Ace Records’ two most recent entries in its Songwriter Series of collections both spotlight artists who bucked tradition to forge their own paths at the end of the 1960s and the dawn of the 1970s: Leon Russell and Kris Kristofferson.
As we wrote upon his passing in 2016 at the age of 74, Leon Russell was an extraordinary talent unlike any other: A true renaissance man and an extraordinary talent as composer, musician, arranger, producer, and artist, The Master of Space and Time led many lives. With each one, his music touched a new audience: as a Wrecking Crew multi-instrumentalist who contributed to innumerable classic recordings; as a pop arranger for Gary Lewis and the Playboys and others; as leader of Joe Cocker’s raucous band; as composer of songs that will last forever, like “Superstar,” “This Masquerade” and “A Song for You”; as an influential solo artist, who followed his muse and inspired Elton John and so many others.
The simply-titled The Songs of Leon Russell presents an effective cross-section of his artistry from a diverse roster of singers. In his lifetime, his highest-charting U.S. Pop singles were “Tight Rope” (1972) and “Lady Blue” (1975) which peaked at No. 11 and No. 14, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100; of his albums, only Carney (1972) and Leon Live (1973) reached the Pop top ten. But his contemporaries were quick to recognize the strength of his writing and found his albums to be a fertile source of material.
While the 21 tracks aren’t arranged in chronological or reverse chronological order, the collection begins with its most recent composition. Russell credited Elton John with jumpstarting his career when the younger piano man invited him to collaborate on the album that became 2010’s The Union. “If It Wasn’t for Bad” is just one highlight of that piano man summit. Russell’s voice is a bit more weathered, sure, but it’s unmistakably the voice behind “Tight Rope” and the other piano-pounding tracks that so influenced the onetime Reginald Dwight. Elton was happy to take a back seat on “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” subtly supporting his hero.
The set continues with three back-to-back classics that remain among Russell’s most beloved. The Oklahoma native wasn’t easy to pigeonhole as a writer; while rootsy country and blues were close to his heart – and either subtly or overtly influenced his writing and performing – Russell also had the knack for a killer pop hook. His gruff, unadorned delivery often brought out the inherent soul in his music, but it was malleable enough to accommodate more traditional vocalists, too. The soul idiom is the one which Ace celebrates on the trio of Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady,” Delaney and Bonnie and Friends’ “Groupie (Superstar),” and Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You.” Singer Rita Coolidge was central to all three, inspiring both “Delta Lady” and “A Song for You,” and providing the initial song concept for “Superstar” (the writing credit of which went to Bonnie Bramlett and Russell.) She’s heard on background vocals for both the rousing “Delta Lady” and affecting “Superstar.”
Later in his life, Russell acknowledged the Carpenters’ “Superstar” as the definitive rendition – a statement that’s hard to deny considering the match of Karen Carpenter’s understated yet haunted, yearning vocal to Richard’s pitch-perfect, impeccable chart. The brother-sister duo also brought touching emotion to the baroque, dramatic “A Song for You,” transformed by Hathaway into an R&B anthem, and the evocative ballad “This Masquerade,” represented on this set by George Benson’s elegant, jazz-inflected treatment. The Carpenters are much missed on Ace’s collection, but the pop side of the Russell oeuvre is otherwise well-showcased.
One of Karen Carpenter’s heirs apparent, the single-named Rumer, brings her silken tone to a languid 2012 interpretation of Russell’s quirky yet moving “My Cricket.” Manhattan Transfer vocalist Janis Siegel’s breezy take on “Back to the Islands” smooths out the edges of Russell’s original in a lush version helmed by Joel Dorn. Similarly, Jose Feliciano renders the desperation of the wistful “Me and Baby Jane” (“Oh, how we laughed together/Trapped in the grapes of wrath together/Yes, we loved each other/Me and Baby Jane/But now she’s gone forever/Lord, help me stay together…”) with a warm, delicate air. Tommy LiPuma, producer of George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” brought his seemingly effortless, similarly light touch to Randy Crawford’s pretty take on “Time for Love,” released some eight years after Russell introduced it on 1974’s Stop All That Jazz, and Al Jarreau’s yacht-soul-styled “Rainbow in Your Eyes” from Leon and his then-wife Mary Russell’s 1976 Wedding Album. In the same fusion vein as the Jarreau track is Maria Muldaur’s lithe, sensuous “Make Love to the Music.”
