The late Leon Russell was one of the more original and unclassifiable artists of his time, and the upcoming tribute album A Song for Leon features an appropriately eclectic roster of artists singing his praises. The 10-track project is due Sept. 8 from Primary Wave Music/Secretly Distribution and is led by Margo Price‘s version of “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Assembled by Primary Wave’s Laurel Stearns, A Song for Leon also includes songs from Pixies, Orville Peck, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, the unusual combo of U.S. Girls and Bootsy Collins, Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Durand Jones & the Indications, and Hiss Golden Messenger.
“This song is so prolific,” says Price of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which was the opening track on Russell’s second album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People. “After my band and I cut it, we decided to perform it live at many shows. The monologue in the middle is my favorite. It still seems absolutely pertinent and its subject still matters today. He’s talking about the afterlife and equality and goes off about starting a new race where we all just learn to love each other. We can all learn a thing of two from Leon Russell.”
Born Claude Russell Bridges in Oklahoma in 1942, Russell was drawn to music early and began performing as a teenager. As a young man, he became a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew of session musicians and played with scores of artists, including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys. He also recorded country music under the name Hank Wilson.
By the time Russell began making records under his own name in 1970, he was already highly regarded as a performer, arranger, and songwriter. His classic 1970 song “A Song for You” has been widely covered by artists including Donny Hathaway, the Carpenters, Ray Charles, and Amy Winehouse, and he scored other solo hits with “Tight Rope” in 1972 and “Lady Blue” in 1975, released through his own Shelter Records label.
Russell went on to collaborate with everyone from Willie Nelson to Bruce Hornsby, but he faded from view for many years before longtime friend Elton John sought him out for the 2010 comeback album The Union. The T-Bone Burnett-produced effort was a surprise commercial and critical success, culminating in Russell’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year. He died after complications from heart surgery in 2016 at the age of 74.
Here is the track list for A Song For Leon:
Margo Price – “Stranger in a Strange Land”
Durand Jones & the Indications – “Out in the Woods”
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats – “Tight Rope”
Orville Peck – “This Masquerade”
U.S. Girls with Bootsy Collins – “Superstar”
Pixies – “Crystal Closet Queen”
Monica Martin – “A Song for You”
Bret McKenzie with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – “Back to the Island”
Tina Rose, Amy Nelson, Jason Hill – “Laying Right Here in Heaven”
Hiss Golden Messenger – “Prince of Peace”
Additional reporting by Anna Gaca