Elton John and Leon Russell, 'The Union'
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Elton John & Leon Russell
Writing in the liner notes of his new CD collaboration with Leon Russell, his musical hero, Elton John details his U.S. debut in 1970 with Russell in the audience, how the two of them struck up a kinship, toured together and enjoyed initial parallels of fame as rock 'n' roll pianomen. "Anyway," John writes, "then I lost touch with Leon and our paths kind of went different ways."
That's an understatement. By the mid-'70s, all the world knew of John's crocodile rock. His body of work, it was announced last week, has earned him an entire Elton John channel on Sirius XM satellite radio.
Russell, meanwhile, served as maestro of Joe Cocker's notorious Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, had a big hit with "Tightrope," knocked everyone out with a fiery performance at the Concert for Bangladesh — and then almost all of us lost touch with Leon. He took a hard right and recorded a straight-up country album ("Hank Wilson's Back," 1973), then turned left for some avant-garde self-exploration ("Stop All That Jazz," 1974). He never stopped recording or touring, but while John eulogized princesses, became the belle of Broadway and sold out in Vegas, Russell was rolling his broken-down bus into tiny bars in small cities.
After a personal revelation last year about how deeply Russell influenced his music, John sought him out after 40 years. They reconnected, made plans to record. It could have been just another hokey duets album for John, 63, but to his credit "The Union" (out Tuesday) reunites the two piano-pounders under his stated and restated intention of injecting Russell, 68, back into at least a tributary of the mainstream.
"There's no point doing this record if it doesn't bring his work to light," John recently told Billboard. "I want him to be comfortable financially. I want his life to improve a little."
Fortunately, the resulting record amounts to something significantly greater than a charity project. It's a marriage of true love and admiration, much like "Road to Escondido," Eric Clapton's 2006 reunion with J.J. Cale. (Cale and Russell are both icons in their native Oklahoma as pioneers of the easygoing "Tulsa sound," which influenced performers from Tom Petty to Garth Brooks.) While "The Union" sags slightly under the weight of each performer's latter-day penchants, it ultimately succeeds because of the youthful energy they rediscover with each other's aid.
For this union to take place, John had to step back a bit from the obese, overwrought records he's made of late, which he seems to have done with relief and glee. "I don't have to make pop records any more," he told Billboard, indicating that "The Union" marks a new, less commercial chapter in his career. Huzzah!
Meanwhile, Russell — frail and sometimes in ill health, including brain surgery just as recording sessions began in January — had to step up his game, return to something resembling form. Russell's concerts the last decade or more have been static, lifeless affairs. He'd sit nearly motionless before a tinny little electric piano, a snow-white Cousin Itt with sunglasses, and mash out a rushed string of once beautifully arranged gems.
But he turns it around for these recordings. John, in his liner notes, celebrates the moment Russell "suddenly got his confidence again and started to play the grand piano instead of the electric piano, and all this great piano playing came flooding back and we made this incredible record."
The kick-back from real piano keys as opposed to the plastic of an electric keyboard — that simple physical resistance, that subtle artistic challenge has been what Russell's needed for years. He faces it here and comes alive again, opening the album with "If It Wasn't for Bad," as classic a Leon track as we thought we'd never get again. Over a touch of gospel and that moseying Tulsa pace, he seems to address his own criticisms in the song's central pun: "I know that you could be just like you should / If it wasn't for bad you'd be good."
Eight of these songs were penned by John and his writing partner of 43 years, Bernie Taupin. The first, "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes" voices John's own perspective on his hero: "Your songs have all the hooks / You're seven wonders rolled into one." From then on, the pair play piano and sing side by side, volleying like two tennis players trained by the same coach. Russell's feline yowl adds grit and growl to John's "Monkey Suit" (as "honky" as this cat's been in decades), while John's creamier voice leavens the slow regret of Russell's "I Should Have Sent Roses." For Russell, the proceedings often return to gospel, especially near the end of "The Union" as he shuffles through "Hearts Have Turned to Stone" with four churchy backup singers, then closes the album with the personal, organ-driven hymn "In the Hands of Angels."
"The Union" is filled out by a mutual admiration society of musicians who couldn't help but drop by the studio once they heard Russell was in town. Neil Young sings on the Civil War ballad "Gone to Shiloh." Brian Wilson sings and arranges some of "When Love Is Dying." Jim Keltner (another Tulsan!) plays drums throughout, and producer T Bone Burnett expertly guides and reins in the whole asylum choir.
