IN REMEMBRANCE: 11-20-2016


Leon Russell performing in the early 1970s. Credit Robert Knight Archive/Redferns, via Getty Images

Leon Russell, the longhaired, scratchy-voiced pianist, guitarist, songwriter and bandleader who moved from playing countless recording sessions to making hits on his own, died on Sunday in Nashville. He was 74.

His website said he had died in his sleep but gave no specific cause.

Mr. Russell’s health had incurred significant setbacks in recent years. In 2010, he underwent surgery for a brain fluid leak and was treated for heart failure. In July he had a heart attack and was scheduled for further surgery, according to a news release from the historical society of Oklahoma, his home state.

With his trademark top hat, hair well past his shoulders, a long, lush beard, an Oklahoma drawl and his fingers splashing two-fisted barrelhouse piano chords, Mr. Russell cut a flamboyant figure in the early 1970s. He led Joe Cocker’s band Mad Dogs & Englishmen, appeared at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in New York City and had numerous hits of his own, including “Tight Rope.”

Many of his songs became hits for others, among them “Superstar” (written with Bonnie Bramlett) for the Carpenters, “Delta Lady” for Mr. Cocker and “This Masquerade” for George Benson. More than 100 acts have recorded “A Song for You,” which Mr. Russell said he wrote in 10 minutes.

The music Mr. Russell made on his own put a scruffy, casual surface on rich musical hybrids, interweaving soul, country, blues, jazz, gospel, pop and classical music. Like Willie Nelson, who collaborated with him, and Ray Charles, whose 1993 recording of “A Song for You” won a Grammy Award, Mr. Russell made a broad, sophisticated palette of American music sound down-home and natural.

The cover of Mr. Russell’s 1973 album “Leon Live.”

After his popularity had peaked in the 1970s, he shied away from self-promotion and largely set aside rock, though he kept performing. But he was prized as a musicians’ musician, collaborating with Elvis Costello and Elton John, among others. In 2011, after making a duet album with Mr. John, “The Union,”he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, Mr. John called him “the master of space and time”and added, “He sang, he wrote and he played just how I wanted to do it.”

Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Okla., on April 2, 1942. An injury to his upper vertebrae at birth caused a slight paralysis on his right side that would shape his music: A resulting delayed reaction time in his right hand forced him to think ahead about what it would play. “It gave me a very strong sense of duality,” he said last year in a Public Radio International interview.

He started classical piano lessons when he was 4, played baritone horn in his high school marching band and also learned trumpet. At 14 he started gigging in Oklahoma; since it was a dry state at the time, he could play clubs without being old enough to drink. Soon after he graduated from high school, Jerry Lee Lewis hired him and his band to back him on tour for two months.

He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s and found club work and then studio work; he learned to play guitar, and he began calling himself Leon Russell, taking the name Leon from a friend who had lent him an ID so he could play California club dates while underage.

His music-making drew on both his classical training and his Southern roots, and he played everything from standards to surf-rock, from million-sellers to pop throwaways. He was glimpsed on television as a member of the Shindogs, the house band for the prime-time rock show “Shindig!” in the mid-1960s, and was in the house band for the 1964 concert film, “The T.A.M.I. Show.”

In 1967, he built a home studio and began working with the guitarist Marc Benno as the Asylum Choir, which released its debut album in 1968. He also started a record label, Shelter, in 1969 with the producer Denny Cordell. Mr. Russell drew more recognition as a co-producer, arranger and musician on Mr. Cocker’s second album, “Joe Cocker!,” which included Mr. Russell’s song “Delta Lady.”

Leon Russell performing in 2010 in New York. Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times

Mr. Russell also released his first solo album in 1970; it included “A Song for You” and had studio appearances from Mr. Cocker, Eric Clapton, two members of the Beatles and three from the Rolling Stones. But Mr. Russell’s second album, “Leon Russell and the Shelter People,” fared better commercially: It reached No. 17 on the Billboard chart.

Mr. Russell had his widest visibility as the 1970s began. He played the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden with Mr. Harrison, Bob Dylan and Mr. Clapton; he produced and played on Mr. Dylan’s songs “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Watching the River Flow.” He toured with the Rolling Stones and with his own band.

His third album, “Carney,” went to No. 2 with the hit “Tight Rope”; it also featured his own version of “This Masquerade.” In 1973, his “Leon Live” album reached the Top 10, and he recorded his first album of country songs under the pseudonym Hank Wilson. The fledgling Gap Band, also from Oklahoma, backed Mr. Russell in 1974 on his album “Stop All That Jazz.” His 1975 album “Will o’ the Wisp” included what would be his last Top 20 pop hit, “Lady Blue.”

But he continued to work. He made duet albums with his wife at the time, Mary Russell (formerly Mary McCreary). And he collaborated with Mr. Nelson in 1979 on “One for the Road,” a double LP of pop and country standards. It sold half a million copies.

