How Leon Russell helped me meet my mom
Off-Ramp's Rosalie Atkinson's letter of gratitude to legendary songwriter and performer Leon Russell, who died Sunday at 74.
Off-Ramp intern Rosalie Atkinson on the death of Leon Russell and his place in her life. Russell died Sunday at 74.
I'm a teenager. It's five o'clock and a glow from kitchen lights is spilling out the open front door, guiding my feet up the 4 stairs into my childhood home. Like most nights, I enter to find my mom, Tanya, dancing in front of the stove.
"Stranger in a strange land! Whoaaa-ooooh!" She sings at me, squinting, spinning around our kitchen.
She points at me and I join in. Together we sing, "Stranger in a strange land!" as I dip a finger into a pot of pasta sauce, a cloud of garlic and tomato sauce harmonizing alongside us.
I don't reflect on these moments much because nothing's changed: I know if I were to walk in the door somewhere around dinner time, I'd still find her singing these love songs to her pots and pans. But with the death of musician, songwriter, and fixture in our lives, Leon Russell, I'm forced to issue a letter of gratitude for what his music did to my life.
On Sunday night, in his Nashville home, Leon joined Heaven's band peacefully in his sleep. A member of session musician collective "The Wrecking Crew," Russell quietly tied together albums of the heavy-hitters in American music history: Bob Dylan, George Harrison, B.B. King, Herb Alpert, and so many more. His first commercial success came after writing "Delta Lady," popularized on Joe Cocker's 1969 self-titled album. From then, Russell's songs went on to be performed by the Carpenters, Willie Nelson, the Temptations, and Amy Winehouse.
He was a proud cornerstone of the Nashville music scene, and Leon's experiences in music transcended racial barriers. His music danced across rock, blues, country, pop, and gospel. This versatility helped him build his entirely unique sound; not afraid to bellow crushing minor notes, or screech out twangy ballads through quivering vocal chords. This is the sound wafting through the background of my childhood and memories of my mom that make those moments so important to me now.
Leon Russell was different, unclean, unencumbered by success, unlike so many highly decorated, popular artists. I can remember sitting at the dinner table, tracing the outline of his gray top hat on the cover of Leon Live, watching my mom.
Last summer, I saw Leon perform in Oakland with my mom. We squished into a tiny table at the end of his giant, white grand piano, and watched him as he used his cane to meander to his bench. Without looking at the keys, his hands found their place, his voice found amplication, and my mom and I found joy.
I can still see it today: During Leon's biggest hit "A Song for You," I turn to my mother and I mouth the words, "I love you in a place, where there's no space or time. I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine."
After the concert, we hang around the stage door. Eventually, Russell and his entourage emerge and mingle with fans. Many drunken baby-boomer's asking him about working with Elton John, asking to try on his stark white cowboy hat, ambition strikes me and I push through them, with my ticket in one hand and my mom's hand in the other, and I manage to get some important words out:
"Leon, my mom is a huge fan and she played your music for me growing up and now I am a big fan too. Will you sign our tickets?"
Almost animatronic in his movements, he looks at me, and he looks at my mom, then says, "Well gee, I appreciate that. I'll sign 'em right now. You got a camera? Let's take a photo."
Without Leon Russell's music, I wonder if I'd ever have really met my mom.
Before my mom had my brother and me, and she got the moniker "mom," there was a woman who loved vinyl records, who loved Southern rock, and who deeply loved Leon Russell. He introduced me to her spirit and allowed me to share something meaningful with her, besides genetics. He shared with me the woman that slept dormant in her, to be awakened by the sentimentality of a certain album or vocal twang.
For these reasons and more, I will miss you, Leon Russell. But I will always thank you more.