Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Leon Russell: Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms

During the fall of 1973, I was living in Grayson, Kentucky when Leon Russell released his first album under his country alter ego of Hank Wilson. Credited on the album only under his real name as a co-producer, Hank – er – Leon released a country album at the height of his popularity as a rock artist. It was the follow-up to his celebrated 1972 studio album “Carney” and more recently “Leon Live” from early 1973.

The album was a masterpiece that only Leon could tackle – but he could not do this alone, as he assembled his LA band with some of the top Nashville sidemen that included the legendary Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake, and Johnny Gimble to only mention a few of Music City royalty. The only photo of Leon on the album was him playing the guitar with his back to viewer – hence, making the title of the album “Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1” an immediate pun.

The LP was released on Shelter Records, which was partially owned by Russell, Denny Cordell, Carl Radle, Don Preston, and Jesse Ed Davis. Russell and Cordell were the principle owners until 1976 when Cordell took over complete ownership of the brand. “Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1” was released at a time when Shelter Records was transitioning its logo from an inverted Superman “S” on an egg to a scrawled “S” on an egg.

The transition was predicated by a lawsuit brought by DC Comics  against Shelter Records for unlicensed usage of their Superman trademark. In addition, DC is a subsidiary of Warner Communications who also owned Warner Brothers, Atlantic, and the Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch family of record labels - direct competitors of Capitol Records who were the distributors of the Shelter imprint. As part of the settlement, Shelter agreed to place a black mark over the logo on existing label blanks until a new logo could replace the Superman version.

The 1973 incarnation of Leon Russell was not the only one as this persona. He revived Hank Wilson in 1984 for volume 2, 1988 for volume 3, and in 2001 for volume 4 with the New Grass Revival. The first Hank Wilson LP did fairly well over all charting at 28 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart and at #15 on the country charts. Unlike the previous two Russell albums, it never sold enough copies to be certified as gold.

“Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” was a Lester Flatt composition and had been recorded by a number of Country and Bluegrass luminaries such as Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Buck Owens. Owens version, released two years earlier, peaked at #2 on the country charts. Hank – er – Leon’s version peaked on the Hot 100 at #78 and only climbed to #58 on the country charts. I remember hearing this single quite a bit on the local radio station WGOH during their hours of country music programming during late 1973. Yee Haw!

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