In the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Leon Russell made the leap from session pianist to solo artist, his goal was to write songs that would eventually be considered standards.
He’s met that goal more than once over the course of his 40-plus year solo career. One of his best known songs, “A Song For You,” originally released on his self-titled 1970 debut, has been covered by over 40 different artists, including collaborator Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, The Temptations, Mavis Staples, Christina Aguilera (with Herbie Hancock) and Donny Hathaway.
“This Masquerade,” the B-side of Russell’s 1972 single “Tight Rope,” has seen similar success over the years, with Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson (another collaborator over the years) and The Carpenters all recording or performing versions.
Russell clearly knows how to write an enduring song — something he learned in part during his days in the group of go-to session musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew” in the ’50s and ’60s. But to this day, he can’t explain it in words.
Leon Russell, with Jonathan Edwards
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $29.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“I had a guy that played saxophone for Tower of Power and wrote all the songs [Emilio Castillo] say to me once, ‘I’ve had 12 number one records, but nobody else ever cut these songs. How do you get all those people to record your songs?’ ” Russell said recently from a tour stop in Ridgefield, Conn. The month-long tour heads to The Egg on Friday night.
“And I couldn’t really tell him. I didn’t have a huge publishing force behind me. . . . I don’t know; I don’t know how to verbalize it. But I did set out at a certain point to write standards.”
At age 71, the gravel-voiced singer is experiencing a late career resurgence thanks to his 2010 collaboration with old friend Elton John, “The Union.” The album, Russell’s first for the Decca label after a string of self-released albums in the 2000s and his highest-charting record since 1972’s “Carney,” earned him and John a Grammy nomination in 2011 for the song “If It Wasn’t For Bad,” and ended up in Rolling Stone’s list of 30 Best Albums of 2010, coming in at No. 3.
Russell has seen the effects of the partnership first hand at his shows.
“Elton was a huge help in sort of elevating my profile, exposing me to people who didn’t know about me — it’s gotten better, so he was successful in his efforts, and I’m very appreciative,” Russell said.
“[But] it’s difficult to say — I’ve always had kind of a mixed bag when it comes to my audience. There’s a lot of young people, a lot of old people, human beings of every description.”
So far, Russell hasn’t been playing any songs from “The Union” on this tour. However, he may start — his longtime band, featuring bassist Jackie Wessel, drummer Brandon Holder and multi-instrumentalist Beau Charron, knows the material.
Reminder of lyrics
Russell just needs some help with the words — these days, he utilizes a computer as a Teleprompter to help him remember his lyrics.
“I used to use cards; I would lay them down on top of the piano, but they were hard to use,” he said. “I’m old, you see. One of the things that happens — it’s not a steel trap as it once was. I forget the words to my own songs, some that I’ve sung many times, so it’s nice to have that reminder.”
This is in contrast to John. “He seems to remember everything he writes, indefinitely, and he remembers it immediately,” Russell said. “I usually write with a computer, and if I play something off the top of my head I have to refer back to the recording to remember it from the second verse. I don’t have that album memory.”
When John first contacted Russell about recording an album together, the two musicians hadn’t spoken in 35 years. Russell, who was a major influence on John, had initially tried to sign John to his record label Shelter Records in the 1970s. The two musicians went on to perform a handful of concerts together.
“We were trying to get Elton for Shelter; we missed him by two weeks,” Russell said. “He actually didn’t know about that either — in an interview we did together I mentioned it, and he was amazed he didn’t know about it. We hadn’t spoken for quite a long time, but he opened for me for about three shows right when he first started, in there. I thought my career was probably over — yeah, he was a very exciting performer.”
The two pianists, along with John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, wrote the album’s 14 tracks together. Producer T. Bone Burnett recorded the duo live, preserving the natural chemistry of the two songwriters.
“Bernie Taupin told me — he said, ‘This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.’ He says, ‘He [John] never lets anybody watch him write.’ He’d never seen that,” Russell said.
“He’s quite quick. We used a piece of a Mighty Hannibal song — we used a chorus, and so I wrote — I asked him to write a melody for the verse. . . . In about five minutes he wrote it, that was it — ‘Now write some words to it.’ About five minutes later, we had it done. He is a very fast writer; I enjoyed writing with him.”
Russell’s next two albums, both of which have been recorded but not yet released, are also collaborations with important figures from his past. The first was recorded with producer Tommy LiPuma, who produced George Benson’s 1976 version of Russell’s “This Masquerade.” The second is a new collaboration with Nelson, a sequel of sorts to the duo’s 1979 album “One For the Road.”
“It was interesting — we picked a time to do it, and he wanted T. Bone Burnett to do it, but with my schedule and T. Bone’s schedule, we could never get it together,” Russell said. “But he said he really wanted to do it. So I said, ‘Well, you pick out the standard songs that you want to do, let me figure out the key; I’ll cut you a track with my vocal, send it to you and you can pick out the vocal parts you want to do.’ So we actually kind of did it over the phone, but I like it a lot.”