“Getting into ’56 and ’57, rock ’n’ roll was just snowballin’” in Tulsa says drummer Jim Karstein (pictured circa that time), who was once a member of Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
In the beginning Tulsa swung. But it did not rock.
Then, onto our stages stepped Gene Crose, followed by Clyde Stacy and Bobby Taylor, Wally Wiggins and David Gates and Jack Dunham and Lucky Clark, Junior Markham and Tommy Rush, along with their friends and fellow musicians, some of whom would go on to significant careers in rock 'n' roll.
A few would even become household names, although under different monikers. The bespectacled pianist Russell Bridges would, a decade or more later, become Leon Russell, the Master of Space and Time. Former country kid Johnny Cale would become J.J. Cale, whose laid-back, deep-grove songwriting and performing style influenced a huge number of rock artists, including Eric Clapton. Gates would go on to define the pop boundaries of the Tulsa Sound with airy ballads like "Make It With You" and "If," with his '70s group Bread, several of which have become genuine popular music evergreens.
But before all that, they were all just a bunch of Tulsa kids who loved music.
Most of them attended high school at Rogers or Central and were pumped up by the musical forces that seemed to be snaking in all around them. At local theaters, there was the grim 1955 juvenile-delinquent picture "Blackboard Jungle," the groundbreaking "Rock Around the Clock" beating out from the credits with Bill Haley's hillbilly voice throwing down the rock 'n' roll gauntlet. On local radio, even before KAKC changed to the town's first 24-hour rock 'n' roll outlet, disc jockey Frank Berry played rhythm & blues, and Don Wallace launched T-town's first rock 'n' roll radio show -- on KTUL, three times daily.
That same year, Elvis hit.
Singer Jack Dunham was Tulsa's early wildman of rock 'n' roll.
In 1956, buoyed by the monster success of his "Heartbreak Hotel,"Elvis Presley performed two shows at the Tulsa State Fairgrounds Pavilion. Wallace, who interviewed Elvis backstage, remembers "cars lined bumper to bumper for maybe three or four miles."
It was on.
Well before Presley's visit, however, Oklahoma Military Academy cadet Gene Crose had encountered Presley in the grooves of a 45 rpm record with a yellow label.
"At OMA, people were from all over the United States, and there was a fella there from Odessa, Texas," says Crose. "Elvis had come through Odessa, doing shows in the theaters, and this fella had bought one of his records for 25 cents. In 1955.
"He said, 'I want you to hear this song,' and he kept on buggin' me until I went down to his room and listened to it. I'd read an article in one of those country magazines (about Elvis Presley), and I thought, 'Aw, he just looks to me like kind of a heavy-set country singer.' I didn't think anything about this 'hillbilly cat' -- that's what they called him."
In 1955, Gene Crose – pictured this month at the former site of Tulsa’s Pla-Mor Ballroom at Second Street and Madison Avenue – was prepared to sing some country songs at theOklahoma Military Academy’s Cadet Capers. Then he heard Elvis. “When I heard that, country just blew out the window.”
Crose smiles. "Boy, I was really wrong. When I heard that record, it just blew me away. I thought, 'Good lands! This guy can really sing!'
"I was gonna sing several country songs for this Cadet Capers (revue) at OMA. But when I heard that, country just blew out the window. It was Elvis from then on."
The Rockets begin to roll
By the summer of '56 Crose had put together a new band, the Rockets, which included another young performer with roots in country music, Johnny Cale.
"I had seen Johnny with a little group called the Country Cousins," Crose says. "It was Johnny Cale, Billy Mecom and Dean Dobbins. So I went over to Cale's house and I literally talked him into playing for me. He said, 'No, man, I can't do it. I'm not good enough.' And I said, 'I've heard you. I know you can do it, Johnny.'
"When we started playing shows, he knew one riff. That's all he could play. I had to get with him with records and let him hear different things, and when he'd hit a different note I'd say, 'No, it goes such and such.' Now, I'm not a guitar player, but I could hear it. So that's really how he learned, just from hard work and practicing and learning that way."
