Update Nov. 13, 2016: Leon Russell died today while sleeping in his home. He was 74.
Russell, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer best known for The Starlighters and a career laden with famed studio work, is the legend at the center of the newly released documentary, “A Poem Is A Naked Person.”
The film is a tripped out, back-in-time musical journey, and its full full of raw, vibrant footage. It highlights Russell in his hometown of Tulsa, OK back in the 1970s and traces his considerable contributions to music over time.
“A Poem is a Naked Person” is an eccentric, neo-Gospel, hippie-country documentary. First made back in 1974, it was Les Blank‘s first feature-length film. Russell showed up recently in Tulsa for the film’s screening, after which he performed at a sold-out gig at the Hard Rock Casino’s The Joint. I was there.
Leon Russell’s Roadside Collection
“A Poem is a Naked Person” depicts the reality-distorted, outlaw lifestyle and classic on-stage performances of Russell, an influential composer and keyboardist who’s jammed with some of the biggest names in blues, pop, bluegrass and rock over the decades. As most serious rockers probably know, he contributed to famous sessions from Bob Dylan, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Eric Clapton (ironically, “Tulsa Time“), Bob Seger, Sam Cooke, George Jones, Willie Nelson and many more.
Tulsa is a pretty serious music town, which is why you might recognize the names of many of the Tulsa artists who’ve collaborated with Leon over the years. They include drummers Chuck Blackwell and Jim Karstein, blues vocalist Junior Markham, saxophonist Johnny Williams, keyboardist Brian Lee (with the loving local heroes of Freak Show), drummer Brandon Holder, percussionist Jamie Oldaker (best known as a drummer for Clapton, Peter Frampton and Seger), and Steve Ripley.
And then there’s Leon’s daughter, Tina Rose. She performed on Willie Nelson’s 2013 duets, “To All The Girls,” along with Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. Likewise, Rose and Nelson performed the country classic, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone.”
Appearing at the Tulsa premier of “Naked,” famed drummer David Teegarden reminisced about the production of the documentary, saying that producers “ kind of had somebody following (Russell) around with a camera and I’m imagining that this is what I’m going to see.”
Teegarden performed with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band on the 1981 Grammy-award winning “Against the Wind.” After the film was shot, Teegarden stayed with Leon to jam and record music along with J.J. Cale, another legendary Tulsa songwriter. Teegarden recalled that Cale arrived on his moped with a boxful of donuts for the sessions.
About his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, among a pantheon of musical luminaries, Leon demurely said this:
From the way I understand it, Elton John pretty much demanded that I be put in … you don’t mess with Elton.”
Inducting Russell into the Hall of Fame back in 2011, Elton emotionally credited Leon for influencing him as a composer, performer and keyboardist to take the leap of faith into the music business.
“I thought I was going to be James Dean.”
As I mentioned above, “A Poem Is A Naked Person” was directed by well known music filmmaker Les Blank (“The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins“). Back in the early 1970s, Blank was hot. A stint as music director for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour gave him clout.
But due to creative differences with Leon, to put it mildly, the documentary wasn’t released for distribution until after Blank’s death.
When the International Documentary Association paid tribute to Blank with a career achievement award in 2011, “A Poem is a Naked Person” was described as “perhaps the greatest film about rock ‘n’ roll and American music that you will likely never see.” However, decades after the film was shot, when asked about what it was like to see and hear himself in the film, Russell said,
When a layman, like myself, sees himself for the first time or hears himself for the first time, he goes to bed and cries for two weeks.”
The project started in the early 1970s. That’s when one of Russell’s colleagues approached with a film proposal. Said Russell:
I was in the recording studio one day when my partner showed up (with the idea) of making a movie. I thought I was going to be James Dean, but I turned out to be Jimmy Dean (sausage).”
Also in the film you’ll see George Jones and Willie Nelson, with Nelson performing “Good Hearted Woman” at the Floores Country Store. Willie credited Leon Russell as the influencer for him to go outlaw.
Sweet Mary Egan also fiddles on “Orange Blossum Special.”
In recent years, Les Blank’s son Harrod revived interest in the long-shelved project and reached out to Leon, who in turn provided clearance for the film and the mostly unadulterated footage in the final cut. While Leon wanted the film to focus on his music and songs, Blank’s original vision, said Russell, was “to film around the subject. The environment the person was living in, their memorabilia on the walls, photographs … things like that.”
Leon later added about Blank,
He’s kind of a genius in his own way. He made a lot of movies that portrayed components of people’s lives that perhaps would have never been known.”
The footage is raw and sweaty. It’s a free-floating, behind-the-scenes revelation of Leon’s incantatory life — reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s canon, “life as art and art as life” — during the early ‘70s epochal era of the passionate rock lifestyle. The doc is apt at revealing the artist’s intimate creativity, stylish composition and occasional self-described beastly chaos. The documentary first received its preview at SXSW Film Festival in March. The recent premier in Tulsa this month of “A Poem is a Naked Person” will be screening through August.
For a blast from the past from the silvery troubadour, this intense biopic dishes out a musical treat for all to be experienced, involving the true genesis of one of the most influential composers and keyboardists of the twentieth century — and says Russell, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Images in order