Leon Russell performs at the 33rd annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic held at North Forty in Fort Worth on July 4, 2006.

Leon Russell performs at the 33rd annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic held at North Forty in Fort Worth on July 4, 2006.

File Photo

Leon Russell, a songwriter and pianist best known for his contributions to pop hits in the 1970s, died Saturday night at home in Nashville. He was 74.

Russell had been treated for leaking brain fluid in 2010 and for a heart attack in July, Reuters reported. His wife said on his website that he died in his sleep.

The Oklahoma-born musician's repertoire glided from rock to gospel to country. In the 1960s, he was part of a group of musicians who offered backup to pop and rock songs for bands like the Beach Boys and the Monkees.

Russell collaborated with artists such as pop superstar Elton John, blues icon B.B. King and country legend Willie Nelson. One of his hits, "A Song for You," was recorded by The Carpenters and Neil Diamond, among many others. He said he also played on "a few Frank Sinatra sessions," including one featuring "Strangers in the Night."

As the '70s faded, so did Russell's stardom. But he returned to the spotlight again in 2010 when he worked with John in an album titled The Union.

The following year, Russell was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. John gave a speech in his honor.

"Not only was he sweet and kind, he gave me a recipe for my voice, which I still use to this day," John said. "And he asked me to do some dates with him. Listen, he was my idol. To meet him, I was shaking. For me, he sang, he wrote and he played just like I wanted to do it."

Many musicians still remember Russell, with his cascade of salt-and-pepper hair and his dark aviators, as "the master of space and time."

Russell wrote Joe Cocker's "Delta Lady" and in 1969 put together Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, which spawned a documentary film and a hit double album.

As a musician, primarily a pianist, he played on The Beach Boys' "California Girls" and Jan and Dean's "Surf City." He also played guitar and bass.

Russell produced and played on recording sessions for Bob Dylan, Ike and Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones and many others.

He recorded hit songs himself like "Tight Rope" and "Lady Blue" and participated in The Concert for Bangladesh. John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison played on his first album, Leon Russell.

His concerts often ended with a rousing version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash." In 1973, Billboard Magazine listed Russell as the top concert attraction in the world. 

In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, Russell said music doesn't really change much.

"It's cyclical, like fashion. You keep your old clothes and they'll be in style again sooner or later.

"There are new things, like rap. But that's a rebirth of poetry. It's brought poetry to the public consciousness."

Russell, born in Lawton, Okla., began as a night club piano player in his home state at the age of 14, also backing touring artists when they came to town. Jerry Lee Lewis was so impressed with Russell that he hired Russell and his band for two years of tours.

He relocated to Los Angeles in 1959, where he became known as a top musician, and later to Nashville.

In the early 2000s he began his own record label, Leon Russell Records.

With reporting from the Associated Press

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