Look for John and Russell on the road together this fall, starting with Tuesday's show at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Bonus: Cameron Crowe filmed the recording of "The Union"; he plans to screen a documentary in February at the Sundance Film Festival.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
You probably don't know me from Adam, maybe only as a tag-along colleague of John Wooley's. We've talked only a few times, on rare occasions when you let down your veil of eccentricity and granted an interview.
I write this open letter to you, though, because after seeing you launch the show for Joe Cocker on Monday night at the Brady Theater, I wanted to address you directly instead of merely preaching to the asylum choir, as it were. Who knows if we'll ever speak again. This is likely my last concert review for this publication, so I'm feeling rather audacious.
Concerts are not competitions, by any means. That's good, Leon, because Cocker kicked your butt Monday night.
It was a little shocking. Granted, I was in my mother's womb when the two of you were romping across the country as the infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but I've seen you in that concert film stealing Joe's show.
Heck, you stole his very fire.
I've listened to and reported the stories and legends about that event for more than seven years as a pop critic for this newspaper. People speak of you as if you were some kind of shaman — in hushed tones, the awe still palpable after three decades. But it's an awe rooted in that heyday. It's old.
Obviously, so are you. In body, that's one thing, but in spirit — somehow I didn't expect that. I should have: you've been giving this same show for a decade, at least.
Monday night was no different. Maybe a little worse, really. You sat motionless at your keyboard, wheezing through songs you were reading off a teleprompter, never looking at the audience — never even acknowledging us.
You plowed through the set without so much as a breath between songs. When you mashed your last chord Monday night and removed your sunglasses, I saw your eyes for the first time in years. They looked vacant, maybe a little uncomfortable.
Most telling, though, you looked insanely bored.
I actually expected boredom and autopilot from Cocker. I've never been fond of that old hack, but he blew me away. He had the sell-out crowd on its feet for an hour-and-a-half.
He's three years younger than you, but Monday night it looked like 20. His trademark spasmodic arms were wringing out some hot soul, and — during his smooth, reggae take on "Summer in the City" — he convulsed his entire body to make incredible wails come out.
Did you see the women dancing as he sang "You Can Leave Your Hat On"? No, I guess you didn't. You'd left the theater before his set started.
I wish you had seen it — not to ogle the chicks but to watch Cocker in action. He should be a washed-up has-been by now, but he was a master Monday night.
Maybe he needs Viagra at his age, but he hasn't forgotten what his blue-eyed soul is all about. It's about sex, and he can still conjure it.
What's your music about these days, Leon? Is it just down to the bottom line? Are you touring simply because you have to pay the rent? Your show reeks of that motive.
There's no showmanship. There's no entertainment. There's absolutely zero passion. All you had up there Monday night was a bunch of fine songs smothered by synthesized instruments, polyester arrangements and desperate, break-neck speed.
This sub-Best Western lounge act may work for you. Fine. You're obviously able to book plenty of shows, and you've got your record label humming. But if Cocker wasn't on the bill Monday night, we'd have gone home restless, feeling cheated.
You were once one of the greatest showmen in rock 'n' roll. I don't mean to crack the whip and insist on the same level of energy and psychosis; I just somehow expected greater maturity in your act instead of this much self-parody.
For whatever it's worth — they don't call this "two cents" for nothing — I, the young upstart with virtually no on-stage experience, offer these suggestions for your future endeavors:
1. Go unplugged
Get rid of that silly synthesizer you cling to. The synchronized synth-piano effect you played so frequently Monday night is tinny, harsh, awful.
If you must have the teleprompter screen, those can be rigged to sit anywhere, such as the music stand on a piano. You're a techie, you know this.
The Brady Theater has a beautiful grand piano in the house. I'd pay good money to see you play an actual piano again. I think it would do you good, if I might be so bold. Piano keys kick back in a way keyboards don't, and it looks like you could use a little reaction from your music, a little challenge. Plus, all that synthesized noise has no dynamics.
Every song you played, from the jaunty "Tight Rope" to the exquisite ballad "A Song for You," came at us with the exact same hammering force and volume. There was no loud and soft, no give and take, none of your trademark subtleties. Also, lose those synth-drum pads. Better yet: bring back Teddy Jack.
