Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History by Bill Janovitz
When you think about Leon Russell (1942-2016), it’s hard to know where to start in figuring out what was his most significant contribution to the music industry.
Was it as an in-demand session piano player in the early-to-mid 1960s, his influential ‘70s solo albums with the Shelter People band, him being the real ringleader behind the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, his associations and collaborations with just about every big name in rock, pop, soul, blues, and other genres between the ‘60s and ‘70s, his endless work as player and arranger on so many iconic songs and albums … ? The gifted musician and able songwriter, arranger, and bandleader led a ridiculously full life working with his varied talents. Throw in the facts that his personal existence included a lifelong physical handicap (a form of palsy), mental struggles (he had depressive bouts and may have been bipolar), and a history of complex romantic relationships, and there’s a lot to unpack in attempting to gather a picture of what his overall story was all about.
Over 41 chapters and 500+ pages, that comprehensive portrait of Russell as musician and man is exactly what author Bill Janovitz laid out for us. The chronological biography takes us through all of the above-mentioned aspects of Russell’s career in music and personal affairs in painstaking detail. The deeply-researched tome walks us through Russell’s story in a way that makes us feel like we’re there with him day to day, being flies on the wall as we see him playing as part of Jerry Lee Lewis’s touring band while still a teenager, doing session playing on The Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ collaborating with the likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Rita Coolidge, Eric Clapton, and countless other luminaries, living in homes that doubled as recording studios and hangout pads for casts of memorable characters, running the Shelter record label with Denny Cordell, and on and on. Russell kept so busy with various music projects through his most productive years, it’s hard to fathom how Janovitz managed to put together an almost daily timeline of all that went down in the man’s professional life; but he did this, while also showing us the goings-on of Russell’s more personal affairs.
Before one reads Janovitz’s book, if somebody or something puts Leon Russell on their radar for whatever reason, the first associations that come to their minds might be things such as his 1972 album ‘Carney,’ the songs he wrote that were made more famous by other artists (‘Superstar,’ ‘This Masquerade’), and him just always being part of the proceedings in notable musical phenomena like ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ and ‘The Concert for Bangladesh’. Having read ‘The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History,’ those same people will have reached a deeper appreciation of the man’s talents and all that went on his lengthy CV. Janovitz shows us that, while Russell as a musician was primarily known for his singular talents on the piano, he could and did play just about any instrument you can name. He had some role in the creation of so many classic songs and albums that it’d be pointless to try and name a smattering of them. He was at the forefront of the late ‘60’s/early /’70s movements that saw white rock artists incorporate country, soul, gospel, and other varied influences into their sound and style. As a songwriter, arranger, bandleader, and showman, his work was respected and closely followed by a wide range of notables from Elton John to Randy Newman to Dylan to Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson. His career was mind-bogglingly full of consequential activity, and Janovitz tells us about all of it. A few especially interesting things that I didn’t know about Russell before the read: his close connection to the Ardent studio, home of Big Star’s recordings, and the fact that he was a knowledgeable cinema buff. And who knew that he collaborated with The Gap Band?
The interview quotes are a significant aspect of the book. Janovitz talked to hordes of Russell’s personal and professional associates in doing his tireless research. We hear from countless musical collaborators, everyone from Dylan to Clapton to Tom Petty to lesser-knowns, about what it was like to play with Russell, write songs with him, record for or with him, play in his bands, et cetera. We also get more personal takes on his character from family members and especially close friends and musical partners. And then there are comments from those who were intertwined in both Russell’s professional and more personal affairs, like one-time live-in lady friend Rita Coolidge. Taken as a whole, the interview snippets reveal Russell to have been an extraordinarily complex man. Easygoing at one moment and hard to get along with at the next. Someone who liked to have a good time but was also prone to depressive funks. Open-hearted in ways, but not someone you wanted to have as an enemy. Full of both confidence and grave self-doubts. A sometimes reserved guy who was also a flashy showman.
So how does one assess the book’s ultimate quality level? Different readers’ satisfaction with it will vary, depending on what one likes in a biography. Janovitz’s word-for-word writing is strong, and there can be no questioning the excellence of his research. But, for me personally, the book is too exhaustive. There are endless details within its pages that could have been left out without any substantial aspects of Russell’s life being left uncovered. There are so many trees, I found it hard to see the forest at times. Edit the 500+ pages down to about 350 by deleting extraneous content, and it would’ve been perfect. But there are certainly those who like books like this to follow every possible avenue in telling the story of the subject. Those readers will be appreciative of all of the information Janovitz provided. And anyone who cares about Leon Russell will be rewarded with much to savor from the read. I certainly learned a ton about him that I didn’t know before.
Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History by Bill Janovitz (Hachette Books 2023)
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