Sunday, January 10, 2010

Leon Russell -- "Tightrope" (1972)

Leon Russell was sort of the white man's Billy Preston -- he played on a ton of famous artists' albums and then struck out on his own.

Part of a group of Oklahoma musicians who migrated to LA's burgeoning recorded music scene (including Bread's David Gates), Russell was writing and playing on all kinds of hit songs throughout the 60's. He actually co-wrote one of my favorite 60's pop tunes, Gary Lewis & The Playboys' "She's Just My Style" and the Carpenters' made a signature tune out of their cover of his "Superstar."

Russell was jamming in everybody's band, bringing a flourishing rock style of piano that combined New Orleans ragtime and gospel blues feel. He had to of the most famous live gigs in the late 60's -- part of the all-star band on George Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" and having a few moments of his own with a "Jumping Jack Flash/Young Blood" medley... and Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, where they slammed out their famous reworking of The Box Tops' "The Letter."

As was the case with many artists before the 90's, Russell cranked out solo albums that didn't sell much until fate smiled on his solo album Carney. It was probably one of those magic moments where the music just clicked with FM radio at the time, perhaps they were just getting used to his highly slurred voice, because I remember New York rock radio playing "Magic Mirror," "Roller Derby" and more than anything else, "Tightrope."

"Tightrope" was just a plain strange song, clearly the inspiration for the sideshow-like title of the album. Dealing out the metaphor of musician as circus performer, the song jaunted along like a see saw, with brief pauses for a kick drum pounding out three beats. The piano sounded detuned, like it had been played on and moved around for years. Russell's voice sounds like's it's slithering all over the place, on the verge of goofy, especially when he sings "like a rubber necked gi-raffe."

The most ingenious part of "Tightrope" was the break, where Russell plays traditional circus chords, while the snare builds up as if following a tightrope walker, and then he ends it with a schmaltzy C9th up the keyboard (Russell loved his 6th and 9th chords).

I'm up on the tightrope
one side's hate and one is hope
but the top hat on my head is all you see.

I'm up on the tight wire
one side's ice and one is fire
it's a circus game with you and me.

And the wire seems to be
the only place for me
a comedy of errors
and I'm falling.

Like a rubber-neck giraffe
you look into my past
well maybe you're just to blind to - see.

I'm up in the spotlight
ohh does it feel right
ohh the altitude
seems to get to me.

I'm up on the tight wire
flanked by life and the funeral pyre
putting on a show
for you to see.

I don't think the radio every really played any Russell album after Carney, but he's still raking in the royalties from one song in particular off that collection -- jazz guitarist George Benson turned "This Masquerade" into a cocktail jazz classic that sold a billion copies in 1976 and beyond.

Here's Leon Russell's original version of "Tightrope," followed by a solo live version from 2002, in his old hippie long white flowing beard and hat look. Notice how his mouth is so close to the microphone, that he looks like he's going to eat it.

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