Top 10 Leon Russell Songs

Leon Russell Songs

Photo Shelter/Blue Thumb Records [Public domain]

Our top 10 Leon Russell songs list looks at an American icon who defined the terms musician and songwriter. Leon Russell’s contributions to the American Canon of music have been celebrated for over sixty years. Born in 1942, Leon Russell made a name for himself as a session musician in the 1960s. During the early 1960s, Leon Russell played on sessions for artists such as The Byrds, Herb Alpert, and many others. Leon Russell gained significant experience in the studio during those years, also working with the legendary Phil Spector on many classic recordings.

Leon Russell’s early work as a session musician would morph into a career as a songwriter and recording artist. In the 1960s, Leon Russell was responsible for penning the Gary Lewis and the Playboys hits “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She’s Just My Style.”  In 1968, Leon Russell released his first album, Look Inside the Asylum Choir. It was a collaborative effort with Marc Benno. For the next two years, in 1969 and 1979, Leon Russell became a member of the group Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. It was a group that would help Leon Russell forge relationships with some of rock and roll’s most influential artists, including The Beatles’ George Harrison. 

In 1970, Leon Russell released his first solo album entitled Leon Russell. The album would contain the songs “Delta Lady” and “A Song For You,” two of the most covered songs in classic rock history. While Leon Russell had already established himself as a sought-after pianist, he had now graduated as a brilliant songwriter and an artist to be reckoned with. Elton John stated that Leon Russell had been his most significant influence as a pianist, singer, and songwriter.

From his 1970 solo album Leon Russell until his final studio album released in 2017, On A Distant Shore, Leon Russell released over fifty albums, including live records and compilations. That is not including the countless albums Leon Russell appeared on as a studio musician or guest artist.

Our Top 10 Leon Russell songs list is just a small attempt to highlight 10 of the most essential songs Leon Russell released during his spectacular career. We hope listening to these great Leon Russell songs will inspire you to check out the rest of Leon Russell’s catalog if you are unfamiliar with his work.

# 10 – The Ballad Of Mad Dogs & Englishmen

We wanted to open this top 10 Leon Russell songs list with a big one. While most classic rock fans associate the title “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” with Joe Cocker,  it was Leon Russell who indeed penned this classic song. “The Ballad Of Mad Dogs & Englishmen” was released on Leon Russell’s second solo album entitled Leon Russell and the Shelter People. The album was released in 1971.

# 9 – Shoot Out On The Plantation

Continuing with our Leon Russell songs list, we turn to the rocking blues-infused New Orleans-style track “Shoot Out On The Plantation.” The song was released on Leon Russell’s debut album entitled Leon Russell. The album was released on March 23, 1970. The recording sessions spanned from September 1969 to January 1970, taking place at a variety of studios, including Olympic in London, Sunset Sound, Gold Star, and Wally Heider in Los Angeles, as well as Ardent in Memphis. The album blends Americana, country, blues, and rock elements, showcasing Russell’s versatile talent across its 38-minute duration.

Released under Shelter Records in the United States and A&M Records in the United Kingdom, the album was produced by Denny Cordell in collaboration with Leon Russell. Leon Russell not only produced, he played piano, guitar, bass guitar, and lead vocals. The song featured an impressive lineup of musicians, including half of The Beatles, with George Harrison on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums. Additionally, Alan Spenner played bass guitar and Jim Horn played sax. The backing vocalists could have started their own all-star group with contributions by Bonnie Bramlett, Joe Cocker, and Merry Clayton.

# 8 – Back To The Island

I have always loved this one. What am I saying? We have all loved this one. “Back To The Island” has an excellent laid-back groove that makes you feel good. It has a bit of a Jimmy Buffett feel to it. The song “Back To The Island” was released on the album Will O’ the Wisp. It was Leon Russell’s sixth studio album. It was released in 1975 under Shelter Records. The album achieved notable success, reaching number 30 on the Billboard Albums chart for 40 weeks. The distinctive album cover was the creative work of artist and actor Gailard Sartain. A memorable moment in the album’s history occurred on July 21, 1999, when Leon Russell performed “Back to the Island” live on The David Letterman Show.

Leon Russell performed lead vocals, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, synthesizer, clavinet, and percussion. The album boasted a remarkable assembly of musicians, including guitarists Steve Cropper, Bobby Manuel, J.J. Cale, Tommy Allsup, and Don Preston. The rhythm section was anchored by Donald Dunn and Carl Radle on bass guitar, with Patrick Henderson on organ.

The drums were played by a diverse group of musicians, including Teddy Jack Eddy (Gary Busey), Richard “Moon” Calhoun, Al Jackson Jr., Ambrose Adekoya Campbell, Jim Keltner, and Carl Himmel, creating a rich tapestry of rhythms. Mary McCreary added depth with background vocals, while Jim Horn brought the alto saxophone’s melodies. The album also featured unique sounds from Masako Hirayama on the biwa and Minoru Muraoka on the flute, with Roger Linn handling synthesizer and programming duties.

