Song of the Week – Delta Lady, Leon Russell


If I told you that almost 45 years ago someone recorded an album that had appearances by 2 Beatles (Harrison and Starr), 3 Stones (Jagger, Wyman and Watts), 2 Blind Faith (Clapton and Winwood) a Domino (Jim Gordon – as in Derek & The…) Joe Cocker, Klaus Voormann and others – would you believe me?

Leon Russell released his first solo album in 1970 with that stellar cast of backing musicians. Of course, they didn’t all perform on every song. And I’ve scoured the internet trying to find the details of who played on which songs but thus far have come up empty. But one thing is for certain, Leon Russell is a great album.

Leon had a great career. Early on he made his way from Oklahoma to LA where he was a member of Phil Spector’s “Wrecking Crew” and played on many of the most important records in Rock history. In the mid 60s he was a member of the house band for the pop music TV series Shindig! that ran for two seasons on ABC.

By the late 60s/early 70s he hooked up with Delaney & Bonnie and then Joe Cocker – he was the musical director for Cocker’s famous Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. He also did a great set at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. If you’re over 50 you’ve probably heard it. If not, you should check out his “Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood Medley.”

Today’s SotW is “Delta Lady” from that debut solo album mentioned earlier. Here’s the album version.

But you should really check out this live version too. I have no idea where it was filmed. It seems to be on a soundstage somewhere. After a couple of false starts, Leon and the band really kick into gear. (Also check out the backing vocals by Cathy McDonald. Amazing!)

Many of you will recognize the song from the “more popular” Joe Cocker version. But Leon’s is much earthier. It is a prime example of Russell’s own brand of American roots music. It’s funky, bluesy, gospely (is that a word?) and sung with his trademark Southern drawl. (Rita Coolidge was his inspiration for the song.)

“Delta Lady” is one of Russell’s best known songs but others were even more popular. His single “Tightrope” almost cracked the Top 10 in 1972. Its flip side, This Masquerade” was the most popular song on George Benson’s hit album Breezin’ (1976). That song was also recorded by The Carpenters, who strangely (IMHO), had a strong connection with Russell’s songs. They hit with “Superstar” — co-written by Delaney Bramlett – (#2, 1971) and used “A Song for You” as the title song for their 1972 album.

In 2010, Elton John cited Russell as one of his biggest influences. He rescued Russell from near obscurity and they recorded an album together, The Union, that reached #3 in the US charts.

Enjoy… until next week.