That same year he married Janet Lee Constantine, who survives him, as do six children: Blue, Teddy Jack, Tina Rose, Sugaree, Honey and Coco.

Mr. Russell delved into various idioms over the next decades, mostly recording for independent labels. He toured and recorded with the New Grass Revival, adding his piano and voice to their string-band lineup. He made more country albums as Hank Wilson. He recorded blues, Christmas songs, gospel songs and instrumentals.

In 1992, the songwriter and pianist Bruce Hornsby, who had long cited Mr. Russell’s influence, sought to rejuvenate Mr. Russell’s rock career by producing the album “Anything Can Happen,”but it drew little notice. Mr. Russell continued to tour for die-hard fans, who called themselves Leon Lifers.

A call in 2009 from Mr. John, whom Mr. Russell had supported in the early 1970s, led to the making of “The Union” — which also had guest appearances by Neil Young and Brian Wilson — and a 10-date tour together in 2010. Mr. Russell also sat in on Mr. Costello’s 2010 album, “National Ransom.” Then he bought a new bus and returned to the road, on his own.

Correction: November 13, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the day Mr. Russell died. It was Sunday, not Saturday. It also misstated the year of his birth. It is 1942, not 1941.
Dr. Denton A. Cooley in 1969 after becoming the first surgeon to implant a totally artificial heart in a patient. Credit Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images

Dr. Denton A. Cooley, the renowned surgeon who was the first to implant a totally artificial heart in a patient and in the process set off one of medicine’s greatest feuds, died on Friday at his home in Houston. He was 96.

The Texas Heart Institute, which Dr. Cooley founded, confirmed his death. He stopped performing surgery on his 87th birthday but had never retired, remaining active at the institute as its president emeritus. The institute said he last showed up there on Monday.

A former college basketball star who was a towering presence in the operating room, Dr. Cooley had by age 50 performed more than 5,000 cardiac operations, including 17 heart transplants.

For more than six decades his name was inextricably linked to that of his mentor and former partner, Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, the developer of the artificial heart. Their pioneering techniques for surgery on the heart and blood vessels have helped tens of thousands of patients.

But those advances were overshadowed on April 4, 1969, when Dr. Cooley, working independently of Dr. DeBakey, performed his groundbreaking implantation without Dr. DeBakey’s authorization. At the time, Dr. DeBakey and a medical team were developing the artificial heart — it was still an experimental device — at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Dr. DeBakey felt betrayed. Suddenly his protégé was his archrival. So began a feud that would last 40 years, reveal much about the personalities and ambitions of the two renowned surgeons and end only a year before Dr. DeBakey’s death in 2008.

Dr. Cooley long defended his action as a doctor’s obligation to do whatever is necessary to save a patient’s life. “If you are a ship out in the ocean and someone throws you a life preserver, you don’t look at it to see if it has been approved by the federal government,” he said in an interview for this obituary.

Haskell Karp, the recipient of the first completely artificial heart, resting in his recovery room after the surgery, performed by Dr. Denton Cooley, in 1969. A biomedical engineer, John Jurgens, is at right. Mr. Karp lived three days with the device. Credit Bettmann/Corbis

The implantation was performed at the Texas Heart Institute; the patient was Haskell Karp, 47, from Skokie, Ill. About 16 months earlier, Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard had performed the world’s first human heart transplant in South Africa, a milestone that led many other surgeons to try the operation. One was Dr. Cooley, a professor of surgery at Baylor and the chief of cardiovascular surgery at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, who in 1968 performed what he claimed was the first successful heart transplant in the United States.

The rush to transplantation led researchers like Dr. DeBakey to renew their attempts to develop an artificial heart to keep patients alive until a donor heart could be found. He was believed to be the first to perform surgery using a partial artificial heart, known as a ventricular assist device.

But Mr. Karp’s failing heart could not pump enough blood. When efforts to repair it failed, Dr. Cooley enlisted Dr. Liotta to deliver the artificial heart from Dr. DeBakey’s laboratory and, with a 16-person medical team in a three-hour operation, removed Mr. Karp’s heart and implanted the artificial one, a half-pound device made of plastic and Dacron connected by tubes to a bedside control console.

The device worked for 64 hours, longer than it had in animal tests, while a frantic search began for a donor heart. When one was found, Dr. Cooley performed the operation. The new heart sustained Mr. Karp for another 32 hours, until he died of pneumonia.

(The first totally artificial heart intended for permanent use, the Jarvik 7, was implanted in Dr. Barney B. Clark at the University of Utah in 1982. He survived for 112 days. Since then, the federal government has approved the use of partial artificial hearts.)

Dr. DeBakey, who was Baylor’s chancellor, accused Dr. Cooley of committing an unethical and “childish” act to claim a medical first. He contended further that in using a device that was still under development, he had broken federal rules and jeopardized Baylor’s federal research support.

