, at the Hilton, to me and Lynne, opting for their familiar bunks on the bus.
The next morning, my wife left the hotel room for ice, dressed in a purple mumu, with last night's makeup still on, when Leon came rolling out of his room right in front of her. In a moment of sheer fan exuberance, she approached his Jazzy scooter and gushed, “Leon, I have loved you my whole life! I mean, your music, that is”.
He smiled, touched her on the forearm, and said, “It's nice to know that my music is still bein' appreciated by beautiful women”. Talk about tall cotton moments! I could scarcely talk to her the rest of the tour.
Leon was not a real talkative man; and, the few times I had been in his presence, our conversations probably totaled three minutes. Paul Lee told me that, while in the dressing room, behind the stage at Terminal West as I was performing, Leon asked him, “Does that feller write all them songs he's playin'?” Paul said, “Yep. He's got a ton of 'em”, to which Leon replied, “Hmmm”. And I'll take that tall cotton moment with me to my grave.
July of this year, Paul had me scheduled to open again for an eight show run, beginning in Key West and ending in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Five days before the first show, Paul called to say that Leon was having some heart issues. On the following Monday, he was scheduled for quadruple bypass heart surgery, which he came through like a champ.
The shows were postponed until the end of the year; and, Leon was on a healthy course of physical rehabilitation to gain back his touring form. The road was calling again.
Sometime in the wee hours of November 13, 2016, Leon Russell died peacefully in his sleep. His story ended as it should. A man who was celebrated and loved by millions of people. A life of music and songs that brought happiness and joy to those who would listen.
There is a beautiful white piano, with a vacant bench, left here on Earth; but, in Heaven, the Tulsa Sound is rockin' the streets of gold. Leon Russell is truly now, the Master of Space and Time.
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REFERENCES Wikipedia Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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