NEW YORK (Reuters) - Leon Russell toiled in obscurity for decades, until recording with Elton John brought him an unlikely hit, but says he was never bitter his fame disappeared because that’s just what happens to aging rockers.
“I didn’t start out to become famous, so when it disappeared I thought, well, that happens sometimes,” Russell told Reuters in an interview in New York where he was inducted last week into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “It does happen.”
Wearing dark sunglasses with a long gray beard and hair, the musician known for his gravelly voice and blues-influenced piano playing admitted his distaste of the media was no help.
“I was avoiding the press, I really didn’t like doing (interviews), so that more than anything is what it was,” he said. “I didn’t like to talk to people who didn’t really know me and didn’t care about me.”
A session musician who throughout the 1960s played on countless records made by everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys, Russell is best known as Joe Cocker’s bandleader and won critical acclaim and commercial success for his early 1970s solo records.
“I have never been off stage for the past 50 years,” said Russell, known for writing such rock classics as “Delta Lady” and “A Song For You.”
At the height of his fame in the 1970s, Russell filled arenas. As his fame waned, he played small nightclubs.
“I was used to playing in front of 20,000 and then with only 300 seats, the audience was right up in my face,” he said. “That took a bit of getting used to. It was different to what I was used to, but they all have their charms.”
That all changed when Elton John called unexpectedly to invite him to record an album. The resulting album “The Union” was released in 2010 and has revived Russell’s career. The album peaked at No. 3 on U.S. album charts, his first hit since his 1979 album “One for the Road” with Willie Nelson.
“It’s a wonderful thing, it’s all up to Elton,” said Russell of the accolades which followed, including induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. “I am very thankful.”
A documentary of the recording of the album, directed by Cameron Crowe, will show on HBO in January.
Now, the 69-year old who has played live since he was 14 is back touring in larger venues, including many shows this summer with Bob Dylan. And he says he plans a solo album although, “I can’t tell what the album is going to be like because I only have one song.”
Indeed, Russell isn’t one for talking about plans. “I am going to make millions of dollars and have a castle and ride into space,” he said sarcastically. “I am happy with what comes, I don’t have expectations of any stature.”
But ask him about the musicians he has known and he lights up.
“I would have to say Sam Cooke is the one I admired most,” he said when asked who was the best he ever played with. “His artistry and vocal, just the way he did it. I had never heard anybody sing like he sang and still haven’t.”
That’s no small compliment since the list of Russell’s recording appearances reads like a who’s who of rock royalty.
Among others, he contributed to the records of Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison, Doris Day, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Sinatra, Dylan, Cocker, The Rolling Stones and was also in Phil Spector’s studio group.
Russell recalled his first recording session with Joe Cocker, asking after the session if the Englishman cared to hear some songs Russell had written for him, among them “Delta Lady” which became one of his signature songs.
“I played them for him and Joe had this astonished look on his face. He said, ‘So you’re sitting there quietly playing for this whole time and now you do this? It’s an entirely different thing,’” he said, recalling telling Cocker, “Well it is — when you are playing for somebody, you keep your mouth shut and you do what you are told. Performing, that’s a different thing.”
And just like he’s not one for talking about plans, Russell doesn’t much like talking about any regrets either.
“I wish I had gone into industrial plumbing,” he said, adding just in case his meaning was missed, “That’s a joke.”