Rewinding to Russell’s pre-fame, journeyman period, there’s Bobby Vee’s driving “Before You Go” (1966); the delightfully whimsical psych-pop of “Land of Oz” from Russell and Marc Benno’s short-lived psych-pop outfit Le Cirque (1967) and “Raspberry Rug” from future Delaney and Bonnie friend and Derek and The Dominos member Bobby Whitlock (1968, also recorded in a Russell arrangement by Harpers Bizarre); and Gary Lewis and The Playboys’ “The Loser with a Broken Heart” (1967). Unfortunately, Russell’s biggest contributions to Lewis’ musical history fall out of the purview of this set; he arranged the chart-topping “This Diamond Ring” as well as the consecutive top 5 hits “Count Me In,” “You’re your Heart for Me,” “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She’s Just My Style.” As for “Loser,” it stalled at No. 43 but shows Russell already incorporating a touch of gospel into his work.
In its most striking illustration of the songwriter’s synthesis of seemingly disparate styles, The Songs of Leon Russell happily jumps between country (“You Look Like the Devil” from Russell’s pal and sometimes-duet partner Willie Nelson), straight-ahead soul (Wornell Jones’ “Something Good Is Gonna Happen to You,” co-written by Russell and Jones for Russell’s Paradise imprint and one of the rarer tracks here), bluegrass (Earl Scruggs’ “Lonesome and a Long Way from Home”), blues (Freddie King’s “I’d Rather Be Blind”), hard rock (Nazareth’s “Alcatraz”), and disco (a thumping, percussion-heavy Curt Boettcher arrangement and production of Leon and Mary Russell’s “Love’s Supposed to Be That Way” from the studio group California).
The Songs of Leon Russell has been compiled by Mick Patrick with an essay by Kris Needs within its 24-page color booklet filled with memorabilia and photos. Nick Robbins has remastered.
Kris Kristofferson had a very different trajectory than Leon Russell though both rose to prominence as songwriters and solo artists during the same period. Almost six years older than Russell, Texas-born Kristofferson had been working on the edges of the music business since the late 1950s. His first release came on the tiny Manor label in 1958; after serving five years in the U.S. military, the Rhodes scholar made his move to Nashville to pursue songwriting. He did get some covers – Dave Dudley’s “Vietnam Blues” was a chart hit in 1966 and so was Roy Drusky’s take on “Jody and the Kid” two years later – but he was still working as a custodian at Columbia’s studios. When a chance encounter with June Carter Cash resulted in a song finding its way to her husband John, Kristofferson got the break he was waiting for. He was soon turning out future standards at a remarkable clip, many of which can be heard on Ace’s 23-song collection For the Good Times: The Songs of Kris Kristofferson. These are the compositions that bridged the gap between traditional country and the new, counterculture-friendly movement, earning Kris an “outlaw” label in the process. This set features an A-list line-up of artists: Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, George Jones, Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, and Kris’ fellow Highwaymen Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson among them. But Kristofferson’s songs went beyond country’s borders, attracting covers in pop, soul, and rock idioms, too. All of those (and more) are represented on Ace’s anthology.
The four songs that arguably are the songwriter’s most famous – “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and the title track – all feature here. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” opens the disc in Sammi Smith’s countrypolitan setting from 1970, her lone top ten U.S. Pop entry. Smith captured the ballad’s longing and intent with her intimate yet confident vocal. More unexpectedly, compiler Tony Rounce has chosen a fine 2006 bluegrass treatment of “Sunday Morning” from Bobby Osborne and The Rocky Top X-Press. (Note that, even decades after it first proved controversial, Osborne altered the “wishing I was stoned” lyric.) Roger Miller introduced “Me and Bobby McGee,” and although his 1969 recording was eclipsed by others’, including Janis Joplin’s posthumous No. 1 hit version in 1971, his jaunty original retains its abundant charm. “For the Good Times” is presented in Isaac Hayes’ slow-burner from his Black Moses LP; it’s silk and soul all the way with female background vocalists and a lush bed of strings supporting the reassuring lead vocal.
