During the early '70s, while the previous decade's rock underground was morphing into the "progressive" radio format, the guitar was challenged as the movement's instrument of preference for the first time. Rising stars were now found sitting at the piano. The least likely of them, on the surface at least, was Leon Russell. Hardly a singer of Elton John's or Carole King's commercial caliber, the longhaired, top-hatted Russell boasted raw, rootsy vocals and roadhouse piano that belied a beguiling songwriting persona capable of remarkably varied moods and content. As a result, Russell would pen numerous hits for both himself and others.
One would be hard-pressed to locate a rock artist who has consistently kept the kind of high-profile company that Russell has. The guest list for his 1970 debut album featured a couple of Beatles, among others. He was a member of the Delaney and Bonnie band hijacked by Joe Cocker for his celebrated Mad Dogs and Englishmen revue, and a key player at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh.
Besides releasing his own gold-selling solo work, Russell's Shelter Records gave artists as diverse as Tom Petty, Phoebe Snow, and the Gap Band their start -- and also revived the career of blues-guitar great Freddie King. The list of Russell-penned hits includes his own "Tightrope," Cocker's "Delta Lady," the Carpenters' "Superstar," and George Benson's "This Masquerade." The last few years have seen Russell founding a new label, leading an updated band, and scarcely behaving like an oldies act.