Leon Russell

The Master of Space and Time's Journey Through Rock & Roll History


By Bill Janovitz

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New York Times Bestseller

The definitive biography of legendary musician, composer, and performer Leon Russell, a profound influence on countless artists, including George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, and the world of music as a whole.

Leon Russell is an icon, but somehow is still an underappreciated artist. He is spoken of in tones reserved not just for the most talented musicians, but also for the most complex and fascinating. His career is like a roadmap of music history, often intersecting with rock royalty like Bob Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles. He started in the Fifties as a teenager touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, going on to play piano on records by such giants as Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Phil Spector, and on hundreds of classic songs with major recording artists. Leon was Elton John’s idol, and Elton inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Leon also gets credit for altering Willie Nelson’s career, giving us the long-haired, pot-friendly Willie we all know and love today.

In his prime, Leon filled stadiums on solo tours, and was an organizer/performer on both Joe Cocker’s revolutionary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. Leon also founded Shelter Records in 1969 with producer Denny Cordell, discovering and releasing the debut albums of Tom Petty, the Gap Band, Phoebe Snow, and J.J. Cale. Leon always assembled wildly diverse bands and performances, fostering creative and free atmospheres for musicians to live and work together. He brazenly challenged musical and social barriers. However, Russell also struggled with his demons, including substance abuse, severe depression, and a crippling stage fright that wreaked havoc on his psyche over the long haul and at times seemed to will himself into obscurity. Now, acclaimed author and founding member of Buffalo Tom, Bill Janovitz shines the spotlight on one of the most important music makers of the twentieth century.


Chapter 1

Killer Education

ONE NIGHT IN THE DEAD of winter in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1960, Russell Bridges stood on the side of the stage watching a riot unfold.

Bridges had just warmed up the crowd of about four hundred with his band, the rest of whom were at that moment blazing onstage with Jerry Lee Lewis now at the piano. The truth is, this crowd had not needed any warming up. Despite the icy conditions outside, these cowboys and cowgirls were primed and pumped to see The Killer, no matter that Lewis was now at the nadir of a career that had taken off like a rocket, only to crash down to earth. Only three years earlier, the news of his marriage—already his third, at the age of twenty-two—to his thirteen-year-old cousin, Myra, daughter of his bandmate and cousin, J. W. Brown, had caused an uproar.

Old Jerry Lee was determined to get back on top, but for now, he would drive his Cadillac to wherever he could collect a few hundred bucks, performing solo or with a local pickup band. Or, as on this cold night in Cheyenne, with whatever musicians he could afford to take along.

Like Russell Bridges, who had been playing the clubs and bars of Tulsa since he was fourteen. Oklahoma was a dry state, with liquor sales prohibited. So, being an “underage” performer at nightclubs was not a pressing issue. In the postwar years, Tulsa was the “Oil Capital of the World,” even weathering the Great Depression pretty well (unlike the rest of the Dust Bowl state), with a flourishing Art Deco building boom through the 1930s. Bridges’s own Will Rogers High School is a prime example of the architectural style. Although ostensibly “dry,” the clubs were filled with beer and illegal hard booze, and young performers had no trouble getting a drink at these gigs.

“I worked a beer joint club from six till eleven and then a private club from midnight to five a.m. I barely had time to sober up for school,” Bridges recalled later. “One club I played at quite a lot paid ten dollars a night and all you could drink, and I drank all of it. By the time I finished high school, I was drinking at least a pint of hard liquor a day.”

It was at a gig at Tulsa’s legendary Cain’s Ballroom where Bridges and his band, the Starlighters, had first met and performed with Jerry Lee Lewis. The place had been put on the map by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who broadcast their unique brand of western swing on KVOO from 1934 to 1942.

The Starlighters were a top band in Tulsa, too. “We were mostly an instrumental band,” sax player Johnny Williams said. And they would back national acts who came through. “Anybody that would come into town, whether it was Frogman Henry or really anybody, it didn’t matter.”

Bridges was already commonly regarded as the best pianist in Tulsa, and the first on the scene to mic his instrument and run it through an amplifier. At some of the clubs the Starlighters played, they would be lucky to show up and the piano was playable, never mind in tune. But Bridges could make an old box sound like a Steinway.