2. Get up, stand up
We've all heard about your legendary (or mythical) shyness. Is that why you never move? Is that why the only time we hear you speak is to introduce the band?
All that beautiful, long white hair — and it just lays there. I don't expect it to fly like it used to when you were running around the stage in 1970, but I hardly think it's a lot to ask that you move around a little.
Turning your neck to the left would be a start. Look at us. Here's a biggie: smile. The Brady was filled to the brim Monday night with people who shelled out hard-earned bucks — amid both the Christmas shopping season and a bad economy — to see you. Sure, they want to hear the songs, but your presence is also part of the bargain.
If you want to make your career strictly about songwriting and steer clear of the stage, more power to you; you're one of the best writers around. But if you're going to strike the deal and perform for us, commit to the physical aspect of it. Even Jimmy Webb rocks back and forth and chats a little.
3. Put a spell on us
Speaking of Webb, take a page from his book. Grow a little mystique around yourself. In fact, go away for a while, if you can afford it. You're in league with people like Webb as a songwriter, but you're more than that, really.
I think of you more along the lines of Van Dyke Parks — an arranger, a writer, a maestro. Play on that, and flaunt a little ego. Don't play every venue offered you. Seeing you live should be an event, a rare and precious opportunity.
This was your third show here this year. If you're going to stay in Nashville, work behind the scenes with other artists who will speak of you reverently in their interviews. You are the master of space and time, right?
4. Come home
Actually, don't stay in Nashville. Your kids are grown now, and technology allows us to live anywhere we want and still do business. So move back to Tulsa.
Get away from that den of dumbing-down. Sure, Tulsa's not as classy as Nashville (depends, however, on your definition of class), but it's a nurturing musical community. You'd be welcomed with open arms.
Remember the Tulsa Sound? Everyone here still claims you were one of its founding fathers, that it's a style of bluesy rock that's more about the space between the notes.
Listening to that onslaught of eighth notes unleashed upon us Monday night — a sweet little song like "Hummingbird" whipped up into a suffocating tornado of music — who would still make that claim?
Come back, even for a little while. Dig up your roots. Maybe you could host a monthly jam down at the Cain's Ballroom. Heck, Garth doesn't need a Nashville zip code.
5. Suck it up
The bulk of the people who bought tickets to Monday's show wanted to see you perform, and they wanted to see Cocker perform, but they really wanted to see the two of you perform together.
First time on a bill together in three decades — of course, we all expected it. Surely whatever bad blood that once existed between you would have drained away by now.
Alas, you never showed, and we were left to come in through the bathroom window for Cocker's encore, in which he knocked four numbers outta the park.
At the very least you might have been inspired by the ol' codger, picked up a few tips from his sheer production values. He's got soul, for sure, but you've got spirit. You used to have grace, and you could at least have been gracious. If not for Joe, for your fans. It's all for your fans.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
People still talk about the tour.
Granted, in Tulsa — Leon Russell's recognized home turf — it's the stuff of legend, but across the country it's still one of the best stories in rock 'n' roll. The tale just keeps getting taller. A new band of transplanted locals in Nashville is reportedly even preparing an album tentatively titled "Mad Dogs and Okies."
Musicians still have it on their resumes. Sometimes an artist's bio will come into the Arts desk here, and it will tout — very near the top — that this musician performed on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour in 1970. We have to chuckle, because that's not saying much. Hundreds of people wound up on that stage.
Funny thing, though: when they mention the tour, it's always Leon Russell's Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour, never Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Leon was the bandleader for Joe's show. Pretty unintentionally, though, Leon stole that show right out from under Joe.
That's pretty much why these two classic rock figures haven't shared another bill since.
Until next week.
For the first time since that infamous circus, Russell and Cocker will share the same stage on the same night. That is, they're each scheduled for individual sets as part of one show. Concert organizers don't know whether they'll actually perform together.
"I suspect that they will, but I don't know," said Mark Lee of 462 Concerts this week. "No one could imagine them not playing together, but they haven't in 30 years."
The Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour was a highlight of Cocker's career and the launch of Russell's.
Cocker had come up through the British pub circuit with the Grease Band. He landed a No. 1 hit in 1968 with a gritty, soulful cover of the Beatles' "A Little Help From My Friends." When he sang that song at Woodstock the following year, his superstardom was assured.