Kristofferson’s songs often spoke in an unadorned, accessible voice, finding beauty in melancholy. George Jones’ “Why Me” epitomizes this, with The Possum tapping into a vein of raw emotion and self-regret. Johnny Cash’s Sun Records-flavored reading of “The Junkie and the Juiceman (Minus Me)” likewise strikes an autobiographical mood, with the Man in Black finding a connection to Kris’ own story. But the songwriter wasn’t devoid of humor, either; For the Good Times checks that box off with the novelty-esque “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams” (“…you can kiss my ass!”) as sung by the late subject’s outlaw son Hank Williams Jr. and the winking “You Show Me Yours (And I’ll Show You Mine)” from Willie Nelson and Amy Irving on the soundtrack of Honeysuckle Rose.
Kris’ songs were snapped up by numerous R&B artists from the famous (Isaac Hayes) to the obscure (Sam Baker). “Sugarman” is one of Kristofferson’s darkest songs; even “outlaw” is too gentle for this vicious murder ballad. Baker tops the brassy cut off with a wickedly vengeful recitation. Making its welcome debut on CD is Dianne Steinberg’s “Enough for You” from the vocalist’s 1974 all-too-unknown Atlantic LP recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios with the cream of the Philly crop including “The Young Professionals” LeBaron Taylor, Tony Bell, and Phil Hurtt. It’s a bleak, desperate, and poignant lament from an abandoned lover, sung with sensitivity by Steinberg over a plush orchestration from Philly veteran Richie Rome. Smoky-voiced New Orleans singer Cynthia Sheeler does a southern soul take of “Nobody Wins,” covered not only by Nashville’s heaviest hitters but perhaps most famously by Frank Sinatra. Lloyd Charmers (a.k.a. Lloyd Chalmers) delivered a reggae version of another Kristofferson standard, “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” proving the malleability of his well-crafted melodies.
“Just the Other Side of Nowhere” inspired covers from Bobby Bare, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, and numerous others, but none so delightfully laconic as Dean Martin’s. On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Something They Can’t Take Away,” a song Kristofferson never recorded himself and heard here in Roy Orbison’s stirring 1976 version from his long-overlooked album Regeneration. Another somewhat unexpected name to appear here is Scott Walker. It’s largely forgotten that the cult hero took quite a shine to mainstream country music in the 1970s, including the beautiful and subtle MOR performance of “Got to Have You” included here from The Walker Brothers’ No Regrets LP.
Kris occasionally collaborated with other writers. All three gents credited for “Rock and Roll Time” – Kristofferson, Roger McGuinn, and Bob Neuwirth – recorded solo versions of the tune. Ex-Byrd McGuinn took the title to heart, delivering the song in an aggressive snarl over a driving accompaniment overseen by producer Mick Ronson. There’s no trace of folk-rock in McGuinn’s proto-punk interpretation. Poet-songwriter Shel Silverstein co-wrote “The Taker,” sung by Kristofferson in his modest voice to a woozy mariachi band accompaniment.
Duncan Cowell has remastered, while Tony Rounce has both compiled the set and provided its track-by-track liner notes. The 20-page booklet boasts plenty of album sleeve and single label reproductions. Kris has recently announced his retirement, but there’s no doubt his songs such as those heard on this set will continue to be played and sung and discovered by new generations.
Both The Songs of Leon Russell and For the Good Times: The Songs of Kris Kristofferson are available now from Ace at the links below.
- If It Wasn’t For Bad – Elton John and Leon Russell (Mercury 27531635A/CD 2748480, 2010)
- Delta Lady – Joe Cocker (Regal Zonophone RZ 3024, 1969)
- Groupie (Superstar) – Delaney and Bonnie and Friends featuring Eric Clapton (Atco 6725, 1969)
- A Song for You – Donny Hathaway (Atco LP SD 33-360, 1971)
- Me and Baby Jane – Jose Feliciano (RCA LP APL1-0141, 1973)
- Time for Love – Randy Crawford (Warner Bros. 49709, 1981)
- Land of Oz – Le Cirque (Buddah 14, 1967) (*)
- Before You Go – Bobby Vee (Liberty 5591, 1966)
- Raspberry Rug – Bobby Whitlock (HIP 8001, 1968) (*)
- You Look Like the Devil – Willie Nelson (Atlantic LP SD 7262, 1973)
- Back to the Islands – Janis Siegel (Atlantic 7-89991, 1982)
- Rainbow in Your Eyes – Al Jarreau (Reprise 1374, 1976)
- My Cricket – Rumer (Atlantic ATUK111/CD 2564659103, 2012)
- Make Love to the Music – Maria Muldaur (Warner Bros. 8580, 1976)
- Something Good Is Gonna Happen to You – Wornell Jones (Paradise 8804, 1979)
- I’d Rather Be Blind – Freddie King (Shelter 7323, 1972)
- Alcatraz – Nazareth (Mooncrest LP CREST 1, 1973)
- The Loser (With a Broken Heart) – Gary Lewis and The Playboys (Liberty 55949, 1967) (*)
- Lonesome and A Long Way from Home – Earl Scruggs & The Earl Scruggs Revue (Columbia 45560, 1972)
- Love’s Supposed to Be That Way – California (RSO 901, 1978)
- This Masquerade – George Benson (Warner Bros. LP BS 2919, 1976)
Stereo except (*) mono
- Help Me Make It Through the Night – Sammi Smith (Mega 615-0015, 1970)
- Sugarman – Sam Baker (Sound Stage 7 SS7-2620, 1969)
- Enough for You – Dianne Steinberg (Atlantic SD 7309, 1974)
- Here Comes That Rainbow Again – Jerry Lee Lewis & Shelby Lynne (Vanguard CD 78334-2, 2014)
- Just the Other Side of Nowhere – Dean Martin (Reprise LP MS 2053, 1972)
- Something They Can’t Take Away – Roy Orbison (Monument LP MG 7600, 1976)
- From the Bottle to the Bottom – Billy Walker & The Tennessee Walker (Monument MN45-1123, 1969)
- Nobody Wins – Cynthia Sheeler (Sugar Dome 506, 1974) (*)
- Rock and Roll Time – Roger McGuinn (Columbia LP PC 34154, 1976)
- Somebody Nobody Knows – The Everly Brothers (RCA LP LSP-4781, 1972)
- The Taker – Kris Kristofferson (Monument ZS7 8531, 1971)
- Prone to Lean – Donnie Fritts (Atlantic LP SD 18117, 1974)
- Why Me, Lord? – George Jones (Epic LP KE 32562, 1974)
- Loving Her Was Easier – Lloyd Charmers (Splash/Horse HOSS 32, 1973) (*)
- Sunday Morning Coming Down – Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press (Rounder CD 11661-0552-2, 2006)
- Me and Bobby McGee – Roger Miller (Smash S-2230, 1969)
- For the Good Times – Isaac Hayes (Enterprise LP ENS 25003, 1971)
- If You Don’t Like Hank Williams – Hank Williams, Jr. (Elektra/Curb E-47012, 1980)
- Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends – Joan Osborne (Vanguard CD 79810-2, 2006)
- You Show Me Yours (And I’ll Show You Mine) – Willie Nelson and Amy Irving (Columbia LP S2 36752, 1980)
- The Junkie and the Juicehead (Minus Me) – Johnny Cash (Columbia 3-10011, 1974)
- Got to Have You – The Walker Brothers (GTO LP GTLP 007, 1975)
- To Beat the Devil – Waylon Jennings (RCA LP LSP 4647, 1972)
Stereo except (*) mono