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The 10 best Leon Russell songs, by Bruce Hornsby

Leon Russell and Bruce Hornsby
(Image credit: Gems /Getty Images | Sarah Walor)

Bruce Hornsby has worked with everyone. 

He's played keyboards for the Grateful Dead. He's scored most of Spike Lee's films. He's performed Comfortably Numb onstage with Roger Waters. And even the most cursory list of collaborators includes everyone from Elton John and Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Ornette Coleman, Bonnie Raitt and Squeeze, via detours into jazz, bluegrass and modern classical music. He gets about.

Hornsby's latest album, Non-Secure Connection, is typical. A twisted synthesis of musical styles, it leaps with gleeful abandon from one curious collection of ideas to the next, somehow pulling everything together into a cohesive, occasionally oddball whole. 

Guests Joining Hornsby on this particular ride include Shins/Broken Bells mainman James Mercer, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, singer and poet Jamila Woods, and the late Leon Russell

Hornsby first got to know Russell in the late 1980s, when Rolling Stone ran a feature on musicians and their mentors. Hornsby picked Russell, the two became friends, and later collaborated on Anything Can Happen, the title track of Russell's 1992 album. And now Hornsby's re-recorded it for Non-Secure Connection

"I thought the original was just badass," Hornsby tells Rolling Stone. "I always want to recut it. And the time came to do that. It’s got Leon’s vocal from that original rough mix, and then he emerges to sing full force with me and sing harmonies." 

  

Below, Bruce picks his ten favourite Leon Russell songs. Non-Secure Connection is released on August 14.

Roll Away The Stone

"This song from his first solo album caught my ear because it featured two musical moments that aren’t heard in the standard rock'n'roll song – more chromatic chord changes, and Leon’s trademark descending two-handed octave arpeggios. I had to figure out both."

Shoot Out On The Plantation

"Another great jamming tune from his first album, with a great groove, interesting arrangement (Leon was one of the great rock arrangers; see Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen live record), and wild lyrics, i.e. “the drummer is drumming a Rolling Stones number on Junior’s head and on his knees”!"

Stranger In A Strange Land

"One of the best from Leon’s great second record Leon Russell And The Shelter People. I became a complete Shelter Records fanatic, and collected Shelter sides from Freddie King, J.J. Cale, the Asylum Choir (another Leon project) and Alan Gerber. 

"I also loved the “bluegrass” re-working of Stranger performed with the New Grass Revival in later years; it inspired me to remake my song Valley Road with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for their Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol.2 record as a very uptempo bluegrass tune."

Home Sweet Oklahoma

"A great song from Shelter People that I try to play every time I play in Tulsa, OK. Gospel chord progression in the verse moving into a funky chorus that again, just grooves."

The Ballad Of Mad Dogs And Englishmen

"I’ve always loved this ballad that was featured in the Mad Dogs movie; nice chords and interesting, soulful lyrics."

I’d Rather Be Blind

"This Leon song from Freddie King’s second Shelter record Texas Cannonball always got me; I liked the line “I’d rather be blind than to see you go”. Those three Freddie King records have great Leon arrangements and funky feels, and showcase the great King’s many talents. 

"Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book was a volume that we young high school pranksters were mad for, and from that book we got the idea to write record companies telling them we produced a music magazine that published regular record reviews, and requesting to be put on their mailing list for new releases (we actually did produce our own bootleg, Xeroxed magazine). 

"We wrote to Warner Bros, Columbia and Shelter, and Shelter was the only one that wrote us back, sending us a big package containing three records. Of course we were elated, and subsequently became even greater devotees of Leon’s label."

I Believe To My Soul

"From the Leon and New Grass Revival live record, this version of the old Ray Charles song features another special Leon arrangement, great Sam Bush-John Cowan background vocals, and the funkiest groove possibly ever played by a bluegrass band."

Magic Mirror

"From Carney. A beautiful, ruminative, introspective piece."

I Want To Be At The Meeting

"An old traditional gospel number, also from the Leon-New Grass live album. Very simple and straight groove bliss."

Anything Can Happen

"A song I wrote with Leon that began with his request to me to “write me a Barry White track.” This song was the title track from his 1992 Virgin record that I helped him produce, and I’ve re-recorded it for my new 2020 record Non-Secure Connection, featuring some of the old Leon vocal from the original."