Leon Russell

A Rock ’n’ Roll Legend at a Pivotal Moment

Tom Zimberoff
Feb 8 · 11 min read
Leon Russell at LAX / ©1969 Tom Zimberoff

hen I entered the University of Southern California as a freshman music major, in 1969, my ambition was to become the first-chair clarinetist in a preeminent symphony orchestra. I’d won an audition and the prize of a scholarship. I found out the same week Armstrong & Aldrin landed on the Moon. I was over the moon. But the scholarship came with a quid pro quo: conscription into the USC Trojan Marching Band.

The Trojans were hands down the best-sounding college band in the United States — in the world, with its unparalleled musicianship stemming from the faculty’s ability to recruit (and conscript) players from the best music school west of Juilliard (New York), Curtis (Philadelphia), or Berklee (Boston). In those days, if you wanted to be a Hollywood filmmaker, an NFL football player, or a philharmonic musician, USC was the place to be. Our marching formations on the gridiron, however, were less than exceptional, despite the fact that we (some of us being indentured servants, if you will) did more drill practice than the kids we derided for joining the Army National Guard. The Vietnam War was going full tilt. My crowd was influenced less by John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” (1968) than Donald Sutherland’s “Mash” (1970). A full metal jacket, we joked, was the breastplate worn with our Bronze Age band uniforms (molded plastic, actually). Many students were marching in the streets and on campuses to protest the war and support civil rights. Being in the band meant demonstrating the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah Spirit of Troy at every NCAA and Pac-8 basketball and football game. Each band member received a two-ticket perk per game which we liquidated, so to speak, to buy beer (and dope).

In late October, 1969, the Trojan Band was lined up in front of the United Airlines ticket counter at LAX collecting our boarding passes for a flight to San Francisco. More than a hundred of us carrying gigantic Sousaphones, big bass drums, and smaller instrument cases were heading to Berkeley to perform in a halftime show, a football game pitting USC against the Cal Bears. The only thing too big to take with us was Traveller, a steroidal white stallion who galloped out to the fifty-yard line at home games during halftime, reared up on his hind legs, and whinnied while his rider, bedizened in Cardinal & Gold, brandished a sword skyward to the stirring strains of Fight On for ol’ SC, Our men Fight On to victory. . . Think Roy Rogers meets Homer. Thankfully, our ersatz 12th-century-B.C. armor, plumed helmets, and capes were packed away. I was lugging my saxophone case, and a secondhand Pentax camera was hanging from my neck; a lately acquired accoutrement. Photography was my new avocation, but it hardly took precedence over music — not yet, anyway. In this milieu, a 17-year-old alto sax-toting photo enthusiast — that would be me — spied a man I knew only by reputation walk up to a ticketing agent’s kiosk. His name was Leon Russell.

If you weren’t one to read the liner notes on record albums back in the day, you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Leon Russell was. I did, though. Liner notes aside, his gospel-soul-country-blues-infused piano was all over the radio. He was a driving force behind the Wrecking Crew, an informal collective of LA sidemen; freelance back-up musicians contracted ad hoc for recording sessions. Initially, they were cast together as a house band for producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recordings. They went on to make themselves indispensable to the West Coast music industry, rivaled only by the chicken-fried sound of the Muscle Shoals players in Alabama, on the Tennessee River, equally close to Memphis and Nashville. The Wrecking Crew played thousands of studio gigs in the 60s and 70s, killing it for artists from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan; Doris Day to Aretha Franklin; the Beach Boys to Wayne Newton. Leon was a prolific songwriter, too. Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker and dozens of other performers covered his tunes. Clearly, his talent supported every kind of popular musical style. Rolling Stone cited his influence, calling him a “superstar sideman” without a whit of sarcasm or oxymoron. Most telling is that Elton John cites Leon Russell as his greatest influence. And I, for one, can hear it.

Few people, however, would have known who Elton John was in 1969. I certainly didn’t. Both he and Leon Russell had their first solo smash hits in 1970: “A Song for You” by Leon and “Your Song” by Elton.