As fans, the band was understandably thrilled to back Jerry Lee Lewis for his Cain’s Ballroom show. By the time he’d reached Tulsa, Jerry Lee was exasperated, battling the bottle, and at his lowest ebb, having done a stretch of about ten shows with ten different bands. When he heard the Starlighters, his mood swung to exuberance.

Bridges had made sure the band knew all of Jerry Lee’s material in the correct keys by showtime. After their first warm-up set, Lewis came up onto the bandstand and, indicating Bridges, declared, “I’m not gonna set down at that piano. He plays a lot better piano than I do!”

The Starlighters had ripped through one song after another that first performance together; when they were done, a sweaty and spent Jerry Lee said, “Well, shit. You guys have got to come on the road with me.” Lewis was not sure how, economically, he’d be able to take the band out. The boys would have gone for nothing, and that’s not much less than what they ultimately got. Bridges had just completed three days of entrance exams for the University of Tulsa but quickly decided college and ROTC were not as compelling as a chance to hit the road with one of his heroes.

Bridges changed the oil in his ’51 Chrysler Imperial limousine, hitched a trailer to it, threw the instruments in, and the Starlighters hit the road. “We didn’t know about cases, drove about fifty miles, looked in back—all our instruments were in pieces,” he said later.

They toured on and off with Lewis over the last half of 1959 into 1960, going out for runs of twenty to thirty days, sometimes just opening the shows and sometimes backing Lewis, who occasionally had with him the rest of his three-piece combo, J. W. Brown and Russell Smith. “We were on the road with him when he was down and out and married the little cousin, you know,” said Williams. “Russell [Bridges], a lot of times, would stay on the bandstand and play.… Lewis was not bashful about having him play. They got along good. I’m not sure that Russell didn’t give him a pointer or two on the piano!”

But there were times when the young band struggled to get paid by Lewis’s booking agent; once, they had to file charges against his manager to get him to pay up. Several times they slept in the car outside a gas station, out of fuel, waiting for it to open so they could get back on the road. These were sobering lessons in the business of music.

Thus, the Starlighters found themselves in Cheyenne that wintry night in early 1960. After the band finished their set, Bridges watched from the side of the stage as The Killer brought the crowd to a boil. Jerry Lee might have fallen from his pinnacle, but he could still whip an audience into a frenzy, glaring at the crowd like a cornered and wounded wild beast, kicking back the bench and playing with his feet.

The atmosphere was combustible. Cheyenne “turned into a complete riot,” recalled drummer Chuck Blackwell. “It was unbelievable. People just fighting and crashing and breaking bottles across the bar. It looked like something out of the movies. Then they turned on the band and started throwing things at us.” The band kept cooking and Jerry Lee stood on the piano bench singing with a gun in his hand as the melee continued.

“When the fighting started to spill over onto the stage, we thought, ‘Oh shit, we’re not gonna make it out of here alive,’” Blackwell recalled. “Then all of a sudden [bassist] Lucky Clark recognized a guy he’d been in prison with.” Lucky had done time for “some kind of robbery,” Williams recalled. “He was a little wild and was apt to jump on to someone.” Lucky’s jailhouse friend “got us, and our instruments, through that mass riot and out the exit to the parking lot,” said Blackwell. But not before Jerry Lee himself escaped. Instructing his band of teenagers to keep vamping, he slipped off the stage with his gun in hand, snuck out the stage entrance, and split in his Caddy, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.

The tour with Lewis gave Bridges a glimpse of what it felt like to be the star of the show. Before they had left Tulsa, the Starlighters sometimes featured guest vocalists like local legends Jumpin’ Jack Dunham or Jimmy “Junior” Markham. Sometimes Lucky sang. Fellow Tulsa musicians always discouraged Bridges from singing, telling him his voice was “too nasal.” But at a packed Vets Memorial Hall in Kiowa, Kansas, on November 5, 1959, Russell Bridges had changed a few minds, perhaps even his own, about his ability to be a front man.

The showbill portentously announced:


The Jerry Lee Lewis Show & Dance

Star of Movies, TV, and Records

With Johnny Williams and the HOLLYWOOD STARLIGHTERS

Featuring Russell Bridges

The Killer had begged off this particular show, claiming appendicitis, though the musicians speculated that it was more likely related to rotgut moonshine and amphetamines. Rightfully fearing another riot, the promoter had a local doctor announce the bad news and offered to return patrons’ money if they decided to leave. “Well, the crowd did not like that,” Blackwell recalled. “So Russell got up and did the whole Jerry Lee show. He just rocked the house, even kicked the piano bench back a couple of times.”

