The music world lost two giants this week – on Monday, Leonard Cohen and then Leon Russell on Sunday.
I never had the chance to see Leonard Cohen live, but I heard a lot of artists cover his work, most notably Judy Collins when she played The Bowery Stage at Winnsboro Center for the Arts in June.
She told the story of how she came to record Cohen’s song, “Suzanne,” turning it into a hit in 1966 before he ever recorded it.
I was also lucky to see k d lang cover Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the Meyerson and to hear Madeleine Peyroux open her show at the Wyly in Dallas with “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”
Cohen was first and foremost a poet. That he set his words to beautiful music was an extra gift to his fans.
Leon Russell had my heart from the beginning.
My mom had lots of records and I always read the liner notes. Leon Russell’s name was sometimes credited as the piano player for singers like Doris Day, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra. Then, as my own record collection began to grow, Leon’s name kept popping up.
Leon was part of what they called The Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians in Los Angeles. He played on all of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound albums and also played keyboards for the The Beach Boys in the studio. Cher remembered him playing on her and Sonny’s first record.
So, he was on my radar when he organized Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour in 1970.
I saw him in college several times and then, through the years, I’d try to catch his shows, driving as far as Waco and College Station to hear him perform.
One night a few years back, he was at the Granada Theater. The crowd was mostly college-aged kids who probably didn’t know much, if anything, about the man with the long white hair who walked out on stage, legendary aviator glasses in place, sat down at the keyboard and proceeded to cast a spell over them.
He didn’t talk between songs. There was no need. He let the music speak for itself.
When it came time for his most-covered ballad, “A Song For You,” most of the crowd headed to the bar in the back. I was rooted in place, as it’s one of my all-time favorite songs (The Carpenters took it mainstream in 1972).
When he hit the first lick and began with “I’ve been so many places in my life and time,” in my 18-year-old heart, it was just me and Leon in that big room. By the time he got to “We’re alone now and I’m singing this song for you,” he had flipped up the shades on his glasses and I swear, he looked right at me.
Time stood still. I was back home in the den on Coke Road, lying on the floor, listening to his self-titled album over and over again, finally wearing the grooves down so much I had to purchase another one.
While records are a good way to learn about an artist, live performances give you a chance to get up close and personal, with a chance to connect to their magic, in an audience of 80 or 8,000.