Two amazing musicians died this week. Leon Russel blew my mind when I picked up his debut album. I was not a record collector. I did not own a lot of records and I don't know how I came to own that album but I remember that blue cover like yesterday and I played the shit out of it. I loved his playing and his attack on the piano and I think it was a big influence on my guitar playing.
Then there's Leonard Cohen. The opposite of the slickness and drive that Leon put out and he was not really my cup of tea. Though I saw a couple of his shows and I was even in the same room as him a couple of times I never really met him. But I dare say that I was a bit of an influence on him. Let me tell you the story.
In 72-73 I was performing with 3 female back up singers. Just me and the girls (the original Blainettes, sue Lothrop, Joanne Smith and Estelle St-Croix) This is when I had just signed with Good Noise Records and they were giving us the big push. We had some choice gigs opening for Lou Reed and Seals & Crofts and were first on in a huge benefit concert in Montreal for the displaced natives of James Bay. Joni Mitchell, Loudon Wainwright and many big Quebec stars were on the bill.
Anyway, one day I get a call while I was back in Sherbrooke at my parents' place from Lewis Furey who I had played with briefly and who was always hanging around the Good Noise offices - he was quite smitten with our receptionist but also expecting that sooner or later Andre Perry would recognize his talent and sign him up too. I seem to remember him saying to my face " How come he won't sign me and he signed YOU??" He was a pretty straightforward guy, and a bit "entitled" but he certainly proved that he was a big (multi)talent and had a great career in Quebec and France, even though he was just too precious to make it in the states.
But back to that phone call, it was Lewis calling to say he hoped I didn't mind but he had just hired 2 of my 3 back-up singers to work with him. Well there wasn't much to say but I felt a little put off by that and didn't really have a lot of work at that point. But then it was only a few months later that I heard Leonard Cohen had scooped 2 of the three singers from Lewis (who was a friend and collaborator of Cohen's - they wrote a musical together. So that's my rather distant "influence" on Leonard Cohen. He had never used backup singers till then and they became an essential part of his sound forevermore.
As I sidebar to this story, I just learned this week as I was reading about Cohen's passing that his most famous song, "Hallelujah" was produced and arranged by John Lissauer, who was the arranger on my sessions in Montreal. In fact, these may have been the first sessions he worked on when he was brought up from New York by Frazier Mohawk, who was producing. John went on to produce a couple of albums for Lewis and that classic album for Leonard, which I just learned was initially rejected by Cohen's label, and ended up being released on a small independent label. Walter Yetnikoff, the head of Columbia did not like the synthesizers (never before used on a Cohen album) and thought it wasn't commercial enough. Columbia later bought back the master when they released all Cohen's work on CD. But since the record had been rejected, no contract was ever signed by Lissauer and he never saw a penny from that recording. He's quite stoic about the whole thing, even though it became one of the most covered songs in history...and though he would never claim any authorship, some of those chords were a bit beyond what Leonard was used to strumming on that old classical guitar of his. Lissauer never pursued it and never worked with Cohen again. He even stated that he felt a little guilty that his production had derailed Cohen's career. And if even a classic like "Hallelujah" could be rejected by the biggest label of the day, maybe some of my songwriter friends reading this can have a little hope that their dismissed masterpiece might one day be a classic, too.