In retrospect, that was the night Russell Bridges began transforming into Leon Russell. Nobody asked for their money back.

Chapter 2


CLAUDE RUSSELL BRIDGES WAS BORN on April 2, 1942, at Southwestern Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma. But his family—his mother, Hester; father, John; and brother, Jerry—lived in Apache, about twenty miles away. Hester and John had married in 1935.

Apache, in southwestern Oklahoma, was the last town in the territories settled during the land runs that began in 1889, with white settlers arriving chaotically via wagons, often killing each other and Native Americans who legally owned the land. The discovery of oil under the Oklahoma red dirt fueled bamboozling and bloodbaths. The run on Apache occurred on August 6, 1901, and according to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “within hours there were five lumberyards and six saloons.”

Apache’s population in 1940 was only around 1,100, about a quarter of which was Native American. John Bridges had registered for the draft at age twenty-seven, listing “Farmer’s Union Coop” as his occupation. Two years later, John and Hester’s second son, Claude, was born. They called him by his middle name, Russell, after one of his mother’s brothers, Russell Claude Whaley. (For clarity, we will refer to him henceforth by his stage name, Leon.)

John Bridges’s father was Irish with some Cherokee blood. A DNA test on Leon’s brother’s family indicated that Leon and his brother, Jerry, were one-sixteenth Cherokee, and the balance of their lineage was primarily Irish.

Hester said Leon didn’t speak for his first few years, starting later than most kids. Years later, she told Leon’s wife, Jan Bridges, that the first thing he said was, “What’s the matter, little birdie, you cry?” Jan recalled the conversation with her mother-in-law: “He was watching the birds, and something was going on with the birds. And she [Hester] said she was just shocked because he never spoke.”

At around four years old, Leon started to show interest in the family piano. Both of his parents played. “My dad and mom had a duo,” Leon told filmmaker Denny Tedesco. “He played the bass on the piano, she played the top end, and so I saw that from an early age. All my aunts, actually I think on both sides of the family, played piano. One, in particular, Aunt Bertha, I stole a lot of stuff from her. She was great.” Hester was amazed to hear four-year-old Leon picking out the melody of “Trust and Obey,” a hymn he had heard in church. Hester, noting that neither she nor John pushed the piano on either of their sons, said she thought Leon was a prodigy. “He just sat down one day and started playing by ear,” Hester said. She drove him to nearby Anadarko, to the best piano teacher in the area, Dora Popejoy. “I don’t want many four-year-olds, but I want Leon,” Popejoy had said to Leon’s mother.

One of Leon’s first memories was a scarring and formative one. “I have always experienced severe stage fright, not only on stages, but in crowded rooms, lines for movies, and just about any place there’s a lot of people who can be, by any stretch of the imagination, considered an audience,” he recalled. “The psychologists call this ‘agoraphobia.’… I have to give credit for this paralyzing condition to one of my aunts on my father’s side. At the age of four, I had discovered my sexual organs, and shortly thereafter, discovered that my female cousin had a completely different set.”

At a family gathering in Duncan, just to the east of Lawton, Leon found the opportunity to explore this discovery in greater depth with his cousin in a secluded playhouse. His “rather severe Aries aunt” arrived just as Leon was taking off his cousin’s underwear. “She promptly paraded me in front of each individual adult family member and disclosed the nature of my research with scorching charges and descriptions.

“That incident has affected me for my entire life. It has had an immeasurable detrimental effect on my career in show business in that I tend to freeze up around any situation that involves people watching me, even in an audition or interview. I’ve always harbored the suspicion that my audiences come to watch me deal with my secret phobia onstage.”

When Leon was five, the family moved to Maysville for about a year, and he continued lessons with two more teachers. When they settled in Tulsa, he was around twelve, and Leon started lessons with Margaret Freeze.