Russell had been struggling through the ranks in America as a session pianist. He was sought-after — working frequently with Phil Spector — but he was still a session player in the wings. His 1967 solo debut LP, "Look Inside the Asylum Choir," was respected by critics but didn't sell. In '69, he hit the road with Delaney and Bonnie.
It was then that the two crossed paths. Cocker, always looking for good material, picked up Russell's "Delta Lady" and recorded it for another hit. When Cocker decided to tour again, he asked Russell to put together a band for him.
That was either his first mistake or his stroke of genius, depending on who you talk to.
Russell didn't hold back in assembling a motley crew for what would become the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. One-time Russell girlfriend Rita Coolidge was on board. Delaney and Bonnie joined up. The Rolling Stones' future horn section was there, as well as Derek and the Dominos' future rhythm section. Some shows had up to 45 people on the stage, including a few actual dogs.
It only lasted a couple of months — 48 cities in 56 days — but the tour's effects lasted a lifetime. It was even filmed for a concert movie of the same name. It was the hottest post-Woodtsock ticket around the country, because not only was Cocker in his prime but there was this long-haired Okie up there stealing the show. Russell ran back and forth between piano and guitar, leading the band with his hair flying. Russell was so manic and so darned good that people wound up talking about him as much, if not more, than Cocker — and it was Cocker's headlining tour.
After the show inevitably fell apart, Russell's star rose. He showed up on albums by B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, and the next year was a highlight of George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. Then he toured with the Stones — all this while living in Tulsa. The record label he founded here, Shelter Records, nurtured the early careers of Tom Petty and Phoebe Snow, as well as locals Dwight Twilley and J.J. Cale.
Cocker didn't fare so well after the tour. His albums and performances suffered from problems with alcohol on and off the stage. He bounced back with another hit, a cover of "You Are So Beautiful," in '75, and then made that kind of romantic ballad the hallmark of the rest of his career. Later, his raspy crooning scored him soundtrack hits such as "Up Where We Belong" (a duet with Jennifer Warnes) from 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman."
Russell continues churning out his traditional and sometimes country songcraft through his own label, Leon Russell Records. Cocker just released his latest collection, "Respect Yourself," on the Red Ink label.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Dwight Twilley doesn't sit still. Even in his own home.
He's sitting cross-legged on his living room floor,
rocking back and forth, sucking Parliament cigarettes to
the filters. Sometimes he gets up and paces behind the
couch. He bites his nails like a new father outside the
He is a new father, really. His latest baby is being
born right here in this living room, on the stereo. It's
Twilley's new album — his first record of new songs since
We're in Twilley's living room in a nondescript house in
a midtown Tulsa neighborhood like any other. The dogs
frolic in a fenced yard out back. The neighborhood kids
loiter in the front yard, hoping to find one of the box
turtles that live underneath the property's massive,
signature oak tree. There are no fancy cars in the
driveway. Only the converted garage with no windows --
Twilley's recording studio — gives away anything unusual
about the house. No one would drive by and think this was
the home of a Top 40 pop star.
"It's only when I'm out mowing the lawn and looking dirty
and awful that somebody drives by and stops. 'Are you
Dwight Twilley? Can I get your autograph?' " he says.
That odd, windowless garage is where the entire new
album was recorded. It doesn't sound like a homemade
record, though. It sounds bigger and brighter than any
album released in his three-decade career. It sounds as if
he had a huge, major-label recording budget — or, as Twilley
is fond of putting it, "We tried to make this record sound
like we had a deli tray."
But there was no caterer, no staff of engineers, no
heady Los Angeles vibe intoxicating everyone in the
process. Just snacks in the kitchen across the breezeway,
Twilley's wife Jan Allison running the control board and
the laid-back comfort of Tulsa keeping the couple sane for
a change. In fact, the heady Tulsa vibe informed and
inspired practically every note, word and sound that went
into this new record — from the use of a recorded
thunderstorm and cicada chorus to lyrics such as, "I gave a
lot up for rock 'n' roll / I had a lover but I let her go
A quick scan around the living room reveals prints of
Twilley's paintings on the wall, a Bee Gees boxed set on
the stereo cabinet, Twilley himself jittering through his
nervous energy on the floor. At least he's still got the
energy, and at least he's home.