Back at LAX, a pro would’ve shot film first and asked questions later. I shot Leon an inquiring look, first, which he returned with a nod before I lifted my Pentax all the way up to my eye. I wound quickly through two frames before I noticed the woman sidling into the picture. Then one more: Click! She looked like she’d just seen one of those gosh-darned hippies for the very first time.

Let me remind you, dear reader, that auto-exposure and auto-focus were science fiction in 1969. A successful photograph relied on learned technique and split-second muscle memory, just like playing a musical instrument. The clarinet, the saxophone, the Pentax. . . all require practice. I was still a tyro on the Pentax, so I’ll cop to good luck in capturing a woman’s spontaneous bewilderment at the sight of a hirsute stranger whose countenance was not the norm in an early-Nixon-era airport terminal; people still dressed up to travel. What’s this world coming to? It’s worth noting that the musical “Hair” was still in its first run on Broadway, creating media buzz and emphasizing a cultural divide with the buzz-cut crowd. In my imagination, I see a hand reaching for the woman from out of frame to pull her away, and a voice yelling, Ma! Leave the poor guy alone. You’re embarrassing me. In fact, she aimed only a word or two at Leon before pussyfooting away as ephemerally as she appeared. I didn’t hear what she said. I don’t know if Leon did either. And I still don’t know who she was. I should have walked over to introduce myself to Leon “ex post photo,” if only to rule out that she hadn’t asked for directions to baggage claim. I’ll never know what distraction made us go our separate ways without further acknowledgment. At least I captured a man in a memorable photograph at a pivotal moment in his career; although that realization came to me later. Even later, still, I saw how this photograph was the first little push that spun me toward a 180° pivot in my own career.

eon Russell leapfrogged to the top of the charts in 1970 when the now legendary Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour hit the road. It was headlined by Joe Cocker who’d been making a living wrenching cars in Sheffield, England before his screaming-hot cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” scraped the other nine songs off the Top Ten. Sandpapered them off is more like it; Cocker’s voice was an abrasive Nº40 coarse grit. And then came his astounding 1969 debut at Woodstock which catapulted him to rockstar status. Months later Cocker was ready for his first big concert tour; but he had no band to back him up. His manager called on Leon to muster the Wrecking Crew.

Leon recruited two dozen musicians, including three drummers and a passel of back-up singers. He installed himself as lead guitarist, pianist, and musical director. Along with a plethora of roadies, stage managers, and whatnot, he hired a motion picture camera crew to follow and film the whole shebang. It was a brilliant move. With Joe Cocker center stage, Mad Dogs & Englishmen went from stadium concerts to movie theaters, not just turntables. The musical milestone that was Mad Dogs & Englishmen is preserved for posterity as an eponymous madcap Technicolor circus, a documentary film that revels in the raucousness of rock ’n’ roll.

Before the tour began, and not long before I shot the photo at LAX, Leon co-founded a record label with his business partner Denny Cordell. They called it Shelter Records. It was not only a vehicle for Leon’s music; Shelter released albums by JJ Cale, Etta James, Freddie King, Phoebe Snow, Dwight Twilley, Tom Petty, even a Bob Marley single. By the end of the tour, and with its success, you might be right to surmise that an exclusive and quirky photograph of Leon Russell had acquired a valuable cachet; one that could be monetized. All the more so because Leon acquired additional fame, the following year, in 1971, helping George Harrison organize his famous performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City, “The Concert for Bangladesh.” It was the very first humanitarian, rock ’n’ roll mega-show, in concert, so to speak, with UNICEF. Leon performed, too, along with Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and Ravi Shankar. In 1972, someone I knew who knew someone who knew someone got me a meeting at Shelter in Hollywood to show off my prize and see what could be done. Leon wasn’t around but I snagged a show-and-tell with Denny Cordell. I did my homework, too, before paying a visit to Shelter, and had a good idea what they should be paying me before I walked in the door. We agreed to a one-time, non-exclusive licensing fee of $350 ($2,500 in today’s currency) to publish — I don’t remember how many copies of — a promotional poster. Easy peasy if you’re aware of your rights as a copyright holder and are prepared to say no and walk away, even if you’re only 18.

