On a Distant Shore On a Distant Shore
Leon Russell turned 74 years old in 2016. At the time, he’d already logged more than half a century onstage, weaving a legendary path through the worlds of rock & roll, soul, country, blues and classic pop music. He was still active in the recording studio, too, where he spent much of the year working on a new album, On a Distant Shore, during breaks in his busy touring schedule.
Released in September 2017, On a Distant Shore arrives 10 months after Russell’s passing. It’s his final album, offering up a stunning batch of original material — including updated versions of three hits from his older catalog — all influenced by the timeless sounds of the Great American Songbook. These aren’t cover songs. Instead, they’re Russell’s own version of pop and jazz standards, filled with sweeping strings, upright piano, pedal steel, horns, and a voice that retained its powerful, poignant punch until the very end.
“He said it was his favorite album he ever made,” says Leon’s wife, Jan Bridges. “He just loved it. He felt like everything clicked into place.”
No stranger to timeless music, Leon Russell cut his teeth as a hotshot instrumentalist during the 1960s, playing piano on albums by Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. By the following decade, he’d launched his own label, Shelter Records, and kicked off an acclaimed solo career. With wild, long hair and a ferocious work ethic, Russell blazed a unique trail throughout the 20th century and beyond, performing at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh one minute and releasing a string of gold-certified albums the next. Along the way, he wrote a handful of songs that have since become standards, including “A Song for You,” “Superstar” and “This Masquerade.”
“Leon always wanted to write standards,” Jan adds. “He thought that kind of music was very important. A lot of songs just disappear, but the standards stick around.”
With that in mind, Russell spent his final year writing and recording On a Distant Shore. He rooted each song in timeless melodies, then turned to co-producer Mark Lambert and orchestral arranger Larry Hall to help turn his compositions into the biggest, boldest-sounding album of his career. Looking to landmark recordings by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Tony Bennett for inspiration, the team began recording On a Distant Shore in late 2015, with sessions spilling into the following year.
“He was so prolific,” says Lambert, Russell’s friend and musical collaborator for 30 years. “He was on a roll. There were days when he’d come into the studio and play something he’d written the night before, and he’d have the whole thing mapped out in his head already, even if he hadn’t actually sat down at the piano and played it yet.”
Midway through those sessions, Russell was invited to Cleveland to perform three songs at a birthday party for Grammy-winning producer Tommy LiPuma, who’d overseen the recording sessions for his previous album, Life Journey. All three selections — “Hummingbird,” “A Song for You,” and “This Masquerade” — were familiar hits from his catalog. The problem? Russell, a road warrior who regularly played more than 150 shows per year, had changed the songs’ arrangements multiple times, and he wanted his live performance to reflect that growth.
“He no longer sang those songs the same way as the original recordings,” Lambert explains, “so we recorded some real basic versions of them, just so the house band could learn them. As we did that, we realized those songs really fit with the rest of the album.”
When Russell headed back to Nashville, he recorded updated versions of those three hits. Sprinkled throughout On a Distant Shore’s tracklist, those recordings create a bridge between Russell’s earlier work and more recent compositions, shining new light on a songwriter whose passion never waned, even as his health began to falter. From the brass-filled boogie-woogie of “Love This Way” to the symphonic swoon of “Where Do We Go From Here,” On a Distant Shore finds Russell doing what he’s always done best: steering his own ship through genre-jumping territory, letting his heartfelt vocals lead the way.
“Leon was an awkward romantic,” Jan explains. “He was a real softie who liked to watch the Hallmark channel and loved chick flicks. To him, songs with string arrangements were very romantic, which is why he loved them so much. He finally got to play on a romantic album that represented his heart and how he felt about life. To me, he always remained a mystery to people outside his circle, but this album gave him a chance to show his emotions. In the song ‘Leaves of Grass,’ you can hear him let out a real cry. That’s not faked. He was emotional, and he’d get that way at his show, too. On a Distant Shore is a great portrait of him. An accurate portrait.”
Russell passed away not long after wrapping up the album’s creation. In his wake, he left behind a catalog of music that defined multiple genres throughout multiple decades. It’s hard to avoid the bittersweet reality that On a Distant Shore — the sound of a rock & roll legend maintaining his punchy poise during his twilight years — is Russell’s swan song. At the same time, it’s a wonderful close to a wonderful career. He’s rarely sounded better. He’s rarely created stronger music. And for a man who wanted to create legacy, he’s rarely written songs so memorable and timeless.
“All of his dreams happened,” says Jan. “They came true. And this record was his last dream.”
1. On A Distant Shore
2. Love This Way
3. Here Without You
4. This Masquerade
5. Black and Blue
6. Just Leaves and Grass
7. On The Waterfront
8. Easy To Love
10. The I Love Is Wrong
11. Where Do We Go From Here
12. A Song For You
On a Distant Shore
Order Due Date
7% (ends 09/28/2017)
On a Distant Shore
Digital Audio Longplay