Legendary rock singer and songwriter Leon Russell died in his sleep in Nashville, Tennessee, on Sunday at the age of 74.
Earlier this year, Russell had to postpone 28 concert dates between July and September after suffering a heart attack. He was still recovering from bypass surgery in July at the time of his death. Previously, a statement on his website had reported that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was “optimistic” and able to make a complete recovery.
Here are five quick facts you may not know about the music icon:
1. Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, on April 2, 1942. He had a gift for music from the very beginning, learning to play the piano within just a few years, and by age 14 performing in Tulsa nightclubs. After graduating from Will Rogers High School, he hit the road with his band.
Named the Starlighters, the band toured for two months as the supporting act for Jerry Lee Lewis.
2. At age 17, Russell moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles where he worked as a session musician for live shows and studio recordings. As a studio musician, he played on many of the most popular songs of the 1960’s, including songs by the Byrds, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Bobby Pickett, and Herb Alpert. In 1964, he appeared on the T.A.M.I. Show playing piano with the Wrecking Crew — hardly recognizable to many of his later fans as he had short, dark, slicked back hair on the show.
3. During the 1960’s, Russell played with a wide array of the greatest artists of the era, including Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, and the Rolling Stones.
He worked with country legend Glen Campbell on his 1967 album ‘Gentle on My Mind,’ where he was credited as ‘Russell Bridges’ (his birth middle and last names).
Russell released his first solo single in 1965 when he came out with ‘Everybody’s Talking Bout the Young’ on Dot Records.
4. Russell and Denny Cordell created the U.S. record label Shelter Records in 1969. The label operated from 1969 to 1981 with offices in Los Angeles and Tulsa.
His first commercial success as a songwriter came when Joe Cocker recorded the song ‘Delta Lady’ for his 1969 album ‘Joe Cocker.’ The album was co-produced and arranged by Russell and reached number 11 on the Billboard 200.
In 1970, Shelter Records released Russell’s first solo album ‘Leon Russell’ which included the first recording of the legendary ‘A Song for You.’ The song has since been released in various versions by more than 40 different artists, including Ray Charles, the Carpenters, Willie Nelson, Helen Ready, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and Christina Aguilera. In fact, the Temptations and the Carpenters, both, named an album after the song.
In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, Russell said music doesn’t really change much, “It’s cyclical, like fashion. You keep your old clothes and they’ll be in style again sooner or later. There are new things, like rap. But that’s a rebirth of poetry. It’s brought poetry to the public consciousness.”
5. He married Mary McCreary on June 20, 1975. The couple divorced on October 3, 1980. Thereafter, he married Janet Lee Constantine on February 6, 1983. He has four daughters, Sugaree, Coco, Tina, and Honey. He also has a son, Teddy.