COLUMN FIFTY-SIX, FEBRUARY 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
LEON AND MARY
LEON AND MARY RUSSELL
The gate at the
Nassau Coliseum had been light; maybe only $35,000, with Leon's share just a
little below his break-even point of $11,500.
It's expensive to fly a troupe of 27 around the country in a private
plane, even if it is just an aging—putt-putt-prop job, and the box office had
been down in every city except Cincinnati and Atlanta.
"I’m going to do it
through August," Leon said. "If
it doesn't get into some money by then, I’m going to have to stop.
It's just too damn painful."
He was wearing
a hand-stitched brown suit and a white Stetson with a hatband of pheasant
feathers and he didn't really look gloomy so much as resigned.
His hair and his beard, whiter than I had ever seen them, were also
longer than the longer I’d known. He
had turned into an Oklahoma patriarch in the three years since we had last been
together, a man who had experienced so much that little else could perturb him.
I remember his
amazement after the Bangladesh concert when the first hippie freaks started
knocking on his door to tell him he was the new Jesus.
Dylan and the Beatles had already gone through 10 years of that kind of
adulatory crap and Leon said he would try not to let it twist his head.
Still, there's a certain poise and bearing to a patriarch, the kind you
see in a one-time newspaper delivery boy who's grown up to be maybe the largest
depositor in Tulsa’s City Bank. Leon's
also known as a preacher of sorts, but preaching is his ace in the hole.
The kind of stakes he's playing for, looking like an Oklahoma patriarch
is just another way of keeping a poker face.
became disenchanted with the road," he said, trying to explain why he had
quit touring two years earlier at the height of his success---or was it the
height of his disillusionment? "Traveling.
Hotel food. I aint got that
much strength. Also it takes me so
long to make a record, I really think I put out a couple of bad ones when I was
working on the road."
voice was scratchier than usual, the whiplash snap of a cold that had deposited
a catch in his throat he still couldn't shake off.
He kept coughing in the middle of a sentence, forcing him to get
up from the couch to go spit in the most convenient spittoon---the toilet
bowl---before he could return to complete the sentence.
Then with his throat relatively cleared, he’d light up a Winston.
It was the night after the Nassau
Coliseum gig and we were sitting in tiny cubicle of a dressing room on the
eighth floor of the NBC Building in Rockefeller Center, waiting for his first
number on the set of NBC's Saturday Night Live TV show. He doesn't normally like to do TV but Leon and his wife,
Mary, are fans of Saturday Night Live, just like all the other married
yuppies and yokels who curl up in their rec rooms and watch it on the tube.
The director's voice crackled from the speaker box hanging over the dressing
room mirror that reflected the little spread of cold cuts, potato salad, cheese,
bread and wine on the dressing table before it.
"WARDROBE! Do we have a
mink coat or anything that looks like a mink coat? Right away!"
had been there since early afternoon, back and forth,
found out I liked to stay at home and just overdub records," Leon said.
"Mostly in California. Encino.
I have a home with a studio there and I have a home with a studio in
Tulsa. But we only spend three or four months a year in Oklahoma.
We've been spending most of our time in California, finishing up the Wedding
Album and rehearsing the live show. Mary
and I worked on the Wedding Album for a year.
It was after we got married I realized it wasn't fair for me to keep her
talent hidden. You know, she is
better than me. I decided I had to
get her out there, and I'll be the bandleader in the family.”
Mary is 25. Leon is 34. She
was sitting with him in the dressing room and I kidded him about being a dirty
old man. Mary raised her eyebrows.
"I'm kidding him, not
you," I said. "I’m
allowed to kid him.”
Mary laughed. She was very dark skinned, very voluptuous and very
beautiful. For me, she was also
very hard to get to know. They’d
met three years earlier when she came down to L.A. from San Francisco, a
one-time church singer who had made it into R&B as Mary McCreary, a member
of Little Sister, the act that hit the charts with Somebody's Watching You
and You're the One, produced by Sly Stone.
