Leon Russell has lent a helping hand to some of the biggest names in pop and rock history. Jerry Lee Lewis, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones to Herb Alpert, George Benson and George Jones and more have gravitated to the singer-songwriter-pianist over the last 35 years.
Once again, Russell--who appears Thursday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--rounded up a few pals for his new album, "Legend in My Time: Hank Wilson, Volume III" (Ark 21). The recording continues the 25-year-old saga of the fictional Hank Wilson, Russell's country-western alter ego created on 1973's "Hank Wilson's Back!" and revived for 1984's "Hank Wilson, Volume II."
This latest collection of country standards includes Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" and Buck Owens' "Act Naturally," among others, and features guest stars Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart.
At the other end of the spectrum, Russell's fingerprints can be found on the local pop music scene as well.
After catching Russell's eye three years ago opening for him at the Coach House, Long Beach country-folk singer-songwriter D.D. Wood was invited to record some new material at Russell's home studio outside of Nashville. Wood, the wife of ex-T.S.O.L., ex-Gypsy Trash front man Joe Wood, happily accepted.
"It was kind of funny, and I'll never forget this," Wood recalled during a phone interview last week. "I was warming up at this sound check--I had curlers in my hair, no makeup on and I was wearing these ripped-up old jeans--and when I looked up, there was Leon Russell, with his cane, sunglasses and white Santa Claus hair."
"[Club owner] Gary Folgner introduced me to Leon after the show that night. He was very, very quiet," she said. "But he did invite me back to Nashville, and I've gone out there on three separate occasions to record some of my new material."
Wood released a critically praised solo debut ("Tuesdays Are Forever") in 1993, but her then-label, Hollywood Records, dropped her just two months after the album's release. She has spent the last few years raising two kids and teaching humanities to sixth-graders in the Long Beach Unified School District. Wood is now ready to "get back out there" and hopes her sessions with Russell prove to be fruitful.
Of the handful of songs she recorded with Russell, two stand out for Wood.
"We did a cover of Harlan Howard's 'Save Some Blues for You' and an original of mine called 'Name,' and Leon's piano playing is just amazing on both of them," Wood said. "[Producer-engineer] Mark Lambert has all of the tapes, . . . and I hope they'll find their way onto my next record."
After working with the Oklahoma-born Russell, 57, Wood is impressed with both the man and his music.
"He's just naturally gifted, and I have a lot of respect for the quality of his work. I also like how he's moved away from the scene to this ranch way outside of Nashville. His family's very warm, and he's very down to earth. Personality-wise, he's a little too quiet for me, but he's got a good heart hidden in there."
Another member of the local music scene who has made the trek to Russell's ranch is Lee Rocker, the former Stray Cats bassist who has released three solo albums. Only his journey proved to be more circuitous than Wood's.
"I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to open a series of concerts for Leon Russell and Willie Nelson, and Leon and I jammed together a bit during a few of the sound checks," Rocker said by phone from his home in Laguna Beach. "Anyway, when it came time for me to start my new album ['No Cats'], I phoned Leon and said I'd love to write some songs with him. He was cool enough to say, 'Well, c'mon out to my place and let's get started.'
"So I flew out there. But I got so lost on the way to his ranch, which is at least two hours north of Nashville. Man, I got totally confused. So by the time I got there . . . I pull up, Leon walks up to me and says, 'It's good to see you. While I was waiting, I wrote a song. . . . I don't know, maybe you'll want to use it.' "
Rocker liked the tune, and after Russell agreed to play piano on it, "A Little Piece of Your Love" wound up on "No Cats" (Upright Records). The CD also features "Screaming Hunger," written by Russell and Rocker.
"He had a lot of lyrics written down for that one, but not much of the music," Rocker said. "So I took it away with me and finished it up later. People know what an amazing piano man he is, but they may not realize the kind of talent he has as a songwriter."
That's not to say Rocker himself isn't dazzled by Russell's work on the ivories.
"I was watching him one night when we were touring together, and I was totally blown away by his left hand on that piano. I'm still trying to see where he's planting those bass notes and just how he gets that New Orleans-voodoo-groove thing together. I mean, there's only one Leon Russell."