Leon Russell, who emerged in the 1970s as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most dynamic performers and songwriters after playing anonymously on dozens of pop hits as a much-in-demand studio pianist in the 1960s, died on Sunday at age 74.
Russell, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, died in his sleep in Nashville, Tennessee, his wife said in a statement on his website.
Russell suffered health problems in his later years, having surgery to stop leaking brain fluid in 2010 and suffering a heart attack in July 2016.
“He was recovering from heart surgery in July and looked forward to getting back on the road in January,” said his wife, Jan Bridges.
Russell’s period of stardom as a performer was relatively brief, but Elton John, who had once been Russell’s opening act, engineered a comeback for him in 2010 when they collaborated on an album titled “The Union.”
“He was my biggest influence as a piano player, a singer and a songwriter,” John told ABC News.
Russell recorded more than 35 albums and also excelled as a songwriter for other performers. His “A Song for You” was recorded by Joe Cocker, the Carpenters, the Temptations, Neil Diamond, Lou Rawls, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and good friend Willie Nelson. The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, Shirley Bassey, Robert Goulet and George Benson all covered Russell’s “This Masquerade,” with Benson’s version winning the 1976 Grammy as record of the year.
Russell was known as “the master of space and time” in his 1970s heyday. He wore a cocked top hat, and with salt-and-pepper hair past his shoulders and a beard that reached his chest, created an inscrutable image that was equal parts shaman, tent revival preacher and cosmic ringmaster.
He ruled the stage with piano-banging abandon and, backed by a multi-piece band and a backup chorus, put on a show that was a roiling stew of rock, soul, gospel and country.
Russell’s last performance was July 10 in Nashville.