Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”

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.

Steely Dan—L.A. Forum 2018

Steely Dan took the stage at 9:25 PM, with their multimember band, including a four-piece horn section and backup singers, The Danettes, clad in matching little black dresses. Fagan followed. From the first verse of the uptempo, swing-infused “Bodhisattva,” it was clear he was going to be a wild card, with The Danettes taking what seemed to be an ever-growing piece of the vocal pie.

Nonetheless, this fast-paced, super caffeinated jump-blues piece mobilized everyone. Bebop scales, but cloaked in a pop overcoat. The slightly fuzzed out rockabilly rhythm guitar was layered over by the persistence of the keys, which together escalated into a lush, frenzied fervor, as the trombone and reverberating lead guitar traded solos; Jon Herington did justice to the original solo, famously laid down by Denny Dias, in the studio cut, while Keith Carlock held the whole thing together on drums with a shuffle-style groove, culminating in an ecstatic crescendo.

As long-time Steely Dan fans, my date and I were reticent to confess our shared glances and raised eyebrows of uncertainty as to whether Fagan’s vocal chops could hold the act together, as a lonestar bandleader, although it is no secret that this has always been the band’s weak spot.

But, what may have been the necessary salt in the stew in earlier times, seemed more like a missed step, now. This started to become evident in the lyrically seductive, “Aja,” which found him frequently coasting under the notes. Nonetheless, this lush masterpiece of a song, “either an ode to LSD or to the beauty of life with a woman you love,” was carried by the band, as a whole. Soaked in Jazz chords and peppered with Chinese accents, but bound together with eastern tinged ligature’s, a serpentine meandering from soft and wavy, to frisky and playful. It’s an adventure in some far-away land, taking you through multicolored, imaginary landscapes where you’re first lost in reflective, rainy day musings, before finding yourself suddenly whirling through an Asian marketplace.

“FM,” “Time Out of Mind,” and “Kid Charlemagne” were standouts, as was the lesser known “Green Earrings,” which walks the edge between prog-tinged rock, and jazz funk. Delivered impeccably, and supporting its narrative of stealing, it captures both the deviousness and the thrill of the act, with its driving, supercharged rhythm. Punctuated with Thelonious-like, off-time beats, then caressed by a creamy guitar solo. Together, suggesting the twisted satisfaction of a deed accomplished, as the lyrics say: “Sorry, angel, I must take what I see.”

A fair lot of Fagan’s and Becker’s lyrics capture the tales of eccentrics and misfits; this has been duly noted elsewhere. But an equally interesting study is the mood that Steely Dan creates, through their varied and complex, but polished compositions — a curious sort of freedom… in spite of their characters’ woes, losses and lack of resolution in life, there’s always a delicious feeling of surrender, alongside the weariness. Melodies that are at once wistful and swollen with nostalgia, but warm and sensual, as their famous wu major chord effortlessly glides into that magical, and oh, so recognizable, Steely Dan dreamland.

Fagan and Co. rolled through a handful of radio favorites, like the playful pop riff of “Peg,” played mighty nicely, albeit sans Michael McDonald, whose warm backup vocals give the song its characteristic feel and depth of color, in the studio version. But the highlight was the paradoxically bright-toned (considering the subject matter of a dissolving relationships) “Black Cow,” with its layers of glossy textures and flirtatious saxophone, all intermingling with Fagan’s keys, like watercolors, seamlessly blending and playing with one another. Finishing the night was an encore that included “Reeling in the Years.”