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Leon Russell at the Wonde
Leon Russell at the Wonder Bar 7/24/09

 

It's truly a special night when a music fan can catch a true rock legend playing locally in a small venue.  Last Friday was one of those special nights when I had the chance to see Leon Russell perform at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park.

 

Leon Russell is one of those special artists whose done it all in a career that spans over 50 years.  He's played rock, blues, country, bluegrass, gospel and even surf records alongside some of the biggest names in music.  Born in Oklahoma in 1942, Leon began piano lessons at 4 and was playing in Tulsa nightclubs by 14.  As a teenager, he was already touring with Jerry Lee Lewis and moved to LA by the time he was 17.  In LA, he joined a group of studio musicians called the  "Wrecking Crew" and played on hundreds of hit records in the Sixties including surf and hot rod tunes.  In 1964, Leon was a member of the house band for Shindig on ABC that showcased the popular music acts of the day.

 

Leon built his own recording studio in 1967 and was one of the founders of Shelter Records.  In 1970, he released his first solo album and just look at the list of Rock's "Who's Who" that played on that seminal album - George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts.  Talk about a back up band.....

 

Leon pulled together and led the band that backed Joe Cocker on the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour in 1971.  The double live album yielded a big hit for Joe Cocker with Leon Russell's song "Delta Lady" and sold over a million copies.

 

Also in 1971,  Leon joined George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan for the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in NYC.  This concert was the first major "charity" event in Rock and predates Live Aid by almost 15 years.  My brother in law Eddie and my wife Kathie were lucky enough to attend that show as young teenagers and what an amazing show it had to be to see live.  Leon Russell's rendition of "Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood" was truly one of the highlights of that show.  It was that live performance that first got my attention to Leon's music when in high school I heard Leon belt out that tune from that Grammy award winning album playing in my friend's basement.  It still gets air time on my IPod... 

 

That brings me back to the Wonder Bar.....when I saw tickets go on sale for Leon Russell, I knew I had to get them and bring Eddie, his wife Debbie and Kathie down to Asbury Park to see if the legend still has it.  Leon walked slowly up on stage aided by a cane....with his long white hair and long white beard, he looked more like Gandalf the Wizard from Lord of the Rings than rock royalty.  He opens the concert with a blistering version of "Jumping Jack Flash" and I knew immediately it was going to be a great show.  His vocals were strong and howlin' as if 1971 was last year.  His band was very tight and all looked at least half his age - Chris Simmons on lead guitar, Jackie Wessel on bass, Brian Lee on keyboards and Brandon Holder on drums.  Leon and his band continued a great set of his own songs like "Delta Lady" and unique interpretations of classics like the Stones "Wild Horses" and Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall".

 

Leon was talkative with the crowd between songs as he looked above his Apple MacBook sitting on his keyboards - no doubt to help him a bit with the lyrics.  Leon mentioned he was in Louisville last week recording a duet with Willie Nelson and bumped into Bob Dylan on his way out.  He said " Hey Bob, haven't seen you in 26 years.....how you been?"  Guess even rock icons have trouble staying in touch with old friends. 

 

Leon Russell finished up a great show and walked slowly back to his tour bus waving to the fans emptying out of the Wonder Bar.  Fortunately for us,  his music showed no signs of slowing down....  

 

 


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