In an exclusive interview, Taylor Hanson discusses the legacy of Leon Russell and his influence on his band, Hanson; Tulsa’s music scene; and modern American music.
Taylor Hanson and Leon Russell
Photo by Kelly Kerr
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Jim Edwards: When did you first hear about Leon Russell?
Taylor Hanson: When we first started doing shows, there was this indelible cultural wave that Leon had left behind and there has continued to be this enigma that people all over the world admire.
Everywhere we went he was … this godfather of music that I didn’t quite know about — because I was only about 9 years old — and you say, “Who is this character?” And I was kind of in awe … of how there wasn’t anything musically that he hadn’t touched on.
I remember one of the first things I really was inspired by was Joe Cocker, and I think Leon’s affiliation with Joe Cocker was probably the first sort of clear lightbulb that went off for me with Leon Russell. It was his work with Joe Cocker that got my attention — knowing how intrinsic Leon was in helping to create what surrounded Joe with Leon’s band and his sound.
I was coming from being most directly inspired by soul music and early stuff that even Leon was hearing when he first started playing and the stuff that he was playing on as a session guy. I mean, you take a great singer like Joe Cocker and you think about the musicality that Leon brought and the ability to bring together musicians and create sort of the nest to foster so much music; that was probably the first place that I connected with it on the music level.
When did you first see Leon play live and how did that affect you?
I think that years went by before I actually saw Leon play; the first time I saw him play was downtown at one of his birthday bashes, I think at Cain’s or Brady. I couldn’t believe — especially as an up-and-coming keyboard player — the kind of movement and the way he played; it’s completely identifiable.
And I remember wondering, how is he able to keep up this pace and style, the way he moves on piano? I remember admiring it and wanting to get up under the hood a little bit and figure out where all that is coming from because he has this unique style where he really is a left-hand-leading kind of guy, which comes from that education as a kind of honky–tonk, rockabilly and all that kind of movement down in the left hand. He really leads with that and all that top-hand stuff creates the melody. And I still aspire to that. And, to me, that’s such a key part of what makes you immediately say, “That’s Leon.”
Did you integrate any of that into your own keyboard style?
I feel, as a player, I am still aspiring to it. I have by no means even touched where he is, that keyboard style that he still owns.
And beyond his playing?
Probably, for me, the thing that is so indelible about Leon is just his songwriting, his craftsmanship, his gift for finding great melodies. I’m not a Leon historian, but, for me, the thing that remains so unique about Leon is his ability to connect the rootsiness of the dusty kind of influence of Oklahoma and the Midwest and whatever is in his DNA and still have kind of a broader perspective, a true musician’s craft — to somehow connect that with a sort of out-of-this-world, almost space-age ability to be magnetic on stage. I still think, even on his worst night, you can’t take your eyes off him. … It’s Leon’s eyes. ... When Leon’s looking at you, you know there’s a wild man lurking inside, in the best way possible.
What about Leon as a composer? Revisiting Leon’s recording studio résumé and body of original work, it’s hard not to make the connection between his gift as an arranger and his great songwriting ability — as if, at this time in music history, songwriter plus arranger equals composer.
Yes. Looking at music now — … well, throughout musical cycles — there are singular sort of influencers who push things to go a certain way. … To me, it’s unmistakable that in the last 40 years of rock and roll Leon is on a list of … at least the Top 25 or even the Top 10 people who have been one of these characters who ultimately, without them, it would not have created a shift in what happened in rock and roll and popular music. And, to me, that’s the enigma that you can’t quite put an accolade on; it’s like, how do you define influence? I mean, influence in the sense of musicians and people who came together because of him and songs that he’s written and the amount of times you’ve been covered … and to do that in some ways very, very publicly and in some ways almost silently.
It’s like, play the game of six degrees of separation, but do that in reverse: Imagine removing Leon from, say, 50 different scenarios and imagine what it would have been like. What would the Concert for Bangladesh have been like? What would Elton John be like, not having an ability to be inspired and reconnect his own humanity and musicality to a core innovator? Most people, the flame just kind of dies out. But for him, his impact has continued to blossom and reach further and to reach further, and, to me, it’s because there’s something singular about it. And that’s what makes things change.