Hester observed that he was favoring his left hand, as he would all his life. She had discovered when he was around eighteen months old what Leon would later describe as a birth injury that had damaged his second and third vertebrae, causing a slight paralysis on his right side. “I was born with spastic paralysis,” he said, “now called cerebral palsy.” He suspected the doctor delivered him with forceps, causing the injury. This paralysis to his right side resulted in “very limited neurological connections. I had to devise ways to play that I could sort of get around that limitation. I kind of play a little bit of a thing with my left hand… like Chet Atkins or Merle Travis, just an octave thing. But the way I use it is some sort of bass things on my left hand and more of a rhythmic horn-like parts [on the right]. I am a left-handed piano player for sure.”

The condition made him “very aware of the duality involved in our plane of existence here.” He later explained, with his hallmark self-deprecation, “My chops have always been sort of weak, because the right side of my body was paralyzed a little bit. I have damaged nerve endings on the right side, so my piano style comes from designing stuff I can play with my right hand.”

“I know that sounds like an excuse,” he said. “But you play the hand that you got. I know I sound like Mahatma Gandhi. I don’t mean to.”

Leon had the drive to overcome any limitations, imagining himself strapped to the front of a train that would run straight into the face of a cliff if he made a mistake during practicing. Playing the piano “helped his three fingers on his right hand,” Hester said. Fairly early on, he developed the ability to identify the notes as he heard them—a skill that was at least relative pitch, but not perfect pitch. “They had this one tuner who meant to be doing something good,” he said. “It was an upright, an old upright piano, so he tuned the piano down one step because he said it would stay in tune better, and I suppose it would stay in tune better except it was one step flat. So my pitch has always been off plus or minus one step for my whole life. Otherwise, I would have had perfect pitch, but you can’t have everything, I guess.”

He admitted that his unique style “effectively mimicked classical stuff.” Leon said he “studied classical music, and thought some of those guys were incredible. I also thought Harpo Marx was pretty great—that comedy versus great harp playing going on.” And he was struck early by religious music. He recalled being at his grandmother’s house. “She was a very elegant lady, and she was doing her hair in the bathroom,” he said. “It came down and hit the floor and went over about six or seven feet, and she wore it in a bun. So while she was messing with her hair, I went into her bedroom, and she had a little phonograph record by her bed, and it had a little record on there called ‘Blood on Your Hands.’ I said, ‘Lord, Grandma’s listening to murder songs?’ I played that record… that was my first knowledge of what the family music background was.”

Don Copeland, a classmate, remembered young Leon as bright, quiet, introspective, and well liked. Leon found out that Don sang, and they bonded over music. Don recalled that the Bridges, like most in Maysville, lived in a small house, but he was struck by the presence of a piano on his first visit when he and Leon were both around nine or ten years old. Leon performed Debussy’s masterpiece, “Clair de Lune,” for his friend. Leon’s mother would hear the two boys singing together and showed them how to harmonize.

Leon also played the cornet in the elementary school band, then picked up the alto sax and became good enough to gain membership in the high school marching band when he was nine. The town’s music director, Joe Reed, a tremendous influence on Leon, promoted him.

But Leon had a chip on his shoulder, feeling more than challenged by his paralysis, which resulted in a lifelong limp, mistaken by most of his friends as an aftereffect of polio. “I felt like the world cheated me big time,” he said. “I took piano lessons for ten years and there’s girls taking piano lessons for three years and they were playing at Carnegie Hall. And I was still trying to figure out how to play.”

He added: “If I hadn’t had the problem, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into music at all and would have been an ex-football player today, selling insurance in Des Moines.”

Chapter 3

Tulsa Time

AFTER LEON’S SIXTH-GRADE YEAR, IN August 1953, the Russell family relocated to Tulsa, following his father John’s career move to the Texas Company, soon to be known as Texaco. But John Bridges had been having an affair, and four years later, when Leon was fifteen, his parents started a divorce that took several years to complete. “It went on, and apparently that house, I think, must have been just a powder keg,” said Leon’s first child, his daughter Baby Blueagle Bridges-Fox, who goes by Blue. “And, you know, those are pretty formative years. I don’t think my grandpa really had much to do with the boys at that time.” Hester would remarry in 1963 to Eugene Fulbright. By then, Leon was well established in California.

“I’ve never had a great deal of family involvement,” Leon said. “The deep involvements I’ve had with people have been through musical relationships rather than blood.” We see this in action later in his life when he formed musical “families” in communal situations at his home studio and on the road, with Mad Dogs & Englishmen and his own Shelter People band.

