An idol's idol: Leon Russell was major influence on 60s and 70s rock

Leon Russell may not be a household name, but the pianist and songwriter collaborated with many well-known musicians, including B.B. King, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan.

Evan Agostini/AP
Inductee Leon Russell performs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on March 14, 2011 in New York. Russell died on Nov. 12.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician Leon Russell, who died on Sunday, spent much of his musical career in relative obscurity. But the pianist and songwriter was an outsized influence on and collaborator with some of rock's greatest legends.

"He was my biggest influence as a piano player, a singer and a songwriter," Elton John told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Mr. Russell spent much of his early career playing backup piano for groups such as The Monkees, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds, and he wrote numerous songs for acclaimed musicians, including Joe Cocker and the Carpenters. 

In 1968 he released his first album, "Look Inside the Asylum Choir," which he created with musician Marc Benno. His 1970 solo album, which was self-titled and included the song “A Song For You,” featured John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.

His album “Carney” reached the number two spot on the Billboard 200, which records album sales, after being released in 1972. His 1973 album “Leon Live” also did well, reaching the ninth spot on the Billboard 200.

NPR writer Bill Chappell noted the success he had working with others as well, writing, “Russell's talents – and his unique ability to span country and gospel, blues and rock – led him to collaborate with many of the finest musicians of the past 50 years, from Joe Cocker and B.B. King to Elton John and Willie Nelson ... the range of people who recorded his music reflected the breadth of his ability.”

“He is my idol,” Elton John told NPR. Mr. John and Russell had recorded an album, 2010’s “The Union,” together. Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, after recording the album with John. 

Russell released another album after this, 2014’s “Life Journey.” 

Los Angeles Times writer Todd Martens called Russell a “musical bridge builder ... Russell was lauded for swampy rockers ... as well as heart-rending ballads ... His solo works subsequently dug into pop music's Americana roots, exploring country, blues, gospel and jazz.”

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