By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
We've told the story of Leon Russell in these pages
numerous times. Thus far, it's been a process of piecing
together bits of well-known history and the accounts of
those who knew Leon and hung around — or on — him during his
beginnings here in Tulsa and his ultimate international
fame. Not since Leon had a Tulsa address has he spoken with
the Tulsa World or, for that matter, many press outlets at
This week — since he's comin' back to Tulsa just
one more time — the artist known almost as much for his
shyness as his hit songs broke down and talked with us from
his home near Nashville about his new album and his
much-mystified roots and days in Tulsa. It was an eagerly
awaited conversation that set a few records straight and
shed new light on the shadowy mystique of the master of
space and time.
Home Sweet Oklahoma
Russell spent his formative and most successful years in
Tulsa, moving here in 1955 from Maysville, just west of
Pauls Valley, when his father was transferred. He arrived
at age 14, but that wasn't too young to start playing in
local clubs. Things were a bit different back then.
"In those days, Oklahoma was dry, and the clubs weren't
supposed to have liquor. So a 14-year-old or anybody of any
age had no problem working anywhere," Russell said. "I worked
six or seven nights a week till I left Tulsa at 17. I'd
work 6 to 11 at a beer joint, then 1 to 5 at an after-hours
club. It was a hard schedule to do when going to school. I
slept in English a lot. Then I got out to California, and
they were more serious about their liquor laws. I about
starved to death because it was so much harder to find work
at my age."
Russell remembers dozens of old Tulsa nightspots — the
House of Blue Lights, the Paradise Club, the Sheridan Club,
the Cimarron Ballroom — as well as his perennial stopover,
the Cain's Ballroom. He said he also was partial to the hot
goings-on along Greenwood Avenue.
"There was quite a scene over there. They had classier
shows than the other parts of town. There was the
Dreamland, I believe, where they had big revues every night
— traveling package shows with big stars. I saw Jackie
Wilson over there when I was very young, I think at the Big
10. Saw Bobby Bland at the Dreamland. It was quite an
In California, instead of steady gigs in clubs, Russell
found a lot of session work in recording studios, playing
piano for other musicians and singers. The list of his
contributions is nearly as impressive as his own
three-decade discography, including work with the likes of
Phil Spector, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Bob
Goin' Back to Tulsa
After cutting his first, eponymous album, Russell
returned home to Tulsa in 1972. First, he was just
visiting, but the story goes that he and a friend were
tanked up on psychedelics while in a boat on Grand Lake. A
lightning storm came up, and the boat got stuck on a sand
bar. Russell apparently found the experience so mystical
that he took it as a sign to stay in Tulsa.
"Yeah, that's not true, but it's a great story," Russell
said. Russell moved his whole recording operation to
the area, living in a big house in Maple Ridge and
recording in a huge studio on Grand Lake. His presence here
attracted numerous other big names to visit Tulsa, from
Dylan to Clapton, and the excitement the scene generated in
turn brought new local musicians out of the woodwork.
Through his label, Shelter Records, Russell helped
Tulsa-native talent like Dwight Twilley and the Gap Band
reach a higher level of success.
"That was the whole point, you know," Russell said. "There
are so many talented people around — and Tulsa maybe has
more of it than most places — but it's hard for the talented
people to get a chance. The (music) business is largely run
by accountants and lawyers. They hire people to tell them
whether stuff is good or not. It's difficult for good,
young artists to get someone standing up for them saying,
`This is a great band.' I figured I could give some people
a chance who deserved it. I mean, you know, the Wilson
brothers (in the Gap Band) are some of the most unique
talent in the world."
