As Jason Ankeny wrote for the All Music Guide: "The ultimate rock & roll session man, Leon Russell's long and storied career includes collaborations with a virtual who's who of music icons spanning from Jerry Lee Lewis to Phil Spector to the Rolling Stones. A similar eclecticism and scope also surfaced in his solo work, which couched his charmingly gravelly voice in a rustic yet rich swamp pop fusion of country, blues and gospel." Couldn't have said it better myself, so I didn't, but I'll add that his voice is definitely an acquired taste and that I've acquired a taste for it, feeling that it fits his material even if it isn't exactly a strength. The album has other strengths, though, including consistently fine original songs and guest appearances from the all-star likes of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jim Gordon, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Joe Cocker (with whom he had gained notoriety by organizing his Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour). I'm not sure exactly who played what, but there certainly is some stellar playing throughout; "Dixie Lullaby," "Shoot Out On The Plantation," "Prince Of Peace," and "Roll Away The Stone" all feature good guitar work, for example, though it's Russell's own rolling, rollicking piano and the female gospel backing vocals that often lead the way. The album has a loose, fun, let's get together and bash this out feel, and fans of any of the aforementioned artists, as well as The Allman Brothers Band (you do like slide guitar, right?), The Band, and Edgar Winter's White Trash should check it out. Cocker may have the definitive version of "Delta Lady," but the version here is damn good as well, and "A Song For You," probably his most famous song, is a memorably slow, sad ballad on which his vocals make up for in ragged emotion what it lacks in technical proficiency (the French horn is a really nice touch as well). Elsewhere, naming new originals after established well-known tunes ("I Put A Spell On You" and "Give Peace A Chance") took balls, but both songs have a gospel-ish party time fervor that enables Russell to earn his arrogance. "Shootout On The Plantation" (dig that wailing slide guitar), "A Song for You", "Hummingbird" (a soulful, soaring ballad), "Delta Lady," and "Roll Away The Stone" are probably this album's standout tracks, but the bluesy, energetic "Hurtsome Body" (get it?) and the surprisingly anthemic "Pisces Apple Lady" are also enjoyable, as are most of these 11 songs (15 on the reissue, including a cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters Of War" set to the melody of the "Star Spangled Banner"), as the album maintains a high quality throughout.
Leon Russell And The Shelter People (Shelter ‘71) Rating: A-
Most people tout his self-titled album as his best (that is if they remember him at all today beyond his association with Joe Cocker and for providing one of the highlights of George Harrison's The Concert For Bangladesh with his medley of "Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood"), but Leon Russell And The Shelter People is every bit as good, maybe better, beginning with "Stranger In A Strange Land," a stirring, soulful mid-tempo ballad with a big gospel chorus that for my money is his best song ever. Other highlights include "Of Thee I Sing" and "Crystal Closet Queen" (a Little Richard tribute, replete with "Tutti Frutti" chants), two up-tempo party tunes on which the feel-good energy is palpable, led by those ever-present uplifting female gospel voices and plenty of hot guitar along with Russell's boogie-based piano grooves. Also notable are "Home Sweet Oklahoma," a slide guitar showcase that pays tribute to his Okie roots, and "Alcatraz," a socially conscious rocker (it's about American Indians) on which the guitars rage (there's more guitar on this album in general, which of course meets with my approval). There's also two Dylan covers, "It's A Hard Rain Gonna Fall" and "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry," both of which are funked up in Russell's own inimitable style, and he also tackles Harrison's "Beware Of Darkness," which he likewise makes his own, imbuing the somber ballad with a brighter, epic feel that makes for a fine finale. It helps that Russell has such excellent musicians at his disposal to produce his alternately laid back and raucous big band sound (Jim Keltner, Roger Hawkins, and Jim Gordon all appear on drums alone!), as again the album has a loose early '70s jam aesthetic along with mostly well-written songs. "Ballad of Mad Dogs" is a world-weary, orchestrated ballad on which Leon revisits the tour that made him famous, "She Smiles Like A River" has a loping country groove that's modest but provides a nice change of pace that's perfect for "chilling out," and "Sweet Emily" is another of his patented piano ballads that oozes soulful emotion, as his voice again delivers enough raw vulnerability to overcome its technical limitations. All in all, I'd characterize most of these difficult-to-classify but easy-to-embrace songs as very good rather than great, but I do like most if not all of them a whole lot (that includes the three Dylan covers added to the reissue), as Leon Russell And The Shelter People is (like Leon Russell) an "overlooked gem" of an album that still sounds fresh, lively, and above all else, fun.
Leon Live (The Right Stuff ‘74) Rating: B+
After Carney, his most commercially successful studio album (a #2 hit, though I think the previous two albums are a bit better), came Leon Live, which is kind of like Mad Dogs And Englishmen but without Joe Cocker. A double album, Leon Live is best consumed is small dosages, as his fire and brimstone preaching and an overabundance of gospel revue styled numbers gets a bit overbearing and exhausting after awhile, though certainly the sky high overall energy and earnestness of these performances is enough to win anybody over. Like the Cocker album, if anything these songs are too fast at times, but I guess you can't blame Leon and his excellent band for getting caught up in the excitement. Unsurprisingly, my favorite songs are the guitar showcases, including "It's Been A Long Time Baby" (a slow, bluesy John Lee Hooker cover), "Alcatraz," and "Prince Of Peace," and certainly the three extended medleys ("Mighty Quinn Medley: I'll Take You There/Idol With The Golden Head/I Serve A Living Savior/The Mighty Quinn," "Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood Medley," "Of Thee I Sing/Yes I Am Medley") stand out, as does Phyllis Lindsay's stellar vocal spotlight on the gospel ballad, "Some Day." Again, this album, 19 songs in all, is really long and not a little draining, but Russell was quite the character (certainly his grizzled, wizard-like appearance made him an unlikely rock star) and most of these songs hold up quite well. Little Richard was probably proud upon hearing "Crystal Closet Queen," "Stanger In A Strange Land" may be a bit more up-tempo but it's still great, and overall once again the good vibes are contagious. Alas, this was as good as it would get for Russell, as his 1973 country album Hank Wilson's Back was ignored by FM radio and his commercial success sank thereafter, though he still records infrequently and his tours are well attended by a cult-like coterie of followers who still appreciate the music of this true American original.
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