George Metzel, or "Mummy Mitts," was bass player for The Rockets, arguably Tulsas first rock n roll band.
They rounded out the band with bassist George Metzel, who played in the Central High School orchestra, and drummer Roger Stallings.
"George played with a bow, and I said, 'You're gonna have to get rid of that bow -- that just will not cut it,' " laughs Crose. "So he did. It took him a little while to learn to play, slappin' and all, but he got to where he could lay it down on the floor and do all kinds of wild things."
"That's where I got a nickname: Mummy Mitts," Metzel adds. "I had to tape my fingers, because if you play for three hours doing slap bass, eventually you're going to callous up and it's going to be very painful. So I taped my fingers a lot."
Bolstered by weekly appearances on "Party Lane with Chris," a KOTV show hosted by deejay Chris Lane, Gene Crose and the Rockets took off in the summer of '56. They began playing teen hops, which deejay Wallace had also introduced to the Tulsa market, after reading about the then-East Coast phenomenon in Billboard magazine.
In the fall of '56, Crose headed for college, attending the University of Tulsa for a semester before heading off for Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. He continued to come back to Tulsa and play music, though, and the Rockets continued to be just about the only working rock 'n' roll band in town.
Then, one night, all that changed.
"I was coming back home, and I was listening to the radio, and they were publicizing the band of a guy named Bob Taylor," recalls Crose. "They called 'em the Valentines. And I said uh-oh. Because I knew that 'Valentine' was George Metzel's middle name."
He also knew a little about Taylor.
"Six or eight months after we started, still in '56, this girl called me and said, 'You've got competition.' I said, 'What do you mean, competition?' She said, 'Well, this guy can really sing Presley. He sounds just like Elvis.'
Crose laughs again. "Of course, I didn't believe it.'
Bobby's blue band
Bobby Taylor was Gene Croses first competition.
Like Crose, Bobby Taylor had a bit of a leg up, at least where Elvis was concerned.
"As a sophomore, I went to school down in McKinney, Texas, the 1954-55 school year," he explains. "And down there, Elvis was already being played on the radio. Beginning in the summer of '54, his old Sun label stuff -- 'That's All Right, Mama,' 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' 'Mystery Train' -- all those songs were being played on the air. After that school year ended, I came to Tulsa, and nobody had ever heard of him here."
In Texas, an uncle had taught Taylor how to play guitar. Once in Tulsa, the young man began to play and sing at parties, including in his repertoire the Presley songs he'd heard that still seemed all-new to Tulsa teens.
"I had no ambitions to do any more beyond that," he says. "But then I was approached by George Metzel. He had a ready-made band, and they were looking for a singer. I guess they auditioned me -- they called it a rehearsal, but I think it really was an audition. And apparently, I did OK. Immediately, we were playing at the Moose Lodge, out on East 11th Street, every other Sunday afternoon."
Crose picked up another group of guys for the Rockets, and he was soon alternating with his old band -- with Taylor the front man -- at the Sunday events.
Although Taylor became an immediately popular act, he never really figured on a career in music. After a couple of years, he joined the Air Force Reserve and went off to basic training.
"The draft was in effect at that time, and you either joined, got married or got drafted," he notes. "The benefit of joining was that you had a choice. I went away and came back in two months, and it had been Bobby Taylor and the Valentines. When I got back, it was Johnny Cale and the Valentines, and they'd picked up Dunham as their lead singer. I just never really got back into the mix."
But while he was going, especially early on, he was one of the top cats on the scene.
"In the latter half of '56, there was so much demand and so little availability of that kind of music that Crose and Clyde Stacy and myself had all the jobs we could handle," he recalls. "Sometimes, we caught ourselves playing twice a night. We'd play a sorority party at TU, and then, later, at some all-night club."
Buddy & Clyde
Clyde Stacy, pictured recently and in the ’50s (next photo), went to high school with Buddy Holly. When he first saw Holly perform,he went over and “I said, ‘Boy, you guys sound real good. All you need is a good singer.’” Stacy laughs about it.“Here’s a guy that goes and sells 10 million records.”
