By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The story, as his old compadre Chuck Blackwell tells it, goes
like this: Leon Russell and his close friend, Emily Smith, were
cruising Grand Lake one afternoon looking at various pieces of
property for sale. This was around 1972, and Leon's career was
rolling. He'd been around the world with the likes of Jerry Lee
Lewis and Joe Cocker, and his most recent solo album had just
landed the revealing single “Tight Rope'' at No. 11. He was
looking for someplace to settle for a while.
The pair ran into a sand bar in the lake, and suddenly a storm
came up. What would have been a mere nuisance to any boater took on
a bit more significance to Russell.
“Was that a deal! It was storming and thundering and lightning,
and I think Leon had taken some psychedelics. He saw that lightning
storm and thought it was a sign from above that he should settle
here,'' Blackwell said.
So he did. He found a lake attraction called Pappy Reeves'
Floating Motel and Fishing Dock (“You could pull your boat right
up to your room and fish right there,'' Blackwell said), bought it,
and converted it into a recording studio. He did the same thing to
the First Church of God at 304 S. Trenton Ave., which still exists
today as The Church Studio (where everyone from Dwight Twilley to
the Tractors have recorded). He also bought a Maple Ridge estate,
the Aaronson mansion at 1151 E. 24th Place, and did what he came to
do — he settled in.
Russell had been in Tulsa before. He'd practically grown up
here, which is why many say he felt like returning for a while at
the crest of his fame. Most musicians agree, though, that Russell's
growly drawl and piano pounding had an effect on local music that
was instrumental in — possibly even the foundation of — the
creation of the “Tulsa Sound,'' a subdued blend of country and
blues. A handful remember Russell's early years cutting his chops
in Tulsa beer halls, but many more refer to his mid-'70s stay and
his Tulsa-based record company, Shelter Records, as a watermark of
Russell was born C. Russell Bridges in Lawton in 1941, but he
migrated to Tulsa when he was just 14 to explore the bustling music
“I got a lot of experience playing music. Oklahoma was a dry
state at the time, so there were no (under-age) laws, and I didn't
have any problems,'' he explains in the liner notes to his recent
greatest hits collection, “Gimmie Shelter'' on EMI Records,
written by Joseph Laredo.
Blackwell and Russell both went to Tulsa's Will Rogers High
School, but they met each other out playing music and eventually
played in some roadhouse bands together.
“I met Leon, I think, playing on a flatbed truck downtown. I
remember him sitting up at the piano on a couple of Coke boxes. He
wanted to get with me about forming a band,'' Blackwell said. “In
the early '60s or late '50s, one of the first bands we had, the
Starlighters, we'd play country in supper clubs — him, David Gates
and myself. Leon was good at playing Erroll Garner and stuff, and
then we'd rock when they were done with their meals.
“We were playing once, opening for Jerry Lee Lewis at the
Cain's (Ballroom). His band was kind of loose, and Leon was, too.
We got offered to go on the road with him, and we played for him
through Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming. At one Kansas gig, we
were in one of those hogwire places — this is back in the days
when things were pretty wild. Jerry had appendicitis, and the
doctor had to go out and quell the riot and tell people they could
get their money back. Leon went out there and played Jerry's
repertoire. He kicked the stool back and everything. Nobody wanted
their money back.''
The chance to play with Jerry Lee Lewis was a pivotal offer in
Russell's career. “I had a chance to go on the road with Jerry Lee
Lewis,'' he said in the best-of liner notes. “I'd just spent three
days, 12 hours a day, taking entrance examinations to Tulsa
University, and I just thought, "Well, it's a waste of time, 'cause
I have to study so many things I'm not interested in.' ROTC I had
to take, and right away I knew that I didn't want to do that. I
figured this was my chance to eat in a lot of restaurants and
travel around, playing some rock 'n' roll music, which I decided
was easier and better.''
