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The Six Degrees of Leon Russell

Columnist Bob Deakin gives a tour on the train of confusion involving musician Leon Russell.

The other day I heard the song, “This Masquerade,” by George Benson.

What a beautiful melody, sentiment and, of course, it has the best cocktail lounge piano solo ever, played by Jorge Dalto. It's not originally a George Benson song, however. It was written by Leon Russell, who does his own version less Benson's signature polished, soft jazz style.

As much as I like the song, it acts as a trigger for a never-ending train of confusion involving Leon Russell and other popular musicians, songwriters and actors of the 1970s.

Here's how it goes.

I always confuse George Benson with jazz singer Bobby Caldwell, who sang “What You Won't Do For Love,” which sounds similar to Benson's “I Just Wanna Hang Around You.” I'll blame myself for laziness as the two singers sound very much alike but don't look anything like one another.

As for Leon Russell, I used to confuse him with Al Kooper – also a keyboard virtuoso who wore long hair and wild suits. Both always looked very unhealthy and did not appear to be comfortable performing in front of people. Of course when my musical influences expanded to hard rock I then thought Al Kooper was Alice Cooper of the Alice Cooper Band, who also had long hair and a voice similar to Mr. Kooper. He never looked very healthy either.

I used to think that Leon Russell wrote “You Are So Beautiful,” made famous by Joe Cocker, but when I was a kid I thought it was Ray Charles singing the song. I was also wrong in thinking it was Leon Russell who wrote it. It was Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher – and some claim Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys – who wrote the song.

When I was little I mistakenly thought Helen Reddy was the lead singer of the Carpenters but of course it was Karen Carpenter. I always loved the song, “You and Me Against the World,” which Helen Reddy really did sing but I always assumed it was written by Burt Bacharach. As I got older though, I discovered I was wrong again: it was written by Paul Williams (with Kenny Ascher).

For years I thought Kenny Ascher, a highly successful songwriter and studio musician, was the brother of Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon, the English duo popular in the 1960s until I realized that they spelled their names differently and were from different continents. In my own defense my suspicions were valid as they were about the same age and worked on the same James Taylor songs together.

As for Paul Williams, he also portrayed the ape (orangutan in this case) “Virgil” in the Battle For the Planet of the Apes movie but with all the heavy ape makeup on I didn't know it was him. All those years ago I thought it was Malcom McDowell, whose brother Roddy McDowell had a big role in all of the Apes films portraying “Cornelius,” another one of the apes.

The running, mistaken train of thought continues to this day as when I finished writing this column I looked up the McDowells only to discover that the late Roddy spelled his name “McDowall” and that they were not brothers at all.

One way or another, I eventually figure all these things out.

Jack Willoughby April 18, 2011 at 01:33 PM
Dear Sir, of all the people you sited, Leon Russell is by far the most gifted. He has written some of the most wonderfull songs that people know when they hear them. They are best when he performs them, his one of a kind unique voice seems to feel each word from deep down inside. His new CD. with Elton John (The Union) is one of the best I've heard in years.
Janie West April 19, 2011 at 12:28 AM
Hi Jack: Leon Russell did not write "You Are So Beautiful." It was written by yet another keyboard virtuoso - Billy Preston. Thanks for your article. Janie

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