Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Many Shades of Leon Russell: Welcome To Hollywood

In 1967, session musicians Leon Russell and Marc Benno joined forces as the Asylum Choir and released one album for Smash Records in 1968. It was a product of its times; however, it never generated enough interest to chart in the Top 200 album chart. Needless to say, neither of the album’s singles (“Welcome to Hollywood” and “Icicle Star Tree”) charted.

“Icicle Star Tree” (also spelled as “Isicle Star Tree” on the 45) was a psychedelic tune that featured Benno on lead vocals and is an interesting song in its own right. I would have featured it for that reason alone, but the album’s first single release, “Welcome to Hollywood,” featured Leon Russell on lead vocals. Since this is a feature on Leon Russell and not Marc Benno, it makes perfect sense to use a song that emphasizes Russell’s vocals. “Welcome to Hollywood,” which is a straight ahead pop song, opens the album as well.

All of the songs on “Look inside the Asylum Choir” were composed by Russell and Benno. Although the album sold poorly, its original cover spurred some controversy, as it depicted a roll of toilet paper. Unlike The Rolling Stones original cover for “Beggar’s Banquet” that featured a dirty bathroom that had been assaulted by the band and wasn’t originally released, the toilet paper cover actually made it to the public and was then pulled.

For a more palatable cover for the times, Smash reissued the album with a psychedelic background featuring pictures of Benno and Russell. The original cover most have had quite a few copies in production as it can be easily found for sale today. There have been several albums that were reissued with a different covers such as The Beatle’s “Yesterday . . . And Today,” Alice Cooper’s “Love it to Death,” “Mom’s Apple Pie,” and Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Street Survivors” that are more difficult to find.

“Look Inside the Asylum Choir” may be one of the few albums with three unique covers. With Leon Russell’s success in the early 1970s, Mercury reissued the album with yet another cover featuring a photo of Russell and Benno. This actually is my favorite version of the album. Although Mercury had discontinued its Smash subsidiary and the cover had the Mercury logo, early pressings of this album still carried the Smash label on the actual discs.

In 1969, the Asylum Choir recorded another album; however, contractual disputes prevented the album’s release until 1971. Once the matter was settled, “Asylum Choir II” was issued by Russell’s Shelter Records’ label. Probably due to Russell’s success at the time, this second Asylum Choir release did much better, as it peaked at #70 on the album charts.

The CD release of “Asylum Choir II” features all but three songs from the band’s first album, including “Welcome to Hollywood,” as bonus tracks. As we wind down this week of the Many Shades of Leon Russell, I have selected “Welcome to Hollywood” – a song that failed to chart as our Saturday Bubbling Under feature.

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