MANHATTAN, NY—Claude Russell Bridges was born in 1942 in Lawton, Oklahoma, began playing piano at the age of four, and performed at Tulsa nightclubs by age 14. He and his group, The Starlighters, which included the late J.J. Cale, were instrumental in creating the style of music known as the Tulsa Sound. At age 17, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he became part of an elite group of studio musicians called The Wrecking Crew, which played on hundreds of hit records throughout the 1960s.
He renamed himself Leon Russell and a new career emerged when Joe Cocker recorded Russell’s song “Delta Lady” for his 1969 album, Joe Cocker! Russell organized and performed in Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour. His prominence in this spectacle led to a highly successful solo career in the 1970s. He has recorded more than 25 records, including duet albums with Willie Nelson and Elton John; his most recent is 2013’s compilation album, Snapshot. Russell was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall Of Fame in 2006 and both the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame in 2011.
Russell proved on Jan. 5 that like many of City Winery’s collections of wines, his music remains robust over decades of delicate care. Far from the worlds of alternative or indie, Russell played the music he knows and has lived. Backed by a trio—a very talented Beau Charron on guitar and pedal steel, Jackie Wessel on bass and Brandon Holder on drums—Russell sauntered on stage without fanfare, stood by his piano stool for a moment to acknowledge the audience appreciation, then sat at the white grand piano and played an energetic medley of non-stop songs for about 40 minutes.
As he began to sing, Russell’s signature drawl sounded familiar, and the honky-tonk and boogie-woogie flair of his piano playing gave new life to old songs. Russell performed many of his newer tracks, but perhaps since he has been playing music professionally for nearly 60 years, a fair amount of his entire set was given to his favorite folk, country, blues and rock and roll oldies. These reinterpretations included Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” The Beatles’ “Falling,” The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” as well as traditional songs like “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and “You Got Me Running.”
About halfway through the show, Russell spoke for the first time, mentioning that his wife suggested he talk more. He introduced the next few songs with anecdotes of his life and career, then played a medley of tracks—including “Tightrope,” “Sweet Emily” and “This Song Is Yours”—alone on the piano while the band took a break. During these solo cuts, it became evident that the small panel of blue lights on his piano provided him with some synthesizer embellishments. The group then returned for another half hour medley of rock and roll tunes.
All in all, the show was by an old-timer playing to old-timers. Russell and band performed very well, but in such a conventional vein that it may not attract a younger and more adventurous audience.
For more information on Leon Russell, visit leonrussellrecords.com.