She also had two albums out under her own name, Butterflies in Heaven
They met when she came down to L.A. to audition for Leon while he was still partners with Denny Cordell in the ownership of Shelter Records. They started living together about January of 1975. Six months later, on June 20, they were married and six months after
'the way Leon talked it was easy to tell that he figured he got screwed, but he wouldn't divulge any details'
that, last January 1, Mary gave
birth to Teddy Jack Willie John Russell Bridges, which happens to be Leon's real
It was while Leon and Mary were
getting together that Leon and Denny started breaking up. They had been partners about five years and from the way Leon
talked it was easy to tell that he figured he got screwed, but he wouldn't
divulge any details.
“I'm prohibited in the
settlement from talking about it," Leon said.
Now Denny owns Shelter Records all by his lonesome and Leon owns a new
label, Paradise Records, distributed by Warner Brothers.
Leon and Mary's Wedding Album is Paradise's first release, and
this tour is designed to promote it.
"FIFTEEN MINUTES TO AIR
the voice crackled urgently from the speaker box.
We were rapping about nothing in particular, old times, new times and
hard times. It's always been easy
for Leon and me to talk, both of us being two of the most intelligent people I
know in the music business.
"The last time I played the
Nassau Coliseum, two years ago, everybody in the audience started taking their
clothes off and throwing them on the stage," Leon said. "There was maybe 100 pounds of clothes on the piano and
the front of the stage. It looked
like a rummage sale."
This time the Coliseum wasn't even
half-filled, but, like I say, Leon wasn't grim about it.
His first time out without Denny as his manager and he figured he had
enough control to keep all the bread counters in line. After all, he'd been
playing for money for 20 years, ever since he was 14, and he ought to know what
a good deal was or wasn't---with or without Denny's cagey advice.
He also figured he knew his market and, besides, he could now
afford a couple of mistakes.
"In Atlanta, we did two shows
and were 90 per cent sold," he said. "Tomorrow
night, we're playing Chicago and it's been sold out for three weeks.
But it's in a small theater. It
only holds 4,500 . . .”
Leon and his troupe were already
eight dates into the tour and we both agreed the economy was one reason the
gates weren't too hot. In this kind
of economy, the losers say, "Deal," and then get dealt out, but
Leon wasn't about to crack to being a loser.
"Like my percussionist,"
Leon commented, "well, he's more than my percussionist---you've got to meet
him and talk to him. His name is
Ambrose Campbell and he comes from Nigeria.
His father is the Christian Bishop of Nigeria and his grandfather was one
of the most powerful witch doctors in Nigeria.
Ambrose is my spiritual advisor, and he puts people into three
categories. The doctors, or the
healers. The musicians, or the
artists---they're the ones who developed real time and they give beauty to the
world. And the hunters, who
are also necessary because they feed us. They're
the lawyers, the politicians, the managers, the administrators, the people who
always think it's a trap. So now, I
have to be a hunter, too, and some things I see, or the way I see it, I think is
the direct result of my experience for 30 years.
The hunters are good people, but they're always looking for a place to
stick the spear in."
Me, I was stuffing my face with
cheese, cold cuts, bread, potato salad and OJ.
Leon was drinking beer and, in addition to getting up to cough and spit,
he also kept getting up to pee. Part
of anybody's con is the illusion of intimacy and Leon is one of the superior con
men of our time, already an old carny at his tender age.
He has charm, wit, brilliance, extreme power, a fine sense of beauty and
he’s quick on the draw. Yeah, he’s a con man but he’s a con man with
ideals---which, for a con man, can be a fatal flaw, unless that's part of his
"There’s a certain
invisible line that's hard to draw between being a musician and a hunter,"
he said. "If I don't go out
and hunt, we don t eat. So I'm a
hunter, too, because we all have to be hunters, or a part of us, but I'm always
a musician first, an artist. People
don't realize the powerful effect art has on life, on the world, not even the
artists, because technology and business have become so much a part of getting a
work of art out there that too many hunters are becoming involved in the
creation of art. Some day in the
future, we might even go so far as. . .well, movies like The Godfather
might finally be recognized as crime instruction documentaries.