While Crose and Taylor became acquainted with Elvis' music before most of the rest of their fellow Tulsans, Clyde Stacy was actually friends with another rock 'n' roll giant. When Stacy knew him, though, Buddy Holly was just a bespectacled kid playing his music at root beer stands and on radio stations in Lubbock, Texas.
"I didn't know him when I started school there; he was a grade ahead of me," says Stacy. "I'm in school one day, and I hear a guy coming down the hall, singing (the Hank Williams song) 'Kaw-Liga' about as loud as you could sing it. And I thought, 'Who is this nut?' "
Stacy laughs. "They said, 'Well, that's Buddy. He's always in the hallways singing.' Then I got acquainted with him, and we started kind of knocking around together. He said, 'Come on out to the root beer stand. We play there Saturday nights.' So I went, and he's out there with his band, three or four guys, and I sat there and listened to him for a while. Then I got out and went over, and I said, 'Boy, you guys sound real good. You can pick the tar out of that guitar. All you need is a good singer.' " Stacy laughs again. "And here's a guy that goes and sells 10 million records."
Stacy had his own band, and he and Holly often played small jobs together. A local guitarist and bassist named Waylon Jennings, a couple of years younger than Stacy, sometimes joined in. So by the time Checotah native Stacy moved to Tulsa, he already had his chops up.
"After I'd been here for a while, I started getting acquainted with a few guys around town that played, and I'd pick up a guy here and a guy there," he says. "About 1957, we started playing around town."
Not long afterwards, Stacy attracted the attention of deejay Don Wallace, who got him a recording contract with Candlelight Records in New York. His first single, pairing the songs 'So Young' and 'Hoy Hoy,' made enough national noise to take him out of Tulsa and into the East, where he toured, recorded, and even appeared on 'American Bandstand' a couple of times.
"I had a contract to do three recordings that first year, singles, so after we'd promoted one for three or four or five months, it was time to start working on another single."
Stacy established a base in Pennsylvania, about a hundred miles from New York City, and became a professional musician with several more regional hits. His band, the Flames, all came from that area; eventually, however, he sent for his Tulsa friend Rocky Frisco, then performing under the name Rocky Curtiss, to join him.
"The Flames were three guys, and we needed a good organ and piano player," recalls Stacy. "Besides, Rocky was a good warm-up man. He could play piano good, and sing a little bit."
Thus summoned, Frisco spent the next decade of his life away from Tulsa.
Taking a (stage) dive
Back home, meanwhile, things were heating up.
KAKC had become the town's first rock 'n' roll station, and a number of front men had come along to jump into the mix, offering lots of opportunities for players like drummer Jimmy Karstein.
"Getting into '56 and '57, rock 'n' roll was just snowballin,' " remembers Karstein, whose continuing career includes stints with '60s hitmakers Gary Lewis and the Playboys and a long stint as an L.A. studio musician. "I started meeting people like Jimmy Markham, who was just a little bit older than I was, who'd already started sniffing around the clubs. When I met Markham, that was my real downfall." Karstein laughs. "Of course, he was getting all his info from Dunham, who was really Tulsa's prototype. Jumpin' Jack -- he was the wild man of rock 'n' roll in Tulsa."
"There weren't a lot of rock 'n' roll bands back then," Dunham adds. "It was kind of like a phenomenon to come in and see somebody act the fool -- and I really did that."
Especially, he said, during his shows at clubs like the notorious Pla-Mor Ballroom, when his band, the Upsetters, at one time included future stars Russell, Cale, and the late bassist Carl Radle.
"The stage at the Pla-Mor Ballroom was about this high," he said, measuring off a several-foot height with his hand. "And the upright piano Russell was playing was just that much higher off the stage. I got up on top of the railing, and I stepped up on his piano, and he looked up and said, 'Dunham, where are you going?'
