Over the past two weeks, we’ve lost a couple more artists who influenced rock and pop musics, quietly and in somewhat different ways. Leonard Cohen died Nov. 7 at the age of 82; Leon Russell was 74 when he passed away on Nov. 13.
Cohen was in many ways the antithesis of a rock star. A native of Montreal, Canada, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, he came to folk music as a poet/songwriter, having enjoyed limited success as a writer of fiction and poetry.
His first success in the music business, in 1966, was as a songwriter, when several artists, including Judy Collins, covered his poem “Suzanne.” He released his first album the following year, which included his version of “Suzanne,” also issued as a single. Cohen’s record didn’t chart, but Noel Harrison’s cover reached No. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967.
It was primarily Harrison’s version, and Collins’ to a lesser extent, that first attracted my attention to Cohen. I was a wannabe poet, interested in the likes of Rod McKuen, and the imagery in “Suzanne” — inspired by the writer’s experiences in a platonic relation in his native Montreal — intrigued me. Ditto for one of his other oft-covered songs, “Bird on a Wire.”
Cohen’s voice and vocal style was a bit of an acquired taste, and his performing style was anything but rock and roll. But he enjoyed critical and surprising commercial success; although none of his singles seemed to have charted in the U.S., his studio albums included a number gold and silver certifications.
I kind of lost track of Cohen back in the 1970s, but he continued to record albums, less regularly into the early ’90s and resuming after a hiatus that extended into the new millennium. He also lived an interesting life; a Sabbath-observing Jew until his death, he became an Zen Buddhist monk as well.
Cohen’s biggest impact on The Music, though, was as a writer. Hundreds of his songs have been recorded in a wide range of styles, by an amazingly diverse group of artists also numbering in the hundreds; one website lists more than 3,000 recordings of Cohen-penned songs. Pretty impressive impact for a guy who didn’t play an electric guitar.
Russell, conversely, made his first impact on rock via his musicianship. He also came from a different cultural and musical direction, attending an Oklahoma high school with Elvin Bishop, Anita Bryant and David Gates (later of Bread), and starting to play keyboards in Tulsa, Okla., nightclubs before he was old enough to drive; his first band included J.J. Cale.
A piano player since he was four years old, he moved to Los Angeles at age 16 and became a sought-after session musician. He played on many ’60s hits, including recordings by the Byrds, the Crystals, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Glen Campbell and the Ronettes.
Russell didn’t really record on his own until 1965, when Dot Records released his first single. He followed that with a studio collaboration called the Asylum Choir, but the two resulting albums didn’t enjoy commercial success until Russell broke out in the late ’60s.
That breakthrough was the result of a gig playing with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, whose band was showcased by Eric Clapton in 1969. The Delaney and Bonnie and Friends tour introduced Russell to George Harrison, and led to his association with throaty English vocalist Joe Cocker.
Cocker’s recording of “Delta Lady” was Russell’s first commercial songwriting success. Russell produced and arranged Cocker’s eponymous 1969 album, and also organized and performed on the singer’s hugely successful Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
Those helped raise Russell’s profile to the point that Columbia Records released his first solo album, also self-titled. That LP included the first recording of what would become one of his most popular and oft-covered songs, “A Song for You.”
That number, and others like “Superstar” and “This Masquerade,” were recorded by acts like George Benson, the Carpenters and Helen Reddy. But Russell had chart success with his own songs, too, “Tight Rope” reaching No. 11 on the Hot 100.
Russell’s musicianship left its fingerprints on the work of many other artists, including Bob Dylan (whose “When I Paint My Masterpiece” he produced), Clapton, Dave Mason, and a couple Kings, B.B. and Freddie. Elton John cited him as a major influence.
He also had some success in country and western — his gravelly, Southern-fried voice was a natural fit for that genre — performing as Hank Wilson. He also was a regular performer at Mickey Gilley’s roadhouse, the club popularized by the movie “Urban Cowboy.”
Russell worked mostly in country music in the ’80s, and faded from the limelight in the following two decades. His career was resurrected by John, who brought him into a project that produced 2010’s “The Union”; that included guest appearances by Neil Young and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and became Russell’s first gold album in 31 years.
Russell recorded one more solo album after that, but he had begun having heart problems during “The Union” sessions. He suffered a heart attack in July, had to cancel some planned shows, but was hoping to resume touring next year. His death last week ended a subtly influential musical career.