The new album will be on shelves Tuesday. It's called
All roads lead to Tulsa
It's 1970. Twilley and Phil Seymour have finally gotten
out of town. The two had met three years earlier at a
screening of "A Hard Day's Night" and discovered their
musical chemistry, as well as their desire to practice that
science far and away from Tulsa.
In a '58 Chevy, they head east to Memphis. Driving down
Union Avenue, they pass a storefront painted with the
moniker of Sun Records. "Hey, look, it's a record
company," Twilley says.
He and Seymour walk into Sun Records and talk to "some
guy named Phillips." They have no idea where they are — Sun
Records, the studio where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis
and countless others were molded, talking to Sam Phillips,
the man responsible for their molding.
Phillips listens to the tape of songs by Twilley and
Seymour. He doesn't send them away. Instead, he sends them
to Tupelo, Miss., to see Ray Harris, who says, "Y'all sing
"We had no idea where we were, really. We thought Elvis
was a movie star and that the Beatles invented rock 'n'
roll. We heard this Elvis stuff and were saying, 'Hey, that
sounds like Ringo,' " Twilley says of the trip. "It made an
impression. That's what wound up setting us apart.
Everybody else thought the Beatles invented rock 'n' roll,
and we fused the two.
"Plus, when we came back, we didn't sing like (weenies)."
A few years later, after learning to blend the catchy
pop of the Beatles with the backbeats of classic rock 'n'
roll, Twilley and Seymour escape Tulsa again. This time
they go west, to Los Angeles. Once again, they start
shopping their tapes to record companies. "Leon
(Russell) had started Shelter by then, and that was the
last thing we wanted," Twilley says now. "We thought that was
the stupidest thing in the world. Every club in (Tulsa) had
someone singing like this — " and he launches into a wheezy,
whiny Leon Russell impression. "We drove 1,500 miles to get
away from that."
Still, during the pair's first week in L.A., someone
takes their tape to the Hollywood office of Russell's
Shelter Records. Within days, Twilley gets a call from
Russell's manager and label head Denny Cordell.
"I show up at the Shelter office and sit in the little
waiting room. The Shelter people are in listening to the
tape and apparently freaking out. Somebody said, 'They came
out here with a tape of 30 of these (songs)!' Denny walks
out and says, 'I've heard your tape. Here's how I feel
about it,' and drops a record contract in my lap. Then he
walks out, saying over his shoulder, 'You'd better get an
attorney.' That was it," Twilley said.
"Then they sent us back to Tulsa."
It's a chilly night early in 1975. Actually, it's early
in the morning, maybe 3 a.m. Twilley and Seymour are toying
around in the Church Studio (then owned by Russell) under
strict orders from Shelter Records to get to know the
studio and not — under any circumstances — record any songs.
Maybe it's the hour, maybe there are stimulants --
regardless, Twilley and Seymour buck the orders. Seymour
takes Twilley into the hallways and says, "Let's do it.
Let's record a hit. Right now." Building on a groove
Seymour had been tinkering with, and handing guitarist Bill
Pitcock IV the riffing opportunity of his life, the Dwight
Twilley Band records "I'm on Fire."
The Shelter people will be annoyed — until they hear it.
The single will be rushed out. By June it will hit No. 16
on the charts and stick in the Top 40 for eight weeks. For
the next 10 years, Twilley's career will ride a
roller-coaster of fame and frustration, scoring another Top
10 hit in 1984 with "Girls" and settling him into life in
The prodigal star
Fast-forward to November 1996. I'm at Caz's in the Brady
District, checking out the latest band to be graced by Bill
Padgett's thundering drums, a now-defunct act called Buick
MacKane. The singer, Brandon McGovern, moved from Memphis
to Tulsa just to be near Phil Seymour, who had died from
cancer a few years earlier. The influence rings in every
sweetened, Beatlesque chord.
Buick MacKane is the opener tonight. The main act is
Dwight Twilley. Most in the audience remember Dwight, after
all, he had some hits. Those still new to the Tulsa scene
probably don't realize he was a Tulsan, much less that he's
back in town. But the crowd is willing
to give his set a listen.
