Leon Russell - in town for the Tulsa Blues Festival - founded Shelter Records in
the '70s and, with it, a local scene.
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 all.
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
"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 Dylan.
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 island tempos.
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
"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 spirit.
""What I really like about this project is that we captured Leon totally," Bradley
"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 capture that.
"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."
Russell and his band -- which includes son Teddy Jack on drums -- will stay on the
road throughout much of the year.
"It's the only exercise I get," he said, "and it keeps me from having to get a