# 7 – Hummingbird

What a fabulous guitar groove this song opens up with. It’s then met by Leon’s funky piano riffs before it explodes into an killer, dark, moody jam. The song “Hummingbird” was released on Leon Russell’s 1970 album Leon Russell. The album featured an all-star cast of guest musicians performing on the album. Classic artists such as Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts, and Joe Cocker appeared on the album. The song Hummingbird closed out side one of the album.

# 6 – Tightrope

How could you not love the great groove in this classic Leon Russell song? The spectacular song “Tightrope” was released on the Carney album. The album was issued in 1972. Leon Russell wrote every song on the album. “Tightrope” was the album’s opening track. The song “Tightrope” was released as a single. The song was a commercial success. Leon Russell’s “Tightrope” reached the number 11 position on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.

# 5 – Delta Lady

The last four Leon Russell songs on this list are not only classic Leon Russell songs, they were also four of his most popular covered songs. Once again, we return to his 1970 album Leon Russell for the great track “Delta Lady.” Various artists have covered this classic song for over 40 years. The song was first recorded in 1969 by Joe Cocker. That version was released before Leon Russell released his version of his 1970 album Leon Russell. Over the years, “Delta Lady” has been covered by artists such as David Cassidy, Bobbie Gentry, Mickey Thomas, Pat Travers, and Gary Puckett.

# 4 – Lady Blue

“Lady Blue” has to be one of the all-time great titles in classic rock history. You almost know it will be a great song just by the title before you even hear a note. “Lady Blue” was released on Leon Russell’s Will O’ the Wisp album. Leon Russell wrote the song. The album was released in 1975. “Lady Blue” was a top 20 hit for Leon Russell. The song peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. George Benson also did a great cover version of the song.

# 3 – A Song For You

If you ever wondered where Elton John found inspiration for the music he composed to “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” look no further than Leon Russell’s classic recording “A Song For You. Leon Russell composed and released this incredible piece of music on his debut album in 1970, which became the artist’s signature song. It also became his most covered composition.

“A Song For You” was covered by some of the most legendary artists in classic rock history. Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” was covered by Aretha Franklin, Cher, Donna Summer, Carpenters, Natalie Cole, Peggy Lee, Donna Hathaway, Neil Diamond, The Temptations and Ray Charles.  There are so many more cover versions, too numerous to mention here in this article.

It should be noted that some of these artists released albums utilizing “A Song For You.” as the album title. Both The Temptations and the Carpenters released albums titled A Song For You. Furthermore, legendary Ray Charles won a Grammy for his cover version of “A Song For You.” The classic “A Song For You” was released on Leon Russell’s 1970 album Leon Russell. It is by far his most famous song. However, there is one more song that we believe was the most beautiful and brilliant of Leon Russell’s ever written.

# 2 – This Masquerade

Most Classic Rock music fans, in general, know this song from the classic George Benson cover version. George Benson had a monster hit with the song “This Masquerade.” It was one of the biggest hits of his career. George Bensonn’s version hit number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. However, Helen Reddy recorded a beautiful version of “This Masquerade” on her 1972 album I Am Woman. Once again, The Carpenters recorded an incredible version of Leon Russell’s song.

When so many artists cover a song, it speaks volumes of the substance of the music itself. When a song is so brilliantly written, the artist covering the song has not to screw it up. When brilliant artists like George Benson cover a great song like “This Masquerade,” you usually wind up with a top 10 hit.

It’s fascinating that Leon Russell never even released the song “This Masquerade” as a single. The song was initially released as the B-side to the hit “Tightrope” in 1972. Benson’s version was such a big hit in the 1970s that most people don’t realize Leon Russell wrote the song.

# 1 – Stranger In A Strange Land

We close our Leon Russell’s songs list with the fan favorite “Stranger In A Strange Land.” This song defines everything we all came to love about Leon Russell’s music. It’s a soulful gospel-infused mid-tempo ballad full of spirit, mystery, and love. “Stranger In A Strange Land” was released on Leon Russell’s second solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People.  Released in 1971, the album achieved significant commercial success, reaching number 17 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart in the United States and earning gold certification for sales exceeding 500,000 copies in the US and Canada. The title of the album Leon Russell and the Shelter People pays homage to the ensemble of session musicians associated with Shelter Records, a label co-founded by Russell and Denny Cordell in 1969.

The album was recorded in January 1971 at the Skyhill/Shelter Studios in Hollywood. Leon Russell took the helm, not only as the lead vocalist but also playing piano and organ. The album features a talented lineup of musicians, including Don Preston and Joey Cooper on guitars, John Gallie on organ, Carl Radle on bass guitar, Chuck Blackwell on drums, and Claudia Lennear and Kathi McDonald providing backing vocals. The engineering work was handled by Peter Nicholls,

Professional Sources, research, experience, and citations

Charting and career information used in the analysis and research of the commercial success of these albums comes from the following sources

Further analysis and original thoughts are provided by the writer Brian Kachejian’s experience as a professional musician and music collector for over 50 years and his experience as a New York State certified music and history educator and professional music journalist with the New York Press.

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  1. Avatar Brenda Arnold Mattox February 29, 2024

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