In addition to Blackwell (who currently plays in Tulsa's
Fabulous Fleshtones) and Gates (who went on to form the band
Bread), Russell was playing with and absorbing the influences of
other Tulsa musicians, including J.J. Cale and Ronnie Hawkins, a
native Arkansan who was a big Tulsa presence at the time. But Lewis
had an effect on Russell that's evident in the first singles
Russell recorded in Tulsa, “Swanee River'' and “All Right,''
leased to the Chess label in 1959.
The year earlier, though, Russell headed west to find work where
all hungry musicians went: Los Angeles. He started selling some
songs, and in no time, he was working as a session player for the
likes of Phil Spector. Throughout the 1960s he racked up an
impressive list of studio credits, playing on recordings for the
Ronettes, Herb Alpert, the Righteous Brothers (“You've Lost That
Loving Feeling''), Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Byrds (on their
classic cover of Dylan's “Mr. Tambourine Man''), even Frank
By 1969, he had hooked up with British producer Denny Cordell
who took Russell to England to work on Joe Cocker's second album,
from which Cocker scored a big hit with Russell's “Delta Lady.''
That year, Russell led the band for Cocker's notorious Mad Dogs and
Englishmen tour, a veritable circus of nearly three dozen players
that included one-time Russell girlfriend Rita Coolidge and pals
Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.
On a trip through Detroit with Cocker et al., Leon ran into old
Tulsa pals David Teegarden and Skip Knape, who were playing the
area as Teegardan & Van Winkle. (Drummer Teegarden's Grammy-winning
association with Detroit's Bob Seger would begin a bit later.)
“We were inspired,'' Teegarden recalled in 1994. “We thought,
"Leon likes that gospel sound, so let's write our own gospel
tune.'' The song they came up with was “God, Love and Rock &
Roll,'' a 1970 single that became the duo's only Top 40 hit.
At the same time “God, Love and Rock and Roll'' was riding
up the charts, Russell's solo career was taking off. 1970's
self-titled debut included some of his best songs (“Delta Lady,''
“Shoot Out at the Plantation,'' “Hummingbird'' and the
now-standard “A Song for You''). The follow-up, “Leon Russell and
the Shelter People,'' heralded both the foundation of Shelter, his
record label, and the return to Tulsa. A few songs are backed by a
group of Tulsa musicians Russell called the Tulsa Tops, though the
song “Home Sweet Oklahoma'' (with the chorus, “I'm going back to
Tulsa just one more time'') was recorded with “friends in
At the height of his success, Russell came back to Tulsa. In
July 1972, he bought the Grand Lake property, and by 1973 his
land-buying spree had included 54 different pieces of property,
including lots near 61st Street and Madison Avenue, in the 1600
block of South Boston Avenue and at the corner of 16th Street and
The lake retreat was the crown jewel, though — 7 1/2 acres on a
point so secluded that many lake residents didn't even know the
five buildings (sound-proof studio, 3,500-square-foot house,
swimming pool, guest apartments) were being built. It soon became
affectionately known around the lake as “the hippie place.''
The house in Maple Ridge was the scene of parties of all sorts.
Instead of the rock 'n' roll bashes you might expect, Russell's
fetes usually were warm gatherings of friends. In June 1973,
Russell's close friend (and still a Tulsa resident) Emily Smith was
married at the house in a festive ceremony; Russell himself married
Tulsa singer Mary McCreary a couple of years later. In July 1973,
Russell hosted a benefit party to help the Maple Ridge Association
raise money to pay the legal debt it tallied while blocking
construction of the proposed Riverside Expressway.
The church studio quickly became home of Shelter Records, the
label Russell founded in Los Angeles and moved to Tulsa shortly
after he returned.
A lot of noted musicians came through to use Russell's studios,
including Bob Dylan and J.J. Cale, but neither was built with
money-making opportunities in mind; rather, they were simply
retreats from the distractions of Los Angeles. An associate of
Russell's at the time was quoted in the Tulsa World saying, “Leon
just wants a place where he can record any time he feels like it.''