Because people who don't have a life planned and see something as
artistically powerful as The Godfather end up adopting it as a way of
life. And that's why this country
is becoming what it is, because The Godfather HAS made people believe
that's the way it is and the way they should be. And the people who make the movies either don't realize or
care about it, because they're mainly interested in the box office or the camera
angles or the lighting---but mainly the box office.
Was that the name of it? Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I saw the movie before I read the book. It
was an awful movie, but the book made it much clearer to me.
Anyway, before I read the book, I thought it was so much bullshit because
I didn't think the population would allow that sort of equipment in the house.
Now I see everybody's falling all over themselves, not only going into
debt to buy the equipment and get better equipment than their neighbors, but
even installing it themselves. And
what it's already doing is that it lulls the whole population into a frame of
reference where everybody knows there are no good political figures around and
so they vote for the lesser
Frances, popped in while Leon was talking and poured herself a cup of wine.
She is one of Leon's backup singers and close on her heels came the other
two, Maxayn Lewis and Ann Bell, both from Tulsa.
They started talking to Mary and picking on the food and the dressing
room was suddenly very crowded.
MINUTES TO AIR TIME!" the voice crackled from the
speaker box. Yellow alert!
Pilots, man your planes. I
couldn't decide which to concentrate on, the food, what Leon was saying or the
girls' asses and I remember thinking that there is no justice in America, never
was and never will be. That's all anybody really wants is justice. Then Ambrose came in, the percussionist and spiritual
advisor, black as Africa, wearing a straw hat and carrying a brass-headed ivory
cane that obviously had been handed down from his witch doctor granddad.
my brother," Ambrose said, motioning toward Leon after
a bushman,” Ambrose explained. "Life
doesn't stop in the bush. There is
always activity as far as the bush is concerned."
words came out sing-song in a high-pitched voice, enunciated slowly and
carefully chosen for the person at whom they were directed.
Ambrose is a mind-reader who can psych you out in a second.
Like Leon says, he talks right down the middle, never acting with
condescension just because you're white and yet never compromising his
knew I was impressed with whatever power it took for a 57-year-old man
to cop a 19-year-old old lady and start a family.
She was skinny, sexy and pretty, too.
goes down," Ambrose said. "It
is according to life. You can't be
one year today and six months next year. The
pattern of life is to increase."
asked about his cane, whether the creature carved in brass was a crocodile or a
"It looks like a crocodile," he answered, "and it looks like a snake," and that's all he would crack to, except to confirm that it had been his grandfather's. His skin was leathery and he had a black beard that looked like somebody had drawn it on his face using a charcoal pencil for lines that simply went straight up and down. He was wearing a pullover African
he wanted to talk to me
when the time was right
that he had made himself and that hung low over his trouser tops.
His trousers were light beige with thick dark stripes tapered at the
ankles of his sandaled feet, hinting at spindly legs.
He looked like what you'd expect a beachcomber to look like, as if he had
just stepped out of a thatched hut. I
offered him a cigarette, but he shook it off.
stopped smoking nearly a week," he said.
"Drink, too. Once you
get sucked into it, you don t have control any more.”
kept saying he wanted to talk to me when the time was right.
you are a writer," he said. "I
want to write, eventually. Everybody
who has something to say should, because we're all messengers and we must
deliver our message."
Soon he had become Leon's guru, or
one of them, because there are a lot of rivulets which feed the river and Leon
is a river, a guru to many more than Ambrose could ever reach.
Somehow, we got on to that subject.
Mass hypnosis. Mind fucking. Gurus.
"Half of them don't practice
what they say," Ambrose commented.
