When fans think of Leon Russell and Ray Charles, the last thing that comes to mind is “country music.” But both artists took a run at it during their careers– in their own unique ways, and with varying degrees of success.
When Ray Charles signed with ABC-Paramount Records, he got one of the highest royalty rates, ownership of his master recordings, and license to produce his own records. To test the fine print of his contract, Ray chose to do a country album, Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, released in 1962.
It was a genre Ray knew and played so well that in 1947, the Florida Playboys, an all-white country band based in Tampa, hired the 17-year-old. Charles noted: “I could do country music with as much feeling as any Southerner. The words to country songs are very earthy like the blues. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.’ That’s the way you say it. Where Tin Pan Alley will say, ‘Oh, I missed you darling, so I went to this restaurant and I sat down and I had dinner for one.’ That’s cleaned up. But country songs and the blues is like it is.”
While Ray’s fortunes soared with his country album, Leon Russell’s effort in the same genre, Hank Wilson is Back, Vol.1 (1973) marked the beginning of the end of Russell’s short reign as a super-selling artist. After having consecutive albums in the top ten (Carney landing in the #2 spot in 1972 and Leon Live reaching #9 in 1973), Hank Wilson peaked at #28. His next album to lodge in the top ten (#3) was his 2011 effort with Elton John (The Union)—38 years later.
Unlike Ray, the Tulsa native’s formative years did not involve country music. The songs Russell chose for Hank Wilson came from “trucker cassettes” that featured a compilation of country tunes packaged in one tape. Leon bought hundreds of these tapes at truck stops during his drives from L.A. to Tulsa and took a liking to the genre. Leon stated: “I’d never been in a country band and I lived in Tulsa. It wasn’t until I got to California that I got in one. There are actually more hillbillies in California than there are in Oklahoma.”
Leon released three more Hank Wilson albums from 1982 to 2001; they didn’t chart. Ray had better luck in the genre, thanks to some friends (Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Willie Nelson) who helped take Ray’s 1984 Friendship album to #1 on the Billboard chart. But while Ray had a posthumous #1 hit in 2004 with Genius Loves Company, Leon sabotaged himself by being ornery to the friend who’d revitalized his career: Elton John. As noted in the excellent Bill Janovitz biography (Leon Russell) Elton gushed, “Leon was everything I wanted to be as a pianist, vocalist, and writer.”
But the momentum that was growing thanks to Union’s success came to a halt when the pianists parted ways. Elton explained: “We wanted to make another album, a different one than he wanted to make. The album that he wanted to make was having all these strings on it instead of doing a Leon Russell record. He went back to his old belligerent ways.”
Leon’s prickly personality — along with disastrous property acquisitions and a shopping addiction — put him in debt. Fortunately, The Carpenters recorded his song, “Superstar” and made it into a huge hit. At the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony in 2011, Leon said to his son-in-law, Matt Harris: “That guy [Richard Carpenter] made me so much money, like, right at the apex of my craziness and naked people and drugs.”
Despite playing with almost every ‘60’s group (The Ronettes, Beach Boys, Byrds) and on tons of ‘60’s hits (“Good Vibrations,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gentle on My Mind,”) and writing a song now considered a standard (“A Song for You, “ covered by over 200 singers including Ray Charles), Leon did one-nighters in small clubs, traveling for years in a rickety bus.
When asked why his finances were so dire, Leon confessed: “I’m just an idiot, I guess. The fans come up to me at my shows and say, ‘Thank you, Leon, for staying out here on the road and playing for us.’ I don’t have any choice. If I had more money, I’d probably at least travel a different way.”
At the time of his death, Leon Russell was worth about $600,000; conversely, Ray Charles’ net worth was $75 million. It seems that for these two genius singer-songwriters, taking the turn into Country music resulted in differing outcomes that were, well, like something out of a Country music song.
Photo composite: Ray Charles (Wikimedia Commons); Leon Russell (public domain)