Dr. Cooley said that use of the device to save a patient’s life, even experimentally, did not violate the grant contract. He later maintained the operation was also an act of patriotism: He did not want the Russians to be the first to implant a total artificial heart and beat the United States as they had with their early space program.

Dr. Cooley, center, during heart surgery in Houston in 1970 as doctors and students from around the world look on.Credit Associated Press

Dr. Cooley resigned from Baylor, and the American College of Surgeons censured him for his unauthorized use of the device, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

For decades after that, Dr. Cooley and Dr. DeBakey rarely spoke to each other or were even in the same room. (The feud became so intense and so widely talked about that it became the subject of a cover story in Life magazine.)

The two reconciled in October 2007, two years after Dr. DeBakey had recovered from an operation at age 97. In a ceremony at St. Luke’s, Dr. DeBakey accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. After presenting the award, Dr. Cooley stepped down from the stage and knelt next to Dr. DeBakey, who sat in a motorized scooter. The two shook hands warmly.

Dr. Cooley had sought the reconciliation for years. “Because I owe a real debt to the people who have helped me in my career,” he said, “I would have been somewhat derelict if I had not had the chance to tell Mike DeBakey that.”

Denton Arthur Cooley was born in Houston on Aug. 22, 1920, to a wealthy family. His paternal grandfather, Daniel Denton Cooley, was a founder of the planned community Houston Heights. His father, Ralph, was a prominent dentist.

Dr. Cooley attributed his surgical skills to his athletic prowess. As a freshman at the University of Texas, he was told by his basketball coach to add at least 25 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame to avoid “getting murdered” on the court. He gained even more weight and went on to play forward and center for the team. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated in 1941 with a degree in zoology.

He was attracted to surgery at age 17 when he visited an emergency room in San Antonio and observed a friend sewing up knife wounds inflicted in Saturday night brawls. After starting medical school in Galveston, he transferred to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, earning a medical degree in 1944.

Dr. Cooley receives the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton at the White House in April 1999. Credit Stephen Jaffe/Agence-France Presse

After serving in World War II and then continuing his training on a fellowship in England, where he studied with the heart surgeon Russell C. Brock, Dr. Cooley returned to Houston to work under Dr. DeBakey. Over the next few years, the two surgeons had important roles in virtually every major development in heart and blood-vessel surgery.

Dr. DeBakey and Dr. Cooley devised operations to repair potentially fatal bulges in aortas and to bypass arteriosclerotic damage in neck and leg arteries that could lead to strokes.

Dr. Cooley said that “if there is any contribution I should be recognized for,” it is reducing the need for blood transfusions in open-heart operations.

Dr. Cooley, who believed that the outcome of an operation was related to its length, became an exceptionally fast surgeon despite athletic injuries that damaged a few fingers and a wrist.

“I was always surprised how seemingly slow all his movements were in operating,” Dr. Roland Hetzer, a onetime colleague and former director of the German Heart Institute in Berlin, said in an interview there in 2010. “But every stitch was just perfect the first time, and he never had to do something a second time. So in the end he was very fast, a very good technical surgeon.”

In 1962, Dr. Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s and became its president. He also taught at the University of Texas and Baylor medical schools in Houston.

He worked in an era when federal regulation of the development of new medical and surgical devices was limited. Doctors could make their own devices and instruments and use them on patients with little outside oversight. Human experimentation committees, whose approval is needed before doctors can conduct an experiment on a patient, did not yet exist.

“All the progress we made in that period would take us a century now,” Dr. Cooley said. “We would just try something in the lab, have some personal conviction that it was a meaningful thing to do and try, and then we would go ahead and apply it.”

At his peak, Dr. Cooley was said to be the busiest heart surgeon in the United States, performing many operations a day using an assembly-line approach. Patients were assigned to separate operating rooms where younger doctors opened their chests and exposed the hearts. Dr. Cooley then scurried between operating rooms to do the crucial part of each operation. Some of his critics have questioned the quality of the surgery.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan presented Dr. Cooley with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, for “charting new territory in his search for ways to prolong and enrich human life.”

Dr. Cooley had homes in Houston and in Galveston, Tex. His wife of 67 years, the Louise Thomas Cooley, died before him, as did a daughter, Florence Talbot Cooley.

His survivors include four other daughters, Mary Cooley Craddock, Dr. Susan Cooley, Dr. Louise Cooley Davis and Helen Cooley Fraser; 16 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.

Dr. Cooley had his failures, both professional (a sheep-to-human experimental heart transplant was unsuccessful) and personal (he declared bankruptcy from failed real estate investments in the early 1980s).

And though he and Dr. DeBakey reconciled, their rivalry never completely abated. Dr. DeBakey has been called the greatest surgeon ever. Before his death in 2008, he said in an interview that Dr. Cooley was “one of the best cardiovascular surgeons” he had ever known.

Asked in a separate interview whom he considered the greatest surgeon, Dr. Cooley replied, “Besides myself?”


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