Leon Russell never was exactly a household name. But Elton John called the piano player and songwriter his idol. "He's the master, I'm the pupil," he said.
Leon Russell was a musician who worked his way to stardom and then nearly faded into obscurity. He died in his sleep over the weekend in Nashville.
Even for those who haven't heard Russell, they've likely heard him through others. Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Michael Buble and dozens of other A-list artists have recorded "A Song For You."
Russell said he was shooting for a tune that would span generations. And it has.
"When you first hear a standard, it sounds just like a [expletive] little tune. Then you come back and you hear it later and you hear it twenty years later, they're different," he said in an interview was from a 2008 documentary called "The Wrecking Crew," about the top studio musicians in Los Angeles in the 1960s. That's where Leon Russell first put his stamp on American music.
Russell played his way through high school in Oklahoma and set out for L.A. Producers appreciated his down home style of piano playing. He backed the Byrds, Jan and Dean and Frank Sinatra. He said he learned to play high on the keyboard, just so his parts would be heard over the band.
Russell converted his behind-the-scene gigs into a solo career. He became known for his eccentric shoulder-length white hair and a beard that he let grow down to his belly, often a top hat and aviator sunglasses on stage.
Russell kept touring and making albums, but with less and less acclaim. He even performed country music under the name Hank Wilson. But there was a long dry spell as a songwriter.
Then in 2010, Elton John came along, who had worked with Russell back in the 1970s.
"I was kind of angry, because I was like, this man has been forgotten about," John told WXPN's World Café.
John said he wanted to record an album with Russell and make sure he got credit for his career, even as Russell's health was failing.
"What astounded me, throughout this whole thing, is he was never bitter about falling out of the spotlight," he said. "Leon — as I've learned — was never really a spotlight person, although he looked amazing. He had the most incredible image with the long hair and Ray Bans and top hat."
Elton John helped Leon Russell get the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's attention. It was a club Russell said he thought he'd never join. He was inducted in 2011. At the ceremony, he had exchanged the RayBans for bi-focals with clip-on sunshades.
"Elton came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life, and he took me up to the high stages with big audiences and treated me like a king," he told the audience. "The only thing I can say is bless your heart."
Russell wrote a musical thank you note to Elton John, with the line, "I could have been sick, I could have died. I could have given up, and I tried." The title of the song is "In The Hands of Angels," and it was one of the last Russell ever wrote.