Leon Russell, the songwriter behind some of rock music’s top hits like “A Song For You” and “Delta Lady,” has died. He was 74.
Russell’s official website confirmed that the musician “passed away in his sleep” in Nashville on Sunday.
Though an official cause of death has not been released, Russell underwent surgery after suffering a heart attack this past July and was reportedly still in recovery, according to The Associated Press. In 2010, he was also treated for heart failure and underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak.
The AP noted that Russell had planned to continue touring in January, citing a representative for the musician.
Russell, who was known for both his musical abilities and his long, wispy white hair and beard, began his career at 14 as a piano player in Oklahoma night clubs before moving on to California. He described the experience in a 2014 interview, saying “it was pretty rough.”
“It was a dry state, and there were no liquor laws so consequently there were no laws about minors playing in night clubs, so I had the opportunity to start early,” he said. “I went out to California the week I got out of high school, I was seventeen, and found out that they weren’t going to have any sense of humor about that, they weren’t going to let me play or even go into the night clubs unless I was 21, so I had to borrow IDs.”
Eventually, Russell would go on to make his mark as one of the top studio musicians in the industry in the 1960s and ‘70s. He worked with everyone from The Beach Boys (on “Pet Sounds”) to Phil Spector (he was in Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra) to The Rolling Stones, among countless others. He also led Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour.
Russell reached the height of his popularity in the ‘70s, but continued to perform well afterward. In 1971, he played at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York along with George Harrison and Bob Dylan. He produced Dylan’s song “Watching the River Flow” and a version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
He also found plenty of success as a solo artist, releasing his first album in 1970. By then, he had already appeared on hundreds of songs recorded by other musicians. Russell’s solo work crossed musical genres, fusing country, soul, blues, jazz, gospel and pop to create his own style. As The New York Times notes, “Russell made a broad, sophisticated palette of American music sound down-home and natural.”
In 2010, he collaborated with Elton John on the album “The Union.” The single “If It Wasn’t For Bad” received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. The following year, Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
John, who dubbed Russell “the master of space and time,” paid tribute to his friend and collaborator following the news of his death Sunday.
“He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me,” John wrote alongside a photo of the two on Facebook.
Plenty of others shared their condolences on Twitter: