History tends to record the commercial breakthrough of Oklahoma singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and session man supreme Leon Russell arriving with 1972’s Carney. Less attention is afforded its predecessor of the year before, his second solo release Leon Russell & The Shelter People.
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The LP, which followed his self-titled Shelter Records debut of 1970, would be memorable if for no other reason than the fact that it contained “The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” A quintessentially reflective and autobiographical Russell ballad, it was an early favourite of a young Englishman who, decades later, would repay Leon’s influence on his career by cutting the album The Union with him, Elton John.
The Shelter People was Russell’s collective name for the distinguished cast of musicians who played on the album. They included bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon (described in the above song as the “future Dominos” who inhabited Leon’s world and went on to join Eric Clapton in Derek and the Dominos). Others in Russell’s inner circle of the time, and on the disc, included Jim Keltner, Jim Price, Jesse Ed Davis, and Chris Stainton.
An assured piece of work from start to finish, the Shelter People album was made over a period of several months in late 1970 and early 1971. It was recorded in London, Los Angeles and at Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama. The latter location only enhanced the soulfulness of Russell’s delivery and his choice of instrumentation with co-producer Denny Cordell.
Six of the original 11 tracks were Russell originals, and two more co-written with one of the guitarists on the disc, Don Preston. There were two visits to the Bob Dylan songbook, for his 1963 landmark “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the Highway 61 Revisited highlight “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” The album closed with a version of Leon’s friend George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass track “Beware Of Darkness.”
With a little help…
One of the contributors to the Muscle Shoals sessions, bassist David Hood, recalled in an interview with Carl Riser: “On the album there were musicians on some tracks from Tulsa — Carl Radle and some of the guys from out there — and tracks by us. And to differentiate, [Leon] wrote down ‘The Muscle Shoals Swampers’ on the ones we did, and the Tulsa one, I don’t know what he called them, but the Tulsa people on the others. And that just kind of took.”
Billboard’s review of the album said that, “with a little help from his friends, [it was] a driving, dynamite rock package and has [the potential] to fast top the sales and chart action of his initial Shelter entry.” It entered the US chart on May 29, 1971 at an impressive No.53, ironically second only to Elton John’s No.26 start with his live album 11-17-70. Russell’s album reached No.17 in a 29-week chart run, and was certified gold by the RIAA in February 1972.
Leon Russell & The Shelter People can be bought here.
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