Anything Can Happen
Since that early '70s heyday of hits like "Delta Lady" and
"Tight Rope," Russell his lived back and forth between Los
Angeles, Tulsa and Nashville, and his career has meandered
through different styles and varying levels of commercial
success. 1974's "Stop All That Jazz" (which featured the
Wilson brothers before they became the Gap Band) dabbled in
funk and Afro-beat, and his 1992 comeback, "Anything Can
Happen" — his first record in more than a decade — featured
Bruce Hornsby and tinkered with traditional themes and
Russell's most noted stylistic side-step, though, is his
occasional masquerade as a country persona named Hank
Wilson. He first debuted Wilson in a 1973 album, "Hank
Wilson's Back." It was an excuse for this rocker to purge
his inherent Okie-born country leanings.
"Hank Wilson came about on a road trip," Russell said. "I
was bringing a car back from L.A., and I stopped at a truck
stop that had about 500 country tapes for sale. I bought a
bunch and listened to them on the way home (to Tulsa). I
don't really listen to records very much, except for
research. I liked some of that stuff, though, and thought
it would be fun to do a record like that."
Russell revisited Hank Wilson again in the early '80s,
and a third Hank Wilson record is the reason for Leon's
latest public presence. The new Ark 21 label just released
"Legend in My Own Time: Hank Wilson III," a new set of
country standards performed by Russell with such guests as
the Oak Ridge Boys ("Daddy Sang Bass"), T. Graham Brown
("Love's Gonna Live Here") and longtime Leon pal and
collaborator Willie Nelson ("He Stopped Loving Her Today" and
"Okie From Muskogee"). Nelson and Russell still work
together, performing occasional acoustic shows, but this
album marks their first recorded duet since the 1979 "Willie
and Leon" album. Ironically, the two collaborated musically
before they ever met.
"Somebody called me and said, `Joe Allison is working on
Willie's album. Would you like to play?' " Russell said. "I
went in and did some overdubs, some clean-up work, but I
didn't meet him. Years later, I was sitting with Willie at
his ranch in Austin. I said, `Listen to that guy playing
all my stuff.' As I listened to it a little more, I
realized I had played on those records. I didn't know it
and he didn't know it."
Harold Bradley, himself a legendary session musician who
served as bandleader and production assistant for the new
album, raves about the new Hank Wilson project. He said
this album has finally captured Leon's true country
"What I really like about this project is that we
captured Leon totally," Bradley said. "In the other two
albums, which I really liked too, I thought we had done
really well. But in those albums, not really having done it
before, we tried to make Leon go the Nashville way. On this
album, we went Leon's way."
Russell is equally excited about the results of the new
Hank Wilson recordings. He recorded the vocals and piano in
his home studio, then the musicians built on the framework
he had established. Guest vocals were added later; Willie
Nelson recorded his part in Austin while the Oak Ridge Boys
made a visit to Russell's home. Twenty-four songs were
recorded for this album in two days.
"Nashville is full of master players," Russell said. "I
mean you can go up to them and say, play this at this
tempo, play it as a samba, and they can play it ... They're
ready to play, and they're trained to play master quality
at all times. It's great to be able to take advantage of
that. I tried to do this rapidly, too. They get it right
the first time about 95 percent of the time, and I tried to
"The first time someone plays the tune, it's off the top
of their head. It's somewhat more free and loose than if
they'd practiced it 10 times. It gets confusing if you make
a lot of takes and you start second-guessing yourself. You
start arranging it in your mind. That first time, you play
from the heart and it has a special kind of feel. Most of
the songs (on this record) are first takes. Ten of my
vocals are first takes, and in most cases I'd never sung
the song before."
Russell usually records his own albums at home, but he
said he enjoys the chance to work with session players for
these Hank Wilson albums because — with his own background
as a session musician — he has such respect for them.
"Those years I played in studios gave me invaluable
experience," he said. "I worked with probably the best 200 or
so producers and arrangers in the world. I learned so much
from those guys. I can't imagine what it would be like not
to have that."
When Punk Played the Cain's
© Tulsa World
Concert: Sex Pistols Tribute Show featuring N.O.T.A., Riot Squad, the Skalars and Steve Jones
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Tickets: $5 at the door
It sort of crept up on us.
