Leon Proves He’s Still King of Oklahoma Swing
BY Cathy Milam
Mar 8, 1982
1/16/13 at 2:23 AM
Leon Russell – the undisputed king of Oklahoma-style music and Tulsa’s favorite native son – came home Saturday to prove that he master of the honky-tonk piano hasn’t lost his touch.
And his reception from a foot-stomping, whistling and yahooing crowd at Cain’s Ballroom would have warmed the heart and given new enthusiasm to even the most road-weary performer.
A lot of those fans knew Russell when he was a student at Rogers High School, others just claimed to.
But everyone in the audience, including members of Francis Ford Coppola’s film crew, knew that a bona fide rock legend doesn’t offer his hometown crowd anything less than his best.
Russell’s performance Saturday night was just that – the best.
State boosterism aside, there’s something special about Oklahoma-style music. It combines the influences of a hodgepodge of styles – Western swing, bluegrass, Southern blues – and ends up an eclectic statement of the pioneer spirit.
Russell does Okie music like no one else, ladling on the Gospel sound like so much gravy.
He and his new 10-piece Rock ‘n Roll Revue swung into the evening with a rousing rendition of Ray Charles’ “I got a Woman” – which showed off the voices of four back-ground vocalists, singing in counter-point to Russell’s own growl.
Then, they spun into Russell’s “Tightrope,” which featured the Revue’s flying=fingered fiddler, followed by “The Island.”
Russell waded into still another version of his classic “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Gone was the sitar-punctuated Oriental version and the bluegrass rendition.
“Stranger” became the quintessential Gospel tune, performed with a fury and culminating in a crescendo hail of hallelujahs. It was a stunning performance, one of the best of the almost two-hour set.
Russell begrudged the audience the time to stand and holler and plowed right into “I Want to Be There” and then Delaney and Bonnie’s “I Love You Forever,” featuring a steel guitar.
Dressed in green jacket, white Western shirt and straw cowboy hat, Russell asked the audience, “Do you like country music?” Then he tore into the old standard “Uncle Pen.”
He doffed the hat to reveal that snowy mane of hair and beard for the mellow ballad “Lady Blue.”
It’s a shame not to have the names of all the members of the Revue. Each was a superbly skilled artist. The crowd was particularly taken by a madman of a harmonic player who wailed, cried and moaned his way through “Come on Into My Kitchen.”
It was the kind of blues that’s so gritty you can feel it between your teeth.
Russell’s “Singing this Song for You” is a ballad with rare depth and sensitivity.
It’s rare to find a singer who can perform such a number before a screaming, whistling crowd convincingly.
But Russell seems to thrive on the hooted encouragement.
He screamed and wailed his way through “Kansas City,” Sam and Dave's “Hold on I’m Coming,” “Wild Horses,” “Truck Drivin’ Man” and “Early in the Morning.” And as if the crowd wasn’t spirited enough, he drove them into a frenzy with his “Prince of Peace.”
What Russell show would be complete without “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms?” So he did that one.
But the real coup of the concert was when Russell crooned an incredible Gospel-blues version of “Amazing Grace.” The power of his voice and the unbelievable emotional charge that he gave to the number had a stunning effect on the audience. Stompers and shouters began to sway and loop arms with one another and to noiselessly sing along.
Opening the night was Donna Williams and Fat Tuesday, one of the most talented and most appreciated of local bands. The ensemble offered a spirited, richly shaded performance highlighted by a salute to the late John Belushi, penned by Miss Williams to the tune of the old blues song “I Was Born in Chicago.”
The tune would have been a fitting climax to an evening of music.
And it would have been well nigh impossible to eclipse that moment for any musician with less stature than Russell.