His widow, Jan Bridges, said that Leon always liked going to other people’s houses as a kid because his was too quiet. His parents were on the stern side. “When we got together,” Jan said, talking about 1979 or so, “first he took me to meet his mom, and then he took me to meet his dad, who had remarried. I only saw his father one more time before he passed, when I had taken our daughter, Sugaree, to meet him. But they weren’t close. He really wasn’t close to either of his parents.”

Leon’s brother, Jerry, was seven years older. “They weren’t close at all,” Jan said. Later in life, when Leon was successful, “I think [Jerry] really wanted to be a part of Leon’s life. But I think it was the same as anybody who might be a fan. But Leon didn’t have fond memories of his brother. He really didn’t have any love for him because evidently, he did mean things to Leon when Leon was a kid… [Jerry] sort of picked on him.” Jerry joined the Air Force out of high school and went to work for a prosthetics company in Texas.

In Tulsa, the Bridges settled into a two-bedroom ranch home at 1958 North Marion Avenue, on the city’s northeast side, but soon it was Leon and Hester alone there after his father left and Jerry moved on. “The first night we moved to Tulsa, I laid in my lonely bed, and I heard all those sirens going by outside, and it just chilled me to the bone,” Leon said. “I thought, ‘I’m in the big city!’” And like most rock ’n’ rollers, he had lain in bed listening to the radio. Specifically, he recalled R&B disc jockey Frank Berry on KAKC, which later became Tulsa’s first full-time rock ’n’ roll radio station. “I was probably about twelve or thirteen, and his show was like from midnight till six,” he recalled. “He played blues all night. It was an unusual show. Of course, in the South, there were a lot of stations that had that blues format, but it was kind of a bonus in Tulsa.”

The music of Tulsa would have a profound impact on the trajectory of Leon Russell’s life. The city had been home to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the leader of western swing, since the 1930s. Wills married jazz and blues with country music, adding dashes of the mariachi music that was filtering over the border and polka that was popular with Czech settlers in Texas. He was one of the first country artists to bring a drummer into his band. The resulting music was almost always ebullient, even when the lyric was melancholy.

“Bob Wills was on the radio… every day on KVOO,” recalled future star J. J. Cale, who was part of Leon’s scene of high school musicians. “And you know, I don’t think I liked it or disliked it. It was just what you heard. The only thing that raised my attention span was when rock ’n’ roll started coming in.”

Western swing was waning in popularity as rock ’n’ roll gained traction. Texas Playboy Leon McAuliffe went on to open his own club, the Cimarron Ballroom, and form his Cimarron Boys. The Cimarron would later play host to rock ’n’ roll acts, including Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, which included a teenaged Levon Helm.

“Tulsa has always had that energy for me that has come from the ground,” said Jim Halsey, who booked McAuliffe, his first promotion, in 1949, on his way to becoming the biggest agent in country music. Halsey started booking Leon Russell in the 1970s. “And a lot of that comes from native people who were here and are still here and the sacred earth we live on. Now, that produces a certain energy.” Tulsa sits geographically, psychologically, and spiritually at the crossroads of the South, the West, and the Midwest. Route 66, “America’s Highway,” ran through it.

When he entered Will Rogers High School, Leon was still intimidated by Tulsa’s “big city” aspects. “This was just about the time that Blackboard Jungle came out, and I used to slide along the lockers and keep ’em all shined up trying to get out of the way of all those boys with those motorcycles and chains and switchblades. It was really terrifying.” His fellow students at Will Rogers High included musician David Gates and singer Anita Bryant, Miss Oklahoma 1958—probably not quite the hoodlums Leon described. Leon and Gates, who was two years older, played together in the Accents, mostly playing high school hops. Gates had formed the Accents with drummer Don Kimmel, bassist Gerald Goodwin, and Leon. Their first publicity photo from 1957 (Leon at fifteen or sixteen) shows them dressed in white tuxes sporting crew cuts, except for Leon, whose proud pompadour soars above his horn-rim-bespectacled smiling face.

Leon played in a few different bands. Some played high school parties and dances, and some played clubs. “I got a little bit of an education playing those joints,” said Leon’s bandmate Starlighters drummer Chuck Blackwell. “I remember them being packed. People packed into a booth, and the women would be carrying on. Ah, smoke. Fights.”

“Even though we were not famous,” Johnny Williams, another bandmate in the Starlighters, said, “we were stars of the bars.”

