Leon Russell South Shelter in Tulsa Throughout the '70s, and His Sounds Still
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 Tulsa
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 scene here.
``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
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 Sinatra.
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
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
``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 England.''
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 Utica Avenue.
The lake retreat was the crown jewel, though -- 7[ 171] 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 Jazz.''
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 action.
``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 time.''
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 1991.
``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 autographs.''
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 points.''