It caught Davit Souders by surprise, anyway. Souders — concert promoter for Diabolical Productions and Little Wing Productions — had been looking at his calendar for January and wondering why something in the back of his head was hinting that this month had special significance. Special significance to punks, that is — and these days, that's not as limiting a category as it once was.
It dawned on Souders as the calendar began to turn. It's 1998 — the legendary Sex Pistols played here 20 years ago this week.
Gotta throw a party.
“It occurred to me that out of the seven dates on that historical U.S. tour, perhaps we should celebrate the history of that event,'' Souders said this week, waxing rather eloquently.
So on the actual anniversary — this Sunday — Souders has thrown together a bill of rude boys and punks to celebrate the brief stopover of the world's most notorious rock band in one of the nation's more famous venues, Tulsa's own Cain's Ballroom.
Yes, the Sex Pistols came ashore in the winter of 1978 and careened through the heart of virgin America at the height of their brief career. Infamous manager Malcolm McLaren purposely scheduled the British punk band's first and only U.S. tour through the South so as to generate appropriately confrontational attention.
Cain's owner Larry Shaeffer fills in the details of how the band came to our humble hamlet.
“I had booked a jazz-fusion group in the mid-'70s called Go. A Warner Bros. rep named Noel Monk came with them and loved the Cain's. When Malcolm McLaren was putting together the Sex Pistols' tour, the theory was not to play the Chicagos and New Yorks but play the South, where the likelihood of adversarial situations would be greater. Noel was working with them and said, `I know the perfect venue, too,' and set them up for the Cain's,'' Shaeffer said.
The Cain's was already a famous musical venue, thanks to the smarts and endurance of a native Texan named Bob Wills half a century before, but this event put the ballroom on the map for a new generation. (Each interview I do with serious rock 'n' roll performers includes at least some banter about the Cain's, their eagerness to return to/see the place, and this question: “The Sex Pistols played there, right?'')
The Cain's also is one of two venues from that 1978 Pistols tour still in operation. The Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas — where the Pistols played (and fought) the night before their Tulsa show — has recently reopened.
At least for some, the concert proved to be a pivotal moment. Tulsa resident Mike Lykins (you may remember him as Michael Automatic from the Automatic Fathers) was right up front for the Tulsa show — he's in the photo that ran in Creem magazine — and left the ballroom that night a changed man.
“It was just raw,'' Lykins said. “Every little creepy band that came out around here in the next few years probably wouldn't have if the Pistols weren't here. Until then, it was all coming from Aerosmith and Kansas and Yes, getting more and more sophisticated. These guys said, `No, let's just crank up those creepy guitars and have at it' ... I mean, that wave would have come here eventually, but to have them give it to me personally was something else.''
The Cain's survived with no lasting scars (though I'm told one of the holes in the backstage walls is the result of Sid Vicious's fist) but plenty of lasting memories.
“That was the first dangerous show Cain's ever did, but it wasn't really bad,'' Shaeffer said. “People came expecting all these dangerous things to happen — there were vice cops thick in the crowd, the fire department was here, protesters outside — but I don't even recall them using any profanity on stage. They didn't do anything but play loud rock 'n' roll music.''
Which is exactly what four other acts will do this Sunday to remember the event. All the bands will be playing at least some Sex Pistols songs.
Tulsa's own punk legends N.O.T.A. will be heading the bill. Leader Jeff Klein said he missed the Pistols' Tulsa performance.
“I was sitting around with a girlfriend who didn't want to go, whining about wanting to go,'' he said.
Surely the most intriguing performance this weekend will come from Steve Jones — not the Sex Pistols' guitarist but the bass player in Tulsa's own out-of-control rockers, Billy Joe Winghead. Jones will be performing an acoustic set of Pistols songs. Don't be tardy — that's too weird to pass up.
Some memorabilia will be on display from the Tulsa show — tickets, photos, Sid's autograph, possibly the contract for the show — all wrapped up in a Union jack that once flew over the British embassy.
God save us.
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.