Leon admitted that's the business
he was in. "I get a lot of
shit from people," Leon said, leaning forward from the couch. They think
I'm a schemer. And I am, I'm a con
He was getting animated now,
blowing his patriarchal cool.
"All musicians are, whether
they know it or not," I said. "Illusionists.
Leon said, "but the shit that some of them get away with!"
the shits," I said. "No
matter how shitty it is, there's enough people, a big enough audience, a big
enough market, so that if they do it well, if they create a good enough
illusion, there's enough people looking to be mind-fucked so that they'll get somebody
to listen to them."
Ambrose said, "music is food and food is taste, no matter who cooked
too, they're in the same business,' I said.
“Especially with today's technology.
They get on TV, but people don't listen to what they're saying, they just
look at the guy's face and get hypnotized to whatever degree of psychic power
the guy happens to have."
what about this Moon fellow?" Leon asked.
"How does he work?"
talks Korean," I said.
I'll bet he has an interpreter with him," Leon said.
I'll bet the interpreter talks straight, dull and boring, while Moon dances
around and screams and shouts and waves his arms."
Leon said, "that's an old routine."
now the dressing room was filled with a cross-fire of conversation, with Mary,
Frances and Maxayn adding to the talk.
MINUTES TO AIR TIME!” the speaker box crackled.
auditioned me drunk!" she said.
"And you kept saying, 'Why do
you smoke cigarettes? It's slow
suicide,’" he remembered.
"And in the middle of my
first song, he started jumping up and screaming," she said. "I said, 'What'd I do wrong?' He said, 'I'm excited.
Finish your song.' I said, 'I can't now.’"
Her baby pictures were being
passed around the room and it was my turn for a toke.
“Her name is Valerie Rose,"
Phoebe said. "Isn't she
beautiful? The name of my first
album was Take Your Children Home and it was for Leon.
I used to stand behind the drums and throw off the beat.
He told me to get away. The
last time I saw him, it was at the Nassau Coliseum, and the crowd was tearing
their clothes off. I was very
was I," Leon said.
Dayan Cannon stuck her head in on
the way to the set. She was guest
hostess on the show that night but she really didn't have anything to say.
I reminded Leon of the night we got drunk in Cary Grant's suite at the
Warwick a few years back. Dayan was the mother of Cary's only child.
"So that's her claim to
fame," he muttered.
We watched on the monitor in the dressing room as the show got started, with Chevy Chase
did he get
a name like
falling off a ladder.
He was a nice guy, Chevy Chase, a clever talent and obviously the
ringleader of the show, but where'd he get a name like Chevy Chase?
It just didn't fit. Soon it
was Leon s turn before the TV cameras and we went out to the set.
It was a new band for Leon, with only John Gallie, the organ player,
surviving from the old group.
Two of the members, bassist Dave
Miner and guitarist Roger Linn, had come over from Mary's old band and they were
very young. Roger was only 20. But Leon is a teacher, one of the more important
fountain-heads of contemporary music and, just as he says, a bandleader.
It only took him a few days to pull the band and the music together for
the whole Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker back in 1970.
Of course Leon ended up stealing the show and Joe hasn't forgiven him
since, although Joe was asking for it.
“Is the music good enough?"
Leon wanted to know at the time, and Joe answered, “It's never good
enough," which made Leon try all the harder.
The fact is that after 20 years of
playing on the biggest hits with the biggest stars, Leon has developed a style
and a sound so strong, so personal and so distinctive that even Chevy Chase,
himself a piano player, was able to caricature on the Lampoon album.
It's hard to caricature something that doesn't stand by itself, and it's
hard to make something stand by itself without the force and authority that Leon
commands. Didn't I say he's a patriarch?
Force seems to be the only thing that works in this world, especially
when deception fails you.
By TV standards, Leon's
performance in front of these death rays they call cameras was a lot better than
adequate because even a little taste of the real thing goes a long way where you
almost never get the real thing at all. Leon,
of course, wasn't thrilled with the first number because there's this problem
about presenting live music on TV, especially live TV, especially in a TV studio
and especially on the kind of TV variety show that Saturday Night Live
is, even though it does have a live audience.
