New bandmembers infuse Leon Russell's show with fresh sound
How long has rock legend Leon Russell been celebrating his April 2 birthday in his hometown? Even he isn't sure, but he knows it started with another former Tulsan, promoter Steve Todoroff.
"He's the one who originated that whole deal," recalled Russell in a recent telephone interview. "I think he did one when I was 40, down at the Municipal Theater on Brady, so they've been going off and on for more than 20 years."
The celebration is at the Cain's this time around, which seems appropriate. The only other birthday concert held regularly at the Cain's marks the birthdate of the late Bob Wills. Arguably, Wills with his western swing and Russell with his Tulsa Sound are the two most influential music figures ever to come out of this city.
They overlap, too. By the time Bob Wills died, in 1975, Leon Russell had become a major rock star, taking the deep-groove, R&B-influenced musical style that would come to be known as the Tulsa Sound all over the world via records, concerts and the 1971 documentary film "Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen," which Russell pretty much stole from the top-billed vocalist.
Russell still has people coming from all over the world to catch his shows, and Friday's event will likely be no exception. Groups of serious Russell fans, who've dubbed themselves LeonLifers, attend as many Leon concerts as they can, going from town to town, venue to venue. And what they've seen recently is a show with not only new personnel, but a changed-up repertoire as well.
"I've got a new guitar player who's actually a new-old guitar player," said Russell. "He played with me for 25 years, back when I was playing with (former wife) Mary, but I don't think his wife wanted him to be out on the road so much. His name's John Woodhead, and he's a fantastic blues and slide player. He was with Maria Muldaur for a long time -- that's who I got him from, as a matter of fact, and I hope she's not too mad at me."
Woodhead's credits include Russell's 1978 album "Americana," as well as several other discs with the likes of John Stewart and Santana. Fans of '70s music may remember him as a member of Ace, the pub-rock group that recorded the 1975 hit "How Long."
Two other new members -- vocalist Tina Rose and drummer Cody Bailey -- made names for themselves in Tulsa before hitting the road with Leon.
Rose, Russell's daughter, sang with local groups Freakshow and Soul Food. In fact, she and the latter band opened for her dad's birthday concert back in 2001.
Drummer Cody Bailey worked a lot around Tulsa in the late '90s as the lead vocalist for hardcore-rock act Jakob.
"When Tina came aboard, and Cody -- and actually, we had another guitarist that ended up not being able to go out with us -- we changed the show. We had a three-hour rehearsal -- one of our rare rehearsals." He chuckled. "That was when we put some new stuff in the show."
In addition to the new songs in the show, audience members will see three new Russell discs as well, ones that they won't find anywhere else.
"I've sort of taken to manufacturing the records myself, and the only place to get 'em's at the show," he said. "I've got a gospel album, old hymns, that was played at my mother's funeral. Since then, I've had several requests from other people for those songs."
The other two aren't quite as serious. At least, that's the impression one would get from their cover art.
"You know, I love to mess with covers, so I put a naked picture of myself on one called 'In Your Dreams' -- that's where the title comes from," he said with another chuckle. "And there's another one called 'Bad Country.' I had a whole bunch of bad country songs, so I put 'em all on an album.
"For that one, the cover has a picture of me, tatooed, sitting there in a wheelchair, in my invalid ride," he added. "I was going to do it with me on a Harley, but I figured with truth in advertising and all, I'd better do it the other way."
Concert: Leon Russell's Birthday Bash
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Tickets: $30 reserved, $25 general admission from Albertson's, startickets.com, Starship Records & Tapes, the Wall in Bartlesville and the Cain's box office, 584-2306