Bill Janovitz Chronicles the Story of Leon Russell in ‘The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History’ (BOOK REVIEW)

Leon Russell is a thread that weaved in an out of rock music history for decades tying together everyone from Joe Cocker and Willie Nelson to Elton John and Tom Petty. From go to studio musician and pioneer of the Tulsa Sound, he managed to make gospel, bluegrass and even country music cool again thanks to his brilliance behind the piano drawing in rock, blues and soul for a sound that inspired an entire generation of musicians and one many have been chasing ever since.

In Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, writer Bill Janovitz – probably best known by most as the frontman for Buffalo Tom – does a masterful job of telling the most comprehensive story yet of Russell, a musician as complicated as he was brilliant. The Oklahoma native got his start playing local night clubs at 14, later connecting with J.J. Cale in a band the got a gig backing Jerry Lewis, before striking out to Los Angeles. Janovitz details Russell’s transformation in LA, growing out his hair, leaning fully into the hippie lifestyle and snagging the nickname Master of Space and Time, a moniker that is equal parts ludicrous and fitting.

Along the way, he founded his own publishing company and record label, took on the role of producer, composer, arranger and studio musician, meanwhile getting screwed out of credit and money from those in the business, something he would eventually do to other musicians to varying degrees according to stories in the book. Janovitz, in covering all aspects of Russell’s life and influence, doesn’t gloss over some of the more difficult and bizarre actions in his life. Through interviews with friends and family of Russell, he looks into whether some of his more irrational behavior at times could be attributed to Autism or undiagnosed bipolar disorder (or both). He also digs into his likely addiction to food and the health problems that it caused towards the end of his life. 

But he also gives an overwhelming focus to the immense talent of Russell, including his role as the band leader for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which spawned both a movie and wildly popular album and his role of musical inspiration for everyone from Elton John and Tom Petty (an early signing to his record label) as well as future Concrete Blonde co-founders Johnette Napolitano and James Mankey, both former employees of Russell.

With The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, Janovitz has created the authoritative look on the life of one of the most original American rock musicians to come out of the 1970s. Despite having a fairly small catalogue of truly great albums (as well as admittedly a handful of uninspired offerings), Russell remains a major influence on musicians today, almost a decade after his death.  

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