For the last week and a half, I’ve been wracking my brain concerning what to feature during the second week in February. I didn’t get to one last post during the final week of January when I featured Smash Records and had planned to feature a cut from Leon Russell’s and Marc Benno’s Asylum Choir. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it and wondered if I should feature Leon Russell’s music at some point. In the past, I’ve spotlighted other artists, such as Iain Matthews and Jack Bruce, who had illustrious careers as part of the Second Week Special. So, I put the idea on the back burner as an idea to pursue in the future.
That moved to the front burner on Friday when I received a text from Greg Rector requesting that I play Leon Russell’s version of Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Russell recorded the song for his 1973 country album “Hank Wilson’s Back” and was one of the album’s single releases. Russell used the Hank Wilson personal for some of his country recordings.
To some it seemed like Russell, whose career had skyrocketed in 1972 with his Top 15 release of “Tightrope,” had switched horses midstream. Did the pseudonym help or hurt his career? I don’t know, but there are many shades of Leon Russell – along with his hair color – from dark to salt and pepper to gray to white.
My first realization of Russell came with George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971. Ever since seeing the movie, I’ve been a fan of Russell’s music. Over the years, I’ve learned about his beginnings of his career in Tulsa with J.J. Cale; session work in Los Angeles with Liberty Records and the famed, but fluid, The Wrecking Crew; the two albums with Marc Benno as the Asylum Choir; his membership in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman; his solo career; and his collaborations with Mary Russell, Willie Nelson, New Grass Revival, Elton John, and others. Some of this will be chronicled during this week.
As for today, I am honored to begin my look at Leon Russell with a request. Hank Williams wrote and recorded “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in 1949 during which time he and his wife Audrey were having marital issues. While many artists have recorded this song and had greater chart success, Russell’s recording was important in that it secured his reputation as a country artist. However, it was far cry from Leon’s varied previous recordings.
While Russell’s persona Hank Wilson scored some crossover chart success with “B” side the album’s first single, “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” it had a lackluster performance at #78 on the Hot 100 and #57 on the Country chart. The “A” side, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” matched the “B” side’s pop chart position at #78, but failed to chart on the country side of things. The follow-up single, “A Six Pack to Go,” failed to chart completely.
Although a brilliant album, I guess the world was not ready in 1973 for Leon Russell singing country songs – although he did an excellent job in the country side of things. Hank Wilson was back and he wasn’t going away either. Three additional Hank Wilson albums were issued with each in the subsequent decades as well as a Hank Wilson compilation in 2009.
But honestly, “Hank Wilson’s Back” wasn't really a departure for Leon Russell, as this early TV appearance with Glen Campbell attests. Leon sings lead on “Jambalaya” on the “Shindig Community Sing” from the mid 1960s. Check out Leon's dark hair on this video.