Some of these clubs were in or near the Greenwood Avenue district, which historically had been an economic powerhouse in North Tulsa. Once known as Black Wall Street, so named by Booker T. Washington, the area is now remembered for one of the worst race massacres in the country’s history. Credible estimates range from fifty to three hundred Black people died in the massacre in 1921.

Despite the massacre and subsequent efforts of white people to forcibly relocate the survivors, many of them remained and rebuilt. By the 1930s, the neighborhood was hopping again. Cain’s Ballroom was only a few blocks away from the border of Greenwood and remains today, though the neighborhood has long since been divided by the I-244 expressway. In his country standard “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” Wills gives a shout-out to Greenwood: “Would I like to go to Tulsa, boy I sure would / Let me off at Archer and I’ll walk down to Greenwood.” The Gap Band, whom Leon later signed to his Shelter Records label, named themselves in tribute to their hometown neighborhood, with “Gap” standing for Greenwood, Archer, and Pine Streets.


  • The New York Post’s Best New Books to Read
  • “Get ready to truly meet Leon Russell—one of music’s most unforgettable, colorful, and supremely gifted characters. Thanks to Bill Janovitz’s thoroughly captivating storytelling, here’s the definitive portrait as lively and essential as Russell himself.”—Cameron Crowe
  • “There is only one man ever called the Master of Space and Time, and for good reason. Alongside his own majestic music, Leon Russell’s otherworldly cosmic touch on the keyboards has enhanced the songs of countless rock gods and goddesses, lifting them to the stratosphere. I was fortunate to be in the studio the night he played piano on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ version of the Stones' Wild Horses, and the purity of his playing made me weep. Bill Janovitz takes us on a deep dive through the swirling currents and down the rocky roads of a bonafide musical genius, capturing his huge heart in the process. Finally, a song for Leon.”—Pamela Des Barres, author of I'm with the Band
  • “With Leon Russell, Bill Janovitz gets right down to business…. To say Bill Janovitz is ideally equipped to write this book is an understatement....Leon Russell didn’t just play rock ’n’ roll...He was rock ’n’ roll.”—The Wall Street Journal
  • "An eccentric, contrary genius, Leon Russell is one of the most compelling, misunderstood, and neglected figures in rock history. Bill Janovitz has unraveled the riddle of the rock n'roll sphinx in this masterful, majestic book. His love and admiration for Russell bleeds from every paragraph, yet he pulls no punches when it comes to Leon's life or his work. Janovitz brings the circus of characters surrounding Russell to life in vivid, sometimes hilarious detail. His research is impeccable, unerring; his deeply considered opinions of Russell's music unimpeachable. This is a biography for the ages, as thrilling an inspired as any piano solo from Leon himself. You really want to know what it's like to be a flawed superstar in the fabulous world of rock? Here it is, on a fiery platter."—Jimmy McDonough, author of Shakey: Neil Young's Biography
  • "Bill Janovitz has drawn back the curtain on this seminal yet incredibly complex and mysterious figure in American Music. After reading the book, I feel as though I've met the man, and certainly understand so much more about this singular musical genius. A detailed, absorbing read."—Elliot Easton, The Cars
  • "Leon's journey in music was vast and deep. It takes a researcher and author of great insight and clarity to make sense of it and provide a map for the rest of us. Here's Bill doing exactly that."—Mike Scott, The Waterboys
  • “Although I’ve read just about every music biography in existence, I do have some blind spots. Case in point: when I started reading this book, I thought Leon Russell was Leon Redbone. Janovitz has schooled me so thoroughly on this musical genius I’m certain I can teach a course on Leon at my local community college.”—Jon Wurster, writer/performer/drummer (Superchunk, Bob Mould, Mountain Goats)
  • “The most ambitious effort yet to peel back the curtain on one of the most gifted, least understood rock artists of the 20th century.”—The Los Angeles Times
  • “Through it all, Janovitz shows all the strengths of his previous books: an insider’s understanding of how music is made and a literary flair for bringing that process to life on the page….[He] also manages to be a sure-footed guide through Russell’s extremely complicated personal and professional life.”—The Boston Globe
  • “Incredibly detailed."—WBUR “Here and Now”
