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It's Only Rock and Roll-Why Leon Russell Still Matters

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There's a moment in the film of the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh that shows how great rock music can be. Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Leon Russell are singing Dylan's “Just Like A Woman.” All three men join in the chorus, creating an unusual and unique set of harmonies that could probably only occur with those three voices. It's a transcendent moment that kept me in a theater in downtown Frankfurt am Main for most of a day in 1972 as I watched the film over and over again until the usher asked me to leave before the evening shows began. There's a performance of “That's the Way God Planned It” by Billy Preston that is probably the most rocking song in the original film and the version of the Beatles' tune “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is typically emotive but it's that chorus that keeps me coming back to this film.

Russell and Preston had more in common than their roles as accompanists to some of the biggest names in rock music. Their vocal inflections were gospel through and through, despite their different backgrounds. Russell was born in Oklahoma and was playing Tulsa nightclubs by the time he was fourteen. From there he went on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis. By the mid 1960s he had backed up dozens of bands as a studio musician working for Phil Spector. Preston was born in Los Angeles in 1946 and was playing piano for gospel greats Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland by the time he was ten. By the time he was in his late teens he was a member of the Shindig television show house band. A few years later he was playing with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Right now I am listening to Russell's self-titled 1972 album by Russell and his band The Shelter People. This title is quite probably taken from the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name. For those unfamiliar with that work, it is the story of a human raised by Martians and brought back to earth where he begins a religion based on love and nonviolence only to be met with persecution and eventual death. The opening song on the album is written by Russell and also titled “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It begins with the image of a newborn baby confused upon its arrival on the planet and ends with a plea to reorder our priorities and “stop racing towards oblivion.” Listen to the children sing. Russell's classic rock piano honed in the hellfire of Jerry Lee Lewis and perfected while on tour with the British working class interpreter of rock and roll Joe Cocker in what was known as the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour backs up this holy song. The lead guitarist Jesse Davis—one of very few Native American lead guitarists in the history of rock—matches the plaintive gospel sounds of Russell and moves this song into the astral choir loft.

Russell's interpretation of Bob Dylan's songs is unique. He is one of the few artists that not only captures the always present subterranean subtext of Dylan's work but makes that subtext even darker and edgier. The Shelter People disc has four such renditions. The one that echoes quite hauntingly in my mind is his version of “It's a Hard Rain Gonna' Fall.” Shortened by a couple of verses, Russell's version on the disc moves this eerie telling of an apocalypse beyond the prescient gloominess of Dylan's many versions and pushes the telling to a circle of hell that is at once far, far away yet right inside your heart. There is no escape from that rain and just in case you didn't understand this when Mr. Dylan told you about it, Leon Russell is gonna' make sure you get it.

Six of the other tunes here are by Russell himself and run the gamut from a lilting love song called “She Smiles Like a River” to the rockers “Of Thee I Sing” and “Alcatraz.” The latter is a song about the takeover of the closed-down prison by American Indian Movement activists and others in 1970. Also thrown in the mix is a tribute to Little Richard that steals his licks and rocks the house down and the title song from the self-titled movie made about the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour referred to above. This is an often overlooked album by one of North America's greatest musical interpreters and rock and roll pianists.

As evidenced by the song “Alcatraz,” Russell was occasionally political, especially in his earlier work. Two song that were favorites with some of my GI friends back in 1970-1973 were the anti-military/antiwar “Down On the Base” and “Ballad For A Soldier” from Russell's first Asylum Choir album. The first is a bouncy ditty that ridicules the overused bumpersticker slogan “Freedom Isn't Free.” In fact, as Russell tells it, “My life's a small price to pay/To teach those commies the American way.” When it's over, the GI telling the story in Russell's song states sarcastically that he'll get a dollar of his fingers and two dollars for his eyes. How nice it might be if he could see the freedom he was fighting for, but he can't because the war took his sight. “Ballad For A Soldier” is told from the perspective of a young man who finds himself a soldier on trial for murdering babies because he believed in all the lies about the glory and honor of war, Russell's tune tells the familiar tale of the lack of truth in those lies. Like its literary contemporary Born On the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic and its historical equivalent of My Lai, “Ballad For A Soldier” should be required listening for every person thinking of joining Washington's current wars. “We're all little children playing grown-up games,' sings Russell. “can we burn the gun before the next time comes?”

Back to that moment in the film. Dylan has an acoustic guitar, Leon Russell has an electric bass and Harrison has an electric guitar. Three men playing a song that the audience recognizes with applause even before Dylan has finished singing the first word. This time around he's playing it in a slowed down countrified version. It's a song about women and love. The next song in the film is Harrison's “Something,” also about love. Then comes the reason for the show—the song “Bangladesh.” The all-star revue plays the song with the assumption that there work will go towards helping the people of Bangladesh in their struggle to survive war and weather. Somewhere between those hopes and the country of Bangladesh, money men took most of the cash for themselves. That, too, is rock and roll.

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Ron Jacobs is a writer, library worker and anti-imperialist. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American (more...)
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