Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell has died in Nashville at the age of 74. His wife, Jan, said through an intermediary that the legendary musician and songwriter had passed away in his sleep in Nashville.
Russell “had heart bypass surgery in July and was recovering from that,” his record company tells NPR in confirming Russell’s death. The musician had been hoping to resume touring in January.
A native of Oklahoma, 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.
Russell was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2011, and the range of people who recorded his music reflected the breadth of his ability.
His hit songs include “This Masquerade” — which was recorded by both George Benson and The Carpenters — and “Superstar,” written with Bonnie Bramlett. Others included “Delta Lady” and “A Song For You” — which was recorded by both Andy Williams and Ray Charles.
Back in 2010, Russell embarked on a tour with Elton John, after the pair put out an album together titled The Union. NPR recorded one of their concerts together, from The Beacon Theatre in New York City.
“The evening began with Russell performing six of his classics, beginning with his biggest hit, “Tight Rope.” Then, about 26 minutes in, the duo ran through The Union, hitting a high note with the rowdy ‘Hey Ahab.’ John capped the evening with an hour of his signature hits, which begin around the 1 hour, 33 minute mark after a rousing ovation from the Beacon audience.”
It was another live tour and album — Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen — that Russell used as a breakthrough in his career. In addition to contributing the songs “Delta Lady” and “Superstar” to the album, Russell led the band on the road, wearing a tophat and beard and showing a deep-rooted mastery of soulful music.