Musicians normally need a live
audience to relate to and although, in a recording studio without a live
audience, they simply relate to one another. And in a recording studio, they can
do another take if they don’t get it right the first time.
And getting it right doesn't just mean doing it without clinkers, it
means getting the right feel.
On live TV, they have only one
chance to get it right, and on a variety show like Saturday Night Live
they can't build their set to a climax, reaching out to the audience in the next
song, or the next, or the next until they bring the audience off.
Leon and Mary's first number was Satisfy You from their Wedding
Album, and after they did it they had to go offstage and wait 20 minutes
until they got back on the stage to do the next.
But the inspiration was obviously
filtered by the death-ray machines between the act and the audience, with Leon
sitting like a larger-than-life icon at the piano while he shout-sang his lyrics
and Mary dignifiedly screamed her Black Baptist head off.
staging of reality is an illusion," Leon explained back in the dressing
room between numbers. "Because I know where the audience is going to
react and the quantity of the reaction.
And if it doesn't come off that way, I adjust it in some way and it's
supposed to look like it's all off the top.
I first started this band it was with sort of a Zen philosophy.
Where, when we play a tune, it has to start right and the end has to be
right and what's in the middle doesn't matter as long as we all get on the same
telepathic wave-length. But when it
comes to the real world, I don't know what to do about it.
I think Walt Disney was fantastic. I
mean I think the art he created really enriched the world, because who doesn't
dig his cartoons? Except in his animal movies, he created a real warped
sense of the law of the jungle which doesn't have anything to do with the
animal sense of survival and reality and which probably helped mislead a whole
generation or two. Because the
animals know they're not protected by Walt and so, if they fuck up, they die.
a real strange way, with people, if their reality is anything
closer to the Godfather movie, the reality they're dealing with is closer
to the real reality. Which seems
like such a second-best philosophy. It's
sad in a way."
and his troupe had spent the afternoon rehearsing three tunes for Saturday
Night Live, not that they heeded all that rehearsing, but the director and
the cameramen did. For the right
shots, the right angles, the right lighting and the right time. Now it turned out there'd be time for only two numbers, and,
for their second tune, Leon and Mary did Daylight, also
the Wedding Album, one of the prettiest tunes that Leon and Mary do.
This time the feel was stronger and I found myself dancing, too. But then good
music always makes me dance.
“. . .And it looks like daylight's gonna catch me
up. gonna catch me up agaiiin. . .”
feel began to soar, but the end spoiled it for me.
That was when John Belushi, one of Saturday Night Live's
“Not Ready For Prime Time Players” came out with a can of beer in his hand
and did his Joe Cocker impersonation, collapsing on the floor at the end while
the beer spilled wildly on the piano and Leon, who gave only the slightest look
"I would have had some
reservations about the taste of that bit," Leon explained afterwards,
"except for what Joe's been saying about me in the press and the way he
acted the last time he was over my house. I
mean there he was over my house saying all those horrible things.
did he say?" I asked.
"He said 15 things like
this," Leon said, standing up and posing with a clenched fist ready to
strike. "He really hurt my
feelings. And he kept confusing Teddy Jack Eddy. . ."
"He's a redneck truck driver
friend of ours," Mary interrupted.
thought he was my bodyguard," Leon said.
"He went up to Teddy Jack and
said, 'But you don't scare me!’" Mary added.
"He said, 'Leon, you buried
me,"' Leon said. "He
said, 'Leon, you can't play God.' Those were his parting words."
Leon's troupe was getting ready to
leave. The Saturday Night Live
people had invited everybody to a Dutch treat party in the pub at One Fifth
Avenue and they were making arrangements
you want to come to Chicago with us?" Leon asked.
I get back home?" I asked.
take care of that," Leon said.
"Sure!" I answered.
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