Bob Lefsetz: Welcome To My World - "Stranger In A Strange Land"
What do you do when everybody is watching?
He wrote songs for Gary Lewis, made an album with Marc Benno, but no one knew who Leon Russell was until he went on the road with a conglomeration of thirty-odd people entitled "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," a legendary tour from which Joe Cocker emerged drunk, broke and depressed, and Leon Russell emerged a star.
How did this happen?
Well, it began with the rapid rise of "Delta Lady," the exuberant number from Cocker's second album. Inveterate readers of credits saw it was written by Leon Russell, and were led to the solo album by same released by Shelter Records which was dead as a doornail until this time. And once there, they discovered a sense of humor, and the effort of a man who believed he could will himself to stardom via what was in the grooves. Furthermore, Russell's take on his Cocker composition had a soulfulness, a groove, absent from the famous rendition. And this just burnished Leon's image.
But then came the Cocker tour.
Joe was a star. The Woodstock movie had made him one. And now he was on the road with the biggest band anybody in rock and roll had ever seen. And the leader of this conglomeration was...
In a top hat and basketball jersey Leon Russell was the star of the show, more than Joe, more than Rita Coolidge, more than anybody else who sang or played. Talk about a scene stealer...
Leon's reign on top was very brief. The first solo album burned brightly, Helen Reddy even had a hit with a cover of "A Song For You," the third album was solid, and then the supposed victory lap, 1973's three album package "Leon Live," killed his career. It was just too much way too soon. Leon went from cult item to self-satisfied wanker so fast people abandoned him, even if you purchased the package you found it unlistenable. And then Leon went country with "Hank Wilson's Back" and truly put a stake in his career, and even Elton John was not able to bring him back, because to sustain people must like you, and when it comes to Leon Russell they no longer do.
Now it wasn't only Cocker, when the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour finished, Leon went on to be a key element of the Concert for Bangladesh, he went from zero to hero in a year, and we were all waiting for his second album, now credited to the group "Leon Russell and the Shelter People."
A disappointment it was.
I'm not saying it was bad. But Al Kooper and his brethren did a better cover of Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry," and did we really need a cover of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," in the seventies, no less? And "Crystal Closet Queen" was good, just not as good as "Pisces Apple Lady" on the previous LP, ditto "Sweet Emily" and "Home Sweet Oklahoma."
But opening up the album was a veritable killer that you could not help but play again and again and again.
"Stranger In A Strange Land."
Oh, the title was a rip-off of the famous science fiction novel.
You'd expect Russell to start with another in-your-face number like "Delta Lady," or something slow, like "A Song For You," but "Stranger In A Strange Land" was different. It was an artist climbing up his own personal mountain and delivering something unexpected and better, different.
The track starts slowly, with an infectious piano figure which leads to Leon exclaiming and then locking into a swampy groove instantly. And as the track soldiers on it keeps adding elements and becoming more powerful, especially during the chorus, when there are so many backup singers you believe everybody within ten blocks of the studio is singing.
And after some ethereal sounds, Leon lays back into the verse, the band's in full swing and so are you, the listener. The track is hypnotic, everything, including the kitchen sink comes in, but it's not too much, it's a joyful experience that enraptures you, draws you in and has you testifying yourself.
And that's what Leon ultimately does, testify...
"Well I don't exactly know
what's going on in the world today
Don't know what there is to say
About the way the people are treating each other
Not like brothers
Leaders take us far away
And astrology has got some words to say about the way we live today
Why can't we learn to love each other
It's time to turn a new face
To the whole world wide human race
Stop the money chase
Get back on the human track
Stop racing toward oblivion
Oh such a sad sad state we're in
And that's a thing
Do you recognize the bells of truth when you hear them ring
Won't you stop and listen to the children sing
Won't you sing it children
Won't you come on and sing it children
He's a stranger in a strange land
Just a stranger in a strange land
He's a stranger in a strange land
Just a stranger in a strange land"
He's almost rapping!
It's 1971. We've seen the war, we've seen Richard Nixon get elected, we're out of gas and disillusioned and the only ones with insight are our heroes, the musicians. Leon Russell's saying it's all right, I get you, I understand you, we can move on, together.
"Stranger In A Strange Land" is almost an anthem. Not a Bon Jovi track where everybody's perfectly coiffed and imploring you to look at them, but a record you can rally around, that makes you feel better without requiring you to leave your mind at the gate.
That's how good Leon Russell was, that's how powerful "Stranger In A Strange Land" was and still is. You could never burn out on it, it was not quite like anything else but it was just perfect the way it was. Leon upped his game. And we responded. Suddenly, Leon Russell was a first tier superstar.