I stumbled into a casual conversation the other day, about who would top off the list of greatest rock vocalists. One of those impossible questions, with no single answer, but nonetheless, fun to play with.
I immediately thought of Leon Russell, who in many ways, seems to be undervalued, as one of blues’ and rock’s greatest legends. Having faded into relative obscurity, it was Elton John, who brought his self proclaimed mentor back into the recording studio and back into prominence in 2010. Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame the following year.
Originally from Oklahoma, his trajectory from session player to solo artist can be found elsewhere. So, suffice it to say here, that his start in L.A. found him working as a session pianist for everyone from The Wrecking Crew to The Byrds to Herb Alpert to Dave Mason, and as collaborator with artists from Joe Cocker to Delaney and Bonnie to George Harrison. In this article, I am limiting my commentary to one single song and how it showcases his incomparable gifts, both as a vocalist and as a songwriter.
“A Song for You” is a song that’s not just a song. It leaves you in an altered state and utterly rearranged emotionally. It’s the kind of song that can’t be followed with any other song. It needs a moment of silence afterward. It’s intimate. It gets down deep into your soul, uproots it and then leaves you unable to carry on.
It’s not the kind of song you listen to while doing other things. You don’t do your laundry while this song is playing. It’s not a background song. It’s not an office song. You don’t play it at a potluck. You cannot continue what you’re doing after having heard it. Your day will feel different, your life will feel different… you will be thinking different thoughts and feeling different things. It’s not a song you forget.
Russell’s voice isn’t the kind of voice that’s polished and perfect, but that’s what makes it intoxicatingly delicious. You know you’re hearing something real. Something you can’t train your voice to do… no matter how many singing lessons you take. It either comes out that way, or it doesn’t. Just as a twisted, gnarly tree trunk just grows that way… you can’t till it to come out like that, and it’s the most spectacular, special tree you ever saw. There’s no other tree like it.
Carried within the crackling, the slow vibrato, the soul-bearing pauses and the audible breaths he takes between words, in his sleepy, drunken, growl of a voice, is a certain well-worn weariness, and at the same time, everything that’s sexy. It’s honest. It’s the embodiment of his soul’s yearnings. He sings at his edge and takes his listeners to places they hadn’t planned on going to.
In this one song, he touches on the feelings of everything that’s true about life and captures those feelings in the form of a melody… the sadness, the closeness, the beauty, the fleeting nature of it all. And the depth of longing that is always there, down deep in the bones.
*Below is Russell performing “A Song for You,” live, in 1971. Note how the voice and the delivery are one happening. They go together, precisely because of the honest quality and lack of anything contrived.