Putting on a show for you to see

Session musician, soloist, sideman extraordinaire, he’s a man I’d like to meet one day, just to say that I’m three degrees of separation from virtually every major popular music performer of the past 50 years…and then some.  Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1942 he learned piano at a very young age.  Because OK was then a dry state with no laws to prevent it, he was already a regular nightclub performer by the time he entered Tulsa’s Will Rogers High School

At the age of 17 he made his way to Los Angeles, where there were laws to prevent minors from entering nightclubs.  So the talented young pianist became accustomed to borrowing IDs and union cards and eventually adopted the name Leon Russell.

Soon he joined the incredibly versatile session group, the Wrecking Crew, and spent most of the ’60s learning how to adapt to virtually every type of popular music genre and in every recording style, including film scores, advertising jingles and theme songs while playing back-up for legions of artists, from top drawer (e.g. backing the Beach Boys on their seminal album, “Pet Sounds” and helping Phil Spector to create his “Wall of Sound”) to, well, lower shelf (backing the likes of Nancy Sinatra and the Partridge Family).

By decade’s end, Russell had branched out as a successful songwriter, arranger and premier sideman.  But he also suffered from stage fright and it wasn’t until the early ‘70s that he was able to make the leap to world-class live performer.  He did so by adopting a rather cosmic stage persona with pastel colored top hat and flowing hair and beard, whom he referred to as the “Master of Time and Space.”

Freaky?  Perhaps, but it worked in a huge way and his eponymous debut album included backup from a few wayward types from across the pond, including Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, two Beatles and three Stones.

Here’s the refreshingly unconventional opening track to Leon Russell’s third solo album, “Carney”  released as a single in 1972 and hitting Number 11 on the Billboard Charts. Although its B-Side (“This Masquerade”) has out-endured it, “Tight Rope” remains the Master of Space and Time’s biggest solo hit.

LISTEN TO THIS SELECTION – Tuesday 15 January

Tight Rope

 I’m up on the tight wire, one side’s ice and one is fire

It’s a circus game with you and me

I’m up on the tightrope, one side’s hate and one is hope

But the top hat on my head is all you see

 And the wire seems to be the only place for me

A comedy of errors and I’m falling

Like a rubberneck giraffe, you look into my past

Well, baby you’re just too blind to see

 I’m up in the spotlight, oh does it feel right

The altitude seems to get to me

I’m up on the tight wire linked by life and the funeral pyre

Putting on a show for you to see

 Like a rubberneck giraffe, you look into my past

Well, baby you’re just too blind to see

I’m up in the spotlight, oh does it feel right

The altitude really gets to me

 I’m up on the tight wire linked by life and the funeral pyre

Putting on a show for you to see…

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