Among the many musicians who died last year was Leon Russell. Singer, songwriter, keyboardist and a hugely successful sessions man, Russell died last November at 74. For some of us, the introduction to Russell came via the early 1970s triple album, The Concert for Bangladesh, and the film that was made on it. Russell played with a star line-up of musicians that included George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. Those who’ve heard that album or watched the film will also remember that the Indian classical music maestros, the late Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, also performed at the concert intended to raise money for the refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan.
Among the longest tracks played during the concert was a medley of Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Coasters’ Young Blood that was performed by Russell.
Besides, he did keyboard duties on several of the other tracks. His long hair and striking talent on the piano made sure you took note of him. By then Russell had already established himself on the rock firmament. The year before The Concert for Bangladesh, he’d toured with Joe Cocker on his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, but he was already a solo force in the contemporary music of that time, hopping genres from blues to rock to country to gospel and folk. Russell released dozens of albums during his career and in 2010, an ardent fan, Elton John, and he collaborated on The Union, an album that also features vocals by Neil Young and guest appearances by Robert Randolph, the fast-paced pedal steel guitar player, and the renowned Booker T. Jones.
But the album by Russell that I discovered late was 1975’s Will O’ The Wisp. While Russell himself plays the piano, the clarinet, synthesizers, and even guitars, there are other noted performers. On Can’t Get Over Losing You, the reclusive guitar genius J.J. Cale plays the lead. A striking performer on the album is Mary McCreary, whose vocal partnership with Russell – they soon were married – is the high point of the album. Recorded on a 40-track analogue machine, which was back then state-of-the-art, the songs range from bluesy laid-back tunes (Can’t Get Over Losing You) to gospel-influenced (Down on the Deep River) to even reggae-inflected ones (Back to the Island).
It was a relatively early stage in Russell’s career when he recorded Will O’ The Wisp. His experiments with the synthesizer had just begun; multitrack tape recording was getting more sophisticated; and he was dabbling in several genres with a voice suited for them all. But Russell, portrayed on the cover of the album in a painting with an owl, was already establishing himself as somewhat of an enigma – he was never in the absolute forefront of rock or pop music, but was respected and reputed as a sort of renaissance man of contemporary music.
I found Will O’ The Wisp while hunting for second hand records in one of New York’s used record shops, where you can disappear for hours and come back with a trove. I also found a gem from 1969, John Mayall’s Looking Back. Mayall, now 83, is a pioneer of British blues. And beginning in the late 1950s, he’s led numerous bands and counts as being someone who has provided a launching pad for many musicians including guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassists Jack Bruce and John McVie and many others. Looking Back showcases Mayall’s early phase of playing with talent that he gathered. The album opens with Mr. James, originally recorded in mono in 1964, but simulated electronically five years later to sound like stereo. Clapton appears on 1966’s Stormy Monday along with Bruce on bass. Peter Green, who went on to found Fleetwood Mac, plays lead on three songs –So Many Roads, Looking Back and Sitting in the Rain.
For fans of Mayall’s music, Looking Back is an 11-song journey into his early years – 1964 to 1967. Later on, there was a lot more that Mayall did. He recorded and played with numerous musicians; produced and released countless albums with the latest, A Special Life, released in 2014 at age 81. Hugely respected as a musician and for his unmistakable vocal and harmonica-playing style, Mayall still tours, playing at festivals and other gigs, often supported by his friends who’ve at some point or the other played with him in the Bluesbreakers or the other bands that he had spawned. In the liner of Looking Back, there is a reproduction of an advertisement from 1957 that says the John Mayall Powerhouse Four would be playing at a hall in the north of England. Mayall was then not-yet-24. It’s been some career.
From HT Brunch, January 29, 2017
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