Russell chose not to utilize his fame only to lure big talent to
town; he frequently used his musical muscle to push Tulsa musicians
into the national limelight. Tulsa hitmaker Dwight Twilley got his
first break through Shelter Records, as did the Gap Band, which
Russell used as his backing band on his 1974 album, “Stop All That
Les Blank, a California documentary filmmaker, got to see and
document the parade of talent through Russell's studios during that
time. Blank got a call in 1972 from Cordell, Russell's producer,
who pitched him the idea of hanging out with Russell and his
teeming bunch of hangers-on, filming the whole scene all the while.
Blank, whose grants on other films had run out, jumped at the
project and spent the next two years in Tulsa, shooting film of the
“It was kind of a continuous party,'' Blank said in an
interview from his current California home. “There were recording
sessions that would go all night long. There was a constant influx
of people coming and going. I think the people were excited to have
all the new play toys — things like computerized mixing panels.
There was this sense of momentum that seemed to be feeding on
itself as a result of the records and concerts doing really well
... People just felt like they were in the right place at the right
Blank's cameras followed Russell's entourage nearly everywhere,
from a weekend jaunt to see the mysterious spook light in
northeastern Oklahoma to Russell's recording sessions in Nashville.
However, you probably won't see the film that resulted from all
that footage. Although Russell approved the project's beginning,
when the film was finished he decided not to approve of its
release, and Blank said he has yet to receive a concrete
explanation why. Blank is allowed only to show a 16mm copy of the
film for no profit. He showed it at the University of Oklahoma in
“People, I guess, who have an image to protect are sensitive to
how it's presented and perceived,'' Blank said.
That's Russell to a tee. Rarely giving interviews (requests for
this story went expectedly unanswered), Russell has guarded his
privacy fiercely. In fact, though he returned to Tulsa to escape
the bustle of Los Angeles, he ended up leaving Tulsa again because
the pressures of fame were just as weighty here.
Russell sold the Maple Ridge home in 1977 and moved back to
California, but in two years he was back, telling the Tulsa
Tribune, “I've decided I like Tulsa a lot ... I've got a lot more
friends in Tulsa than I do in California, so I'll be spending a lot
more time here.''
But he left again because of incidents like the one reported in
the Tulsa World on Oct. 19, 1979. The headline read, “Top Rock
Star Turns Tulsa Courthouse On,'' and the newsworthiness of the
story seems quaint on reflection. All Russell had done was go to
the courthouse to renew his passport. However, the story says, “No
sooner had he taken off his mirror-lens sunglasses Thursday
afternoon and sat down at a desk when gawkers gathered outside the
glass-walled office. Bolder ones walked in quickly, asking for
In a 1984 Tulsa World story, Russell reflected on that aspect of
Tulsa living: “Tulsa wasn't used to my sort of reality. I went to
the bank to borrow $50,000 and that prompted a story studying the
finances of people in the music business.''
By then, Russell had moved to Nashville, a town that better
suited him as a home and a musical headquarters. Russell always had
drifted in and out of country, recording a straight-up country
record under a pseudonym Hank Wilson in 1973 and a duet album with
Willie Nelson in 1979. After a Hank Wilson sequel album, Russell
laid out of the spotlight until a 1992 comeback with the Bruce
Hornsby-produced record “Anything Can Happen.''
He still lives near Nashville today, but he comes back to Tulsa
— just one more time — every year near the first of April for his
annual birthday concert. This year's show, the fifth such event,
took place April 11 at an old haunt Russell knows well, the Brady
Theater (fellow Tulsa-native musician Bill Davis opened the show).
Russell's son, Teddy Jack, now plays drums in his band.
What Russell does next is anybody's guess.
“Predictability,'' he has said, “is not one of my strong
With Dwight Twilley, and Gary Busey as Buddy Holly
When 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where River Parks Ampitheater, 2100 S. Jackson Ave.
Tickets $10, available at The Ticket Office, Dillards and the Brady Theater
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.