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Leon Russell, renowned multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and Elton John over the course of 50 years in the music industry, died Saturday. He was 74.
“Leon Russell died on Nov. 13, 2016 in Nashville at the age of 74. His wife said that he passed away in his sleep,” Russell’s website wrote. “The Master Of Space And Time was a legendary musician and songwriter originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma who performed his gospel-infused southern boogie piano rock, blues, and country music for over 50 years.”
Elton John, collaborated with Russell on 2010’s The Union, paid tribute to the musician on Instagram. “My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me,” John wrote. “Thank God we caught up with each other and made The Union. He got his reputation back and felt fulfilled. I loved him and always will.”
Russell, an inductee of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, dealt with a string of health problems in recent years, including surgery to stop leaking brain fluid in 2010 and a heart attack that he suffered this July that requested surgery.
Born Claude Russell Bridges outside Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1942, Russell began playing the city’s nightclubs when he was still a teenager. While in high school, Russell formed a band called the Starlighters; upon graduating, he was recruited by Jerry Lee Lewis to join his touring unit.
“When I had a chance to go on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis. I’d just spent three days, twelve hours a day, taking entrance examinations to Tulsa University and I just thought, well, it’s a waste of time, ’cause I have to study so many things I’m not interested in,” Russell told Rolling Stone in 1970. “ROTC I had to take, and right away I knew that I didn’t want to do that. I figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants and travel around, play some rock and roll music, which I decided was easier and better.”
At the age of 17, Russell moved from Tulsa to Los Angeles, quickly climbing the nightclub ranks to emerge as one of the city’s most in-demand session musicians. During this period, Russell worked with artists like the Byrds, Herb Albert and Phil Spector; as a member of Spector’s “Wrecking Crew,” Russell played keyboards on tracks like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High.”
This story is developing.