The celebrated "blueshound" talks about his new album, "Life Journey" (out April 1), and his friendship with collaborator Elton John: "He's changed my life"
Though it's not a strictly collaborative effort like 2010's Grammy Award-nominated "The Union," Elton John still had a strong hand in helping Leon Russell for his new solo album, "Life Journey." Russell tells Billboard that not long after "The Union's" ballyhooed release he was approached by label executives about a new album of his own.
"Elton was encouraging me to do that," Russell says, "but he wanted me to have a producer, which was kind of odd for me, because I never really have had a producer. I've always made my own records." John wasn't nominating himself, however; he serves as "Life Journey's" executive producer and, Russell says, paid for the recording before a deal with UMe was signed, while the highly credentialed Tommy LiPuma, who helmed Paul McCartney's 2012 standards set "Kisses on the Bottom," produced Russell's 12-song set.
"I've known (LiPuma) for 45 years, from back when I was working for Jackie DeShannon at Liberty records and Tommy was promotion man," says Russell, a member of Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew and leader of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen collective as well as his own Shelter People. "I was afraid he might have serious jazz damage because he made a record of my song ('This Masquerade') with George Benson and he launched Diana Krall's career and Natalie Cole...He's made all kinds of records, mostly jazz records are the ones I'm aware of, but when I got with him I found out he was a blueshound like me, a very serious aficionado of blues music. So it was great. I enjoyed it. He's the best record producer that I've ever known in my life."
And though Russell doesn't remember it, LiPuma reminded him that he gave invaluable help on one of LiPuma's first production jobs, with the O'Jays in 1965.
"I don't remember it, but he told me he was sweating that he didn't know what he was doing," Russell says. "He told me I was playing on the session and I went into the control room and he said, 'I need some help. I don't know what I'm doing,' and I told him, 'Well, do this and do this and to this and don't worry about that and it'll be fine.' He said, 'I really owe you for that. You saved my life.' I'm always having people come up to me and say I saved their life -- but I don't remember it!"
As its title indicates, Russell's "Life Journey" -- due out April 1, the day before his 72nd birthday -- draws from personal influences and styles the Tennessee-based Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has explored throughout his career, including contemporary fare like Billy Joels "New York State of Mind" to standards such as "Georgia on My Mind," "That Lucky Old Song," "I Got It Bad and It Ain't Good" to Little Willie John's "Fever." Listen to the track above.
"Tommy was like, 'What do you like?' " Russell recalls. "He played me some stuff I'd never heard, some stuff I'd be like, 'Oh yeah, I like that.' And I'd play him songs that I know that he really seemed to like. I played 'The Masquerade is Over' and sang it to him, and he got so excited he was running around playing it for a lot of his friends. And the Billy Joel tune, I only vaguely knew that song and he played it for me and said, 'I think you should sing this.' So I recorded it and I enjoyed doing it."
Russell is also pleased with the pre-release excitement for "Life Journey," the most he's enjoyed since 1992's Bruce Hornsby-produced "Anything Can Happen." and he freely credits "The Union" for that attention.
"I saw all the interviews Elton did about it, and he just absolutely wouldn't shut up about how great I was and how he heard 70 other piano players and I influenced him more than all of them put together," Russell says. "And I had no idea. I mean, really, when he called me up and asked me if I'd like to do (the album), I hadn't spoken to him in 30 years. I really didn't have any idea I had that much impact on him. But I have to say I really appreciated it. It's had a huge impact on my profile, and him telling people about me, I think, has really changed my life."
Russell says he's "never off the road," and he's currently on tour with dates booked into October, including a June run with Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.