By Gilbert Garcia
Back in 1998, I spent an afternoon at the Arizona ranch of famed record producer Snuff Garrett, reflecting on his lengthy career. Garrett produced six number-one hits, worked with everyone from Phil Spector to Frank Sinatra, and was close pals with Buddy Holly. But when asked to name the most talented musician he'd ever been around, he didn't hesitate: "Leon Russell."
Russell worked with Garrett in the mid '60s on a string of hits for Gary Lewis & the Playboys, serving as an arranger, writer, and general translator for Garrett's ideas. Before that, he played piano on innumerable Spector sessions. Because Russell has the résumé of a journeyman - albeit a remarkable journeyman - it's easy to forget how influential he was in the first half of the '70s. Elton John's early sound was basically patterned after Russell's boogie-woogie
Over the years, Russell has morphed from a startlingly unkempt gray-bearded Dixie hippie into a startlingly unkempt white-bearded Dixie hippie: an unfashionable cross between Colonel Sanders and Howard Hughes. He remains, however, an underrated utility player who witnessed a considerable amount of musical history and, along the way, made some of his own. •