"We were doing some screamin' Little Richard song, 'Long Tall Sally' or something, and right in the heat of the song, I bailed off that piano. People were watching, and screaming, and I hit the floor, without thinking about the hand-held mike. I had it on a long cord, and it busted me in the mouth just as soon as I hit the floor. Blood squirted. I'd pulled Cale's amplifier off onto the floor and turned Radle's amp over with my cord.
"And I never missed a beat, man!"
Out of the Gates
Drummer Chuck Farmer.
A young Rogers High School student named David Gates came up at about the same time as Dunham, in very late '57 or early '58. Like Dunham and the other pioneers, Gates played rock 'n' roll music, but that was where most of the similarities ended. A pianist and violinist at Rogers, he'd also taken up ukelele in the sixth or seventh grade.
"I took up ukelele because my hand was not big enough to play guitar," he recalls. "And I got really good on ukelele, and got little ukelele bands going, and played for some Boy Scout jamborees and stuff. I found I sort of enjoyed the organizing of a group, putting things together. And as my hand got bigger and bigger, I started working on guitar, because as much as I enjoyed classical music, I was excited by the new rock 'n' roll."
With bassist Gerald Goodwin, drummer Don Kimmel and pianist Russell Bridges (was well before he changed his name to Leon Russell), Gates put together a group called the Accents.
"We were doing what I'd call straight pop, including 'Earth Angel' and Chuck Berry and Little Richard. No Elvis tune -- maybe only one or two," he says. "I felt that the other guys were more Elvis-imitating bands, because they had frontmen who often wouldn't play anything. So we weren't in competition with those guys. They were playing clubs and stuff that I didn't know anything about."
Instead, Gates and the Accents became an in-demand act for highschool dances and parties, as well as fraternity and sorority events.
"I didn't need to do the clubs," Gates explains. "Clubs only paid 10 dollars a night, and I could make more doing the parties for two hours than I could grinding out five hours at the clubs. You did that only when you had to."
The Accents included a young David Gates (left) and Leon Russell (bottom right).
"I went to school with David in grade school," says drummer Buddy Jones, who worked clubs in the bands of Wiggins and Cale, among others. "I've known him forever. He wasn't one of the guys who stayed up all night and jam. He probably thought we were a little crazy." Jones chuckles. "He had his own plan."
"He took himself seriously. He took his music seriously. He was ambitious," adds original Accents bassist Goodwin. "In the beginning, I think the rest of us were just in it for a good time."
Although they ended up fronting separate groups, vocalist Jimmy Markham and guitarist Tom Rush teamed up in one of the best-known early Tulsa bands, the Swinging Shadows.
"The first band I formed was called the Del-Rays," recalls Markham. "I was in 10th, 11th grade at Central High School. I only knew about five or six songs, and I got this gig for a (high school) social club -- and it was gonna be about a three-hour gig!" He laughs. "So I just did the six songs, man, and I kept doin' 'em over and over again. Cale was with me, and he said, 'I know this instrumental, man.' So he played that twice. We just took those six songs and kept playin' em every damn set, and nobody knew the difference. That's the way it started."
From there Markham went to the Swingin' Shadows, a band whose membership would include, at one time or other, many of Tulsa's best, including guitar whiz Tommy Crook, drummer Karstein, and the late bassist Carl Radle.
"Markham and I and Crook all went to Central, but Karstein was at Edison," adds Rush. "I got his name from somebody and contacted him. Markham was just a singer then; he didn't play a harmonica yet.
"I don't know how we coined the name, but I remember designing the (calling) cards," he says. "We went up to Markham's mother's office, and laid 'em out. And they said, 'Swingin' Shadows -- Rock 'n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues.' "
Berry good! Meet the man who corrupted your children
Even before rock ’n’ roll beganspreading through the country viarecords and radio, Tulsa had FrankBerry, a black disc jockey whoplayed rhythm & blues over stationsKTUL and KOME.
Even before rock 'n' roll began spreading through the country via records and radio, Tulsa had Frank Berry, a black disc jockey Frank Berry, who played rhythm & blues over stations KTUL and KOME.
"I was probably about 12 or 13, and his show was like from midnight till six," recalls Tulsa Sