Leon talks about catfish and life
BY Ellis Widner Tribune Entertainment Editor
Apr 20, 1987
1/16/13 at 2:22 AM
In one of his favorite songs, Leon Russell sings he “ain’t gonna work on the railroad/Ain’t gonna work on the farm.”
When he sings the country classic “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the white-haired and bearded Russell usually has the audience clapping and singing along.
In reality, Russell does work on a farm – his catfish farm near Hendersonville, Tenn., where he now lives.
“I really am serious abut catfish farming,” he says. “I’m very interested in aquaculture. I started it in a small way. It’s a real promising venture. I’ve been very interested in it for a long time, even before I left Tulsa.”
Pushing away from the table, he leans back in his chair. This day, the rock ’n’ roll legend nicknamed the “master of space and time” in the ‘70s has come home to Tulsa and is spending Sunday afternoon visiting friends.
“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” he said. “But it is hard for me to live here. It is easier to be in Nashville because it is a music town.
Wearing a white shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, but not the sunglasses so often associated with him, Russell is a quiet, soft-spoken man. His shyness fades around friends, and his face breaks into a warm grin when a familiar face enters the room.
Russell, Edgar Winter and their band have just finished a Sunday brunch at Cherry’s on Cherry Street, which is owned by long-time Russell friend Emily Smith, for whom he wrote the song “Sweet Emily.”
“Working with Edgar is a lot of fun, it really is,” he said. “We did a couple of shows together about a year ago and then decided to do some more. It broadens the musical windows. He’s into jazzy things. He gets to play saxophone in a band for the first time ever. He enjoys being a band member. I think people come to see us together who might not come to see us separately. Working together takes a load off both of us.”
Born Russell Bridges, Leon Russell has acquired an aura of mystery and mystique, particularly in Tulsa. Though his career depends to a certain extent on publicity, the singer-songwriter remains publicity-shy.
“I am not aware of my public image or what people think of me,” he said. “I don’t evaluate myself that way.”
Bixby resident Steve Todoroff, who will publish “Leon Russell: An Illustrated Biography” later this summer, also attended the brunch.
“Do you really think the world needs a Leon Russell biography?,” Russell says, his eyes twinkling as he chuckles softly. “Actually, I am looking forward to reading it.”
Russell said he doesn’t listen to his recordings.
“I often haven’t heard the music since I’ve recorded it,” he says. “I don’t listen to it. When I do hear it, like at someone’s house, I’ll listen. I’m probably the most pleased with the stuff I did with New Grass Revival.
The 45-year-old singer-songwriter was considered one of the top recording session musicians in Los Angeles during the ‘60s. Among his many sessions credits are Frank Sinatra, Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, Gary Lewis and Barbra Streisand.
“One of the most memorable was with Aretha Franklin,” he said. “It was before she started recording her hits on Atlantic. She sang, and I remember that when she finished there was a hush in the studio. And then I heard the violin players beating their bows on the violins for her. They were very excited about her singing. She was very stirring. She has always been that way.
There are some new recording projects in the works.
“We’re working on three records…a Leon Russell record, an Edgar Winter record and a duet record. We have no commitments from record companies, as yet, for releasing anything.”
Russell says he is enjoying touring now more than he has in years past.
“I’ve learned to handle it better,” he says. “I’ll work as long as I can. I’m happy with my life.”