  • “Through highly-detailed archival research and nearly 140 fresh interviews, Janovitz…traces Russell through his upbringing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, early success as an A-list session musician in L.A. and outlier member of the fabled Wrecking Crew, key motivator and musical force in ensembles like Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen records and tours, and his own solo ups (and downs…and ups). But this is no hagiography…. Janovitz has definitely unlocked many of The Master’s secrets. It’s an important piece of rock journalism.”—Houston Press
  • "Exhaustive study of Russell’s life and work...The good, bad and ugly, it’s all here.”—MOJO
  • “In an illuminating new book, the incredible highs and devastating lows of the influential musician are remembered."—The Guardian
  • “Bill Janovitz’s revelatory new biography…brims with reminders of Russell’s incongruous status….Janovitz’s book is more than documentation of an important career….Janovitz provides the receipts and offers a refreshing clarity, along with ample triumph and tragedy that explains both the brilliance of the legend and also the confounding lack of proper regard for his standing.”—Houston Chronicle
  • “Janovitz tells Russell’s rollercoaster of a life and legacy in painstaking and vivid detail….[an] epic, a wide-ranging telling of a vital figure instrumental over decades, but one who can be overlooked.”—SPIN
  • “Janovitz's great achievement in writing this book is thus how he illuminates the disparity between the public perception and the private realities of this galvanizing but often conflicted figure. Whether it's in discussing Russell's stage fright, mental health or physical frailties, the author is as candid on those topics as his subject (who passed in 2016), not to mention the friends, family and collaborators Janovitz also interviews….[He] adopts just the right pace… His prose proceeds at such a fleet pace that he covers large swathes of Leon Russell's history without belaboring the salient points or including so much minutiae to deliberately impress the reader with the considerable depth and breadth of his knowledge…. Janovitz is artfully discerning in his evaluations of the man's admittedly checkered body of work.”—All About Jazz
  • Leon Russell has all the makings of being the standard work on Leon Russell…. While Janovitz is clearly an admirer of Russell and the biography is authorized by Jan Bridges, Russell’s widow, this doesn’t stop Janovitz from applying a critical eye when he thinks it is appropriate…. Leon Russell not only fills in the historical gaps of Russell’s lifelong career in the music business, it also looks at Russell the person, and everyone reading the book will get a sense of knowing who Leon Russell actually was behind the various personas….Clearly, this is a must-read for all Leon Russell fans….A significant gap in the overall history of American music has been finally filled.”—Americana UK
  • “Bill Janovitz…does a masterful job of telling the most comprehensive story yet of Russell, a musician as complicated as he was brilliant…. Janovitz has created the authoritative look on the life of one of the most original American rock musicians to come out of the 1970s.”—Glide Magazine
  • “So well-researched and thorough….The book tracks, in unparalleled detail, Russell’s rise.”—TulsaWorld
  • “Even more impressive than the sheer amount of raw knowledge Bill Janovitz puts on display is the way he expertly elaborates on Leon Russell’s familiar résumé highlights to create a full, three-dimensional portrait of a very complicated artist (and person)….[A] stunning new biography…. Janovitz gives such a detailed account of Russell’s life and work inthat, almost without fail, any given chapter will tempt readers to put down the biography for a moment to conduct a few Spotify searches and pull up songs they never knew had any connection to Russell….Janovitz is a reliable guide through weedy turf; he turns Russell’s career ups and downs into a grand story that will appeal to general readers as well as music fans….While Janovitz is adept at pushing out just how important a role Russell played in the development of popular music, he is equally savvy about just how badly, and how often, Russell undermined himself.”—ArtsFuse
  • “Janovitz’s word-for-word writing is strong, and there can be no questioning the excellence of his research.”—Psychedelic Baby Magazine
  • “Janovitz’s exhaustively captivating profile of Russell, one of rock’s most Zelig-like and complicated figures, is… a delicious masterwork of research and insights that could only come from a musician….Janovitz does music-lovers a great service by reminding us of the extraordinary talents and contributions of Russell.”—NYSMusic.com
  • Leon Russell is a wild tale, rendered in great detail by Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, reaching beyond rock anecdote to produce an empathetic portrait of a man of singular talent."—Uncut