I bought my first Leica with that money. But more important than the money or the Leica, I was able to leverage that photograph and the poster to worm my way into more record companies and get paid to shoot more rock bands. Pretty soon I was making a living at it. The camera ultimately eclipsed the clarinet, and I left USC to make my way in the world.

I don’t know when Leon first saw the photograph. It would have been just a reproduction on the poster, of course, not an original print. Nevertheless, I didn’t get to meet him formally until after I left USC to start shooting pictures professionally. It was 1972, I think, when we met backstage after a show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Leon was a big star now. Elton John was his opening act! I reminded Leon how our serendipitous first encounter at LAX resulted in that poster. He half-snickered, half-laughed and said, “Yeah that old lady sued us because we didn’t have a model release.” Ha-ha! That was embarrassing. After that I began to pay attention to professional photo business practices, which include, among many other things, getting a signed model release from every physically recognizable person who appears in a published photo.

Soon after that show in Las Vegas, I decided to stop shooting Rock altogether because artists’ managers started to impose too many restrictions on my working habits — on all concert photographers. I was already thinking about photojournalism, instead, shooting breaking news, politics, and documentary reportage. For my concert-photo swan song I wrote a magazine article called “How to Shoot Rock” which included, as illustrations, my own on-stage pictures of Leon and Joe Cocker. I submitted the package to Popular Photography. They published it with my first writer’s byline (in addition to my photo credits, of course). I gave away all of my “secret” techniques for getting access, lens-and-filter tricks, film-processing work-arounds, sales-and-distribution shortcuts. . . everything I’d learned in the previous few years that gave me a competitive edge. I was done with rock ’n’ roll photography.

Years went by, and I forgot about the picture. Leon’s career had waned. He continued to tour the small club circuit, but rumors had it that he was fed up with music industry bigwigs trying to yank his chain and, so, eschewed the Big Time. Then, in 2009, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a man named Johnny Barbis who told me he had recently produced an album of duets with Elton John and Leon called The Union. A brief concert tour had also been planned to promote it. Sir Elton was no longer the opening act.

Apparently, while recollecting his roots, Elton John, now a Knight of the British Empire, felt he owed an ailing and aging Leon some kind support and public recognition. My first question was, “Can I shoot the album cover?” Regrettably (for me), Annie Leibovitz had already done so. Nevertheless, Barbis had stumbled across a very old copy of my poster and looked me up. Thank goodness for photo credits! I apparently insisted on mine since the get go. Barbis also told me Sir Elton would soon be inducting Leon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which he did in 2011) and that he wanted the LAX photograph to be displayed during the ceremony in Cleveland. Done! I didn’t make enough money this time to buy a new Leica, but it was a pretty penny.

I got to see and hear Leon twice again at two small gigs: once, in 2009, as a guest of Johnny Barbis at a restaurant/bar in Sonoma County, where I got to say hello, and lastly, in 2010, at Yoshi’s, an intimate jazz club in San Francisco.

“Leon Russell at LAX” received its last hurrah in 2013 when I was approached by fashion designer John Varvatos who wanted to display a large print in his Los Angeles boutique and also publish it in his book, Rock in Fashion, which celebrates styles popularized by Rock icons. With another licensing fee in the bank, my photograph ran as a “double truck spread.” (That’s publishing speak for up to two full pages, top to bottom and across the “gutter,” the inner margin where pages are bound.) It was the biggest illustration in the book and used the original cropping I chose for the Shelter Records poster. Today, my limited-edition prints of “Leon Russell at LAX” continue to sell to collectors.

eon’s health continued to decline but he didn’t stop performing. However, by 2016 he was doing poorly indeed. After recovering from a heart attack and bypass surgery that summer, he died in his sleep, at the age of 74, at home in Nashville in the autumn of that year.

The cropping used for the Shelter Records poster / ©1969 Tom Zimberoff

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…

Tom Zimberoff

Written by


Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Tom Zimberoff

Written by


Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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