The sad passing of Leon Russell in November 2016 had many of us reappraising both his career achievements and his marvellous songbook. The posthumous release of his final album On A Distant Shore was another reminder of his legacy. Today we look at one of his most-covered numbers with the help of Leon himself, who reveals its little-known connection to a major female vocalist from the mid-1960s onwards.
“Superstar” was, of course, eventually turned into an effortlessly classy, adult contemporary production by the Carpenters, in a characteristically smooth rendition that we came to know so well.
That version was based on the earthy but romantic story of a woman’s one-night stand with a rock star, whom she then hopes will return to her. For that reason, its working title was “Groupie Song,” and when it was first recorded by Delaney & Bonnie, with vocals by its co-writer Bonnie Bramlett, it was under the title “Groupie (Superstar).”
Like Eric Clapton, Russell was part of the circle of musical friends that came to be known as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. As far back as the mid-1960s, Leon and Delaney Bramlett had played together in the Shindogs, the house band for the hit TV music show Shindig!
After signing to Stax, the Bramletts had released their first album Home in May 1969, with Russell on keyboards and further contributions from Stax alumni such as Booker T and the MGs, Isaac Hayes and William Bell. Soon afterwards, they moved to Elektra for The Original Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and by the end of the year, were touring with Clapton and the musicians with whom he would form Derek and the Dominos. The single that accompanied that tour, ”Comin’ Home” (on another new label, Atlantic) featured “Groupie (Superstar)” on the B-side.
The first superstar
In a BBC Radio 2 documentary on Russell made by this writer in 2010, Singing This Song For You, Russell explained the song’s origins. “Rita Coolidge was the first person I ever heard use that word, ‘superstar,’” he said. “She was talking about Dionne Warwick, who was down in Memphis cutting a record, and Rita said ‘She was the first superstar I ever saw.’
“So that kind of struck me, I was not familiar with the word, and I started trying to started trying to write [the song], and I ended up finishing it with Bonnie Bramlett,” he continued. “And then Karen [Carpenter] sang it, and of course she had a definitive version.”
Coolidge, meanwhile, was the featured vocalist on the song (by now called “Superstar”) when it became part of the set for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, album and film, with Russell as musical director.
After covers by Cher, Vikki Carr, former Smith singer Gayle McCormick, and others, the Carpenters recorded their version in early 1971 and it was released by A&M that summer. It topped the Adult Contemporary chart, went to No.2 pop and made the Top 20 in the UK. As A&M co-founder Herb Alpert said in the BBC documentary: “The Carpenters were always looking for good material, and Richard Carpenter had an ear for great melodies. And Leon had that touch.”
Among the countless readings of the song that have continued to arrive, there was one that took it to a new soul audience. Luther Vandross recorded it for his third studio album, 1983’s Busy Body, cleverly combining it with Aretha Franklin’s R&B classic “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” Released as a single the following year, the medley reached the soul Top 5.
In another moment of poignancy, Bonnie Bramlett performed the song live at Music City Roots Live in June 2016, with Leon in the audience, just five months before his death.