  • “Bill Janovitz's superb new biography….One of the beauties of this book is that in addition to being an excellent writer, precise with language and a fluid command that has you purring through the pages like a Cadillac, Mr. Janovitz also gets remarkably candid interviews from key people who shed valuable light on events….Mr. Janovitz has done a staggering amount of research, sourcing older interviews and weaving them in with the fresh ones to give it that added spring of an oral history while ensuring that all the major players are represented. He does this with such a skilled hand it feels like the liner notes of Derek and the Dominoes have come to life and are talking to you — like you're hanging with these dudes as they give their colorful accounts of what happened. If you love showbiz and rock-and-roll road stories, it's a cavalcade of riches….Bill Janovitz has delivered a unique biography and an all-sides portrait of Leon Russell, an artist who deserves another look if you didn't give him a fair first one. That's what I'm gonna do. Is it too late to become a ‘Leon Lifer’?”—East Hampton Star
  • “A fascinatingly detailed account of Russell’s multifaceted career and numerous projects….Janovitz’s compulsively readable examination of Russell’s colorful life is the definitive account that this complex figure has long deserved.”—Under the Radar
  • “Janovitz’s new biography…will flesh out your knowledge and then some.  Along the way, the book provides a pretty good primer on the evolution of the music business from the mid-20th century through the early 21st.  Detailed and breezily written, it’s an absorbing read….We’ll never fully know what made the mercurial Leon Russell the artist he was.  But Janovitz’s deeply researched book fills in the picture more than anything has before.  A critically astute writer, Janovitz also provides incisive assessments of the music.”—BlogCritics.org
  • “An ambitiously comprehensive biography of a musical supernova…. [Janovitz] succeeds in creating a full portrait of a ‘Stranger in a Strange Land….’ Definitive.”—Kirkus Reviews
  • “Russell’s rise is entertainingly chronicled and woven through with lively rock ’n’ roll picaresque.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “A meticulously researched tome."—Ft. Meyers Magazine
  • Praise for Bill Janovitz:
  • “Janovitz is an extremely engaging companion...he is consistently illuminating, not only defending his songs well, but inspiring you to think more strenuously about the selections you would add or delete.”—The New York Times Book Review
  • Rocks Off is an intense pleasure--a series of love letters plus a few notes of despair...Janovitz opened my mind.”—The Wall Street Journal
  • “Through loving and informed close readings of fifty pivotal Stones songs, Bill Janovitz finds a new way to tell the band's story--and reminds even the biggest fans that for all the drama, gossip, and myth that has always surrounded the Rolling Stones, it is the music that will stand forever.”—Alan Light, author of Let's Go Crazy and The Holy or the Broken
  • “Seasoned rock musician Bill Janovitz, co-founder of Buffalo Tom, evokes the gritty brilliance of the Rolling Stones in exactly the right way--by digging deep into their music. The 50 essays, each describing a key song in the band's 50 year career, weave Janovitz's fastidious research with his passion for music to make the Stones come alive on the page. By the time he's done Janovitz proves that the Stones catalogue isn't only rock 'n' roll, it's five decades of cultural history set in rhythm, blues and serious bad-assery.”—Peter Ames Carlin, author of Sonic Boom and Homeward Bound
  • “His recently released biography of Russell, titled Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, does genuine justice to the music and the man. Voluminous in size and multilayered in its composition, Janovitz’s text is a masterwork in rock biographies….[he] excels here in his discussion of Russell’s music and life…. No review can truly do this book the credit it deserves in its telling of Russell’s time on earth making music.”—Counterpunch
  • "Janovitz has traded his guitar for a pen…. Janovitz masterfully chronicles the long, diverse, incredible career of Russell…. Even someone who is not a Russell fanatic – as is the case with me – but is interested in rock history will devour this well-researched, extremely readable look at a unique character in American music.”—On Milwaukee
  • “Stellar….Janovitz, a founding member of Buffalo Tom, has crafted an extraordinary bio, one that captures the genius and sadness of an icon.”—The Film Stage
  • “An impassioned telling.”—The Aquarian

On Sale
Mar 14, 2023
Page Count
592 pages
Hachette Books

Bill Janovitz

About the Author

Bill Janovitz is the author of The Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. (Bloomsbury 33 1/3, 2005) and Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones (St. Martin’s, 2014). He is a founding member of the international touring and recording band Buffalo Tom, formed in 1986 in Massachusetts. His most recent work has appeared in the Cambridge Companion series, Cambridge University Press; the Observer; Esquire.com; Rock and Roll Globe; and Post Road. He lives with his family outside of Boston.

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