Newly inducted into the Rock Hall as a sideman, Russell may have been the ultimate sideman. The list of records on which he performed, often anonymously, is staggering. According to his website, he’s played with, produced, or arranged for a range of stars from Eric Clapton to Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin to Barbra Streisand to John Lennon to the Beach Boys to Marvin Gaye, and on and on.
Russell, born Claude Bridges, started playing in public in his native Oklahoma at age 4. A band he belonged to in high school, the Starlighters, backed Jerry Lee Lewis and featured another musician destined for success, J. J. Cale. After moving to Los Angeles in the late ’50s, Russell became part of the fabled group of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, frequently used by Phil Spector on his “little symphonies for the kids.” Russell was also in the house band on the TV show Shindig!.
It wasn’t until the dawn of the ’70s that Russell stepped into the spotlight on his own, but just tentatively at first. He played with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and was the bandleader on Joe Cocker‘s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
Russell’s first solo album, released in 1970, was an all-star affair, with Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts among the players. He returned the favor to Harrison in 1971, backing him at the Concerts for Bangla Desh.
Russell’s peak of commercial success came in 1972 and 1973, with the album Carney, the hit single “Tight Rope,” and a highly successful concert tour. At this moment, he began delving into country music under the name Hank Wilson. In 1975, he scored another sizable hit single with “Lady Blue.” At the end of the 1970s, he would become a frequent collaborator with Willie Nelson.
Over the next 30 years, he spent long periods of time out of the recording studio and the public eye, although he’s recorded and toured more consistently over the last half-dozen years. Russell’s most recent album is The Union, a collaboration with Elton John released last year.
A favorite Russell performance of mine comes from the Concerts for Bangla Desh, where he takes a vocal on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Nearly 40 years since that performance, he’s still got that familiar Oklahoma drawl.