WATCH: Renowned Songwriter and Musician Leon Russell Dead at 74

Leon Russell performing in the early 1970s. Credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns, via Getty Images
Leon Russell performing in the early 1970s.
Credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns, via Getty Images

Leon Russell, the longhaired, scratchy-voiced pianist, guitarist, songwriter and bandleader who moved from playing countless recording sessions to making hits on his own, died on Sunday in Nashville. He was 74.

His website said he had died in his sleep but gave no specific cause.

Mr. Russell’s health had incurred significant setbacks in recent years. In 2010, he underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak and was treated for heart failure. In July he had a heart attack and was scheduled for further surgery, according to a news release from the historical society of Oklahoma, his home state.

With his trademark top hat, hair well past his shoulders, a long, lush beard, an Oklahoma drawl and his fingers splashing two-fisted barrelhouse piano chords, Mr. Russell cut a flamboyant figure in the early 1970s. He led Joe Cocker’s band Mad Dogs & Englishmen, appeared at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in New York City and had numerous hits of his own, including “Tight Rope.”

Many of his songs became hits for others, among them “Superstar” (written with Bonnie Bramlett) for the Carpenters, “Delta Lady” for Mr. Cocker and “This Masquerade” for George Benson. More than 100 acts have recorded “A Song for You,” which Mr. Russell said he wrote in 10 minutes.

By the time he released his first solo album, in 1970, he had already played on hundreds of songs as one of the top studio musicians in Los Angeles. He was in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra, and he played sessions for Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, the Ventures and the Monkees, among many others. His piano playing is heard on “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “Live With Me” by the Rolling Stones and all of the Beach Boys’ early albums, including “Pet Sounds.”

The music Mr. Russell made on his own put a scruffy, casual surface on rich musical hybrids, interweaving soul, country, blues, jazz, gospel, pop and classical music. Like Willie Nelson, who collaborated with him, and Ray Charles, whose 1993 recording of “A Song for You” won a Grammy Award, Mr. Russell made a broad, sophisticated palette of American music sound down-home and natural.

After his popularity had peaked in the 1970s, he shied away from self-promotion and largely set aside rock, though he kept performing. But he was prized as a musicians’ musician, collaborating with Elvis Costello and Elton John, among others. In 2011, after making a duet album with Mr. John, “The Union,” he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, Mr. John called him “the master of space and time”and added, “He sang, he wrote and he played just how I wanted to do it.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Jon Pareles