When Twilley walkes into the bar — feathered hair,
sloganeering buttons on his lapel — he turns heads not with
the ghosts of his good looks but with an intangible aura of
a superstar. His set on the floor of this tiny shotgun bar
was bigger and stronger than any other local show in recent
memory, and the songs were gorgeous, crystalline, catchy as
hell. What on earth was he doing back here?
"After the earthquake ('94, in California), the insurance
people said we'd have to move out of the house to fix it
and then move back in," said Twilley's wife, Jan Allison.
"Dwight looked at me and started singing, 'Take me back to
Tulsa . . .'"
Weary of the literal and figurative shake, rattle and
roll of the L.A. lifestyle, Twilley and Allison moved back
in '94. Twilley wasn't retiring. In fact, quite the
contrary — he planned to finally record a new album right
"But with fax machines and Fed-Ex, you don't need to live
in the big business centers anymore," Twilley said.
"I wanted to come home."
'I'm Back Again'
Before Twilley and Allison premiere the new record,
Twilley shows off his home studio. It's a masterfully
rehabilitated garage, an immaculate studio and a small drum
room; set into the door between them is a porthole from the
Church Studio. He points out a few pieces of equipment used
in the recording, and talks about how many favors he cashed
in to lure old Dwight Twilley cronies out to play on yet
another record — original guitarist Bill Pitcock, noted
local axmen Pat Savage and Tom Hanford, original Dwight
Twilley Band drummer Jerry Naifeh, Nashville Rebels bassist
Dave White and drummer Bill Padgett, among others.
"I used up every favor, burned every bridge. There's guys
who won't return my calls anymore," Twilley says.
But he doesn't seem to regret the effort. He's very
proud of the results and is quite sure that his moving back
to Tulsa was a great career move.
"This record wouldn't have been possible without the
incredible musicianship in this town," he says. "I've always
said that Tulsa musicians are the best in the world because
they have to work so damn hard, harder than anywhere else.
That was part of why I moved back. I wanted a band of Tulsa
musicians again . . . and I feel a real sense of
accomplishment that I've made a new Dwight Twilley record
here in Tulsa."
"Tulsa" will be released Tuesday by a Texas-based
independent label, Copper Records. It's the first new
Twilley record to hit shelves in 13 years, the first
recorded in Tulsa in two decades. A CD collection of
rarities and outtakes will follow later in the summer from
a different label. A new Twilley single — 7-inch vinyl, no
less — is the current best-seller for a French indie.
Twilley classics have popped up on every "power pop"
collection worth its salt in the last three years.
Twilley just doesn't sit still — especially when he's
Between the cracks
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Twilley's latest salvo includes not one but two new CDs.
In addition to the album of new songs, "Tulsa," Twilley soon
will release a CD called "Between the Cracks, Vol. 1." It's a
collection of rarities, demos and outtakes from the early
'70s to the present.
Twilley is an extensive archivist of his personal
exploits, and he's saved nearly everything he's recorded on
his own and with the Dwight Twilley Band. "Between the
Cracks" features several gems from this collection,
including several tracks from "The Luck" album, which was
never released. There's also a demo of a song from about
1973 featuring just Twilley and a piano.
"Between the Cracks" will be released by Not Lame Records
For more information on Twilley recordings, look to his
website at http://members.aol.com/Twillex.
Leon Russell, 'Face in the Crowd'
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
"Face in the Crowd"
Ol' Leon's voice is just barely hanging in there, crusty
and clogged and in need of some vocal Liquid Plumr. That's
never handicapped Bob Dylan or Neil Young, and whether or
not you think Russell measures up to those comparisons,
"Face in the Crowd" at least pushes that old, gravelly voice
of his hard enough to make it stand out in a crowd again.
His testosterone-fueled howlings in "Dr. Love" cop some
much-needed sexiness from Dr. John's bag of tricks. His
growling ups and downs in "So Hard to Say Goodbye" restore
some of the spunk of his hit-making days, too. Unlike his
last record, the third "Hank Wilson" incarnation, "Faces" isn't
rushed as much it sounds eager and comfortable — and seeing
or hearing a comfortable Leon is a special treat. Russell
could still benefit from the control and finesse of a smart
producer — the arrangements and recording of son Teddy Jack
tend to gum up in the speakers — but by reviving his
distinct songwriting voice, Russell is assured to remain
clearly identifiable in the crowd.
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."
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.