06 August 2010
"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
Original Dylan version found on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
A native Oklahoman, Claude Russell Bridges suddenly found himself an in-demand studio musician in California in the mid-1960s. He was part of the famous "Wall of Sound" on some Phil Spector records and played on songs by artists as diverse as The Byrds, Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.
By 1967, the man now billing himself as Leon Russell had a studio built for himself in the Sooner State. With partner Marc Benno, he cut his first solo album, Look Inside The Asylum Choir.
Russell's major breakthrough was his production (with collaborator Denny Cordell) of Joe Cocker!, released in 1969. The album was a hit and contained two Russell-penned compositions, "Hello, Little Friend" and a song that was to become a signature for Cocker: "Delta Lady." A highly successful - and very raucous - tour followed, resulting in the double live LP Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
In late 1970, Russell's second album, released on Shelter Records, was cut in the studio. Leon Russell and the Shelter People remains a great effort worthy of any record collection. Along with a group of stellar originals, Russell tried his hand at a number of Bob Dylan selections during the Shelter People sessions: "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" (which made the cut), "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and "She Belongs To Me" (which all didn't).
And one notable other Dylan gem: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," the chilling and daunting number that electrified the folk community upon its introduction back in 1962. I still love the way that Russell put his stamp on this cover. His rolling New Orleans-style piano is perfectly accented by the deft slide guitar of Jesse Ed Davis and the ace drumming of Jim Keltner. The vocal is quintessentially Midwestern American - just like the original - except the geographic tone is obviously turned more to the south.
Cocker had also recorded two Beatles' tunes during the Joe Cocker! sessions. This, as well as his studio playing and production prowess, brought Russell to the attention of the Fab Four's Apple Records. Along with George Harrison and Klaus Voorman, Russell was an uncredited musician on Badfinger's Straight Up (1971), an album that spawned two big singles that remain staples on classic rock radio to this day: "Baby Blue" and "Day After Day."
By March 1971 Russell found himself in a small studio in New York's Greenwich Village, playing on and producing some new songs written by Dylan. "Watching The River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" were included on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2.
And on August 1 of that same year, Leon Russell would be standing on stage playing bass with Harrison and Dylan at the Concert For Bangla Desh in New York City. The selection? "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
Reams of paper have been devoted to analysis of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." We'll leave you with two quotes.
One from Dylan himself, in a 1963 interview with Studs Turkel on Chicago radio (courtesy transcript in Jonathan Cott's compilation Dylan On Dylan: The Essential Interviews): "No, it's not atomic rain, it's just a hard rain. It isn't the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that's just gotta happen . . . In the last verse, when I say, 'the pellets of poison are flooding the waters', that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers."
The second is from an emotional Allen Ginsberg, from the Martin Scorsese film No Direction Home:
Original Listening: Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
Live Listening: Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (The Concert For Bangla Desh, 1971; with George Harrison, Leon Russell)
Other Cover Versions: Bryan Ferry, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (These Foolish Things, 1973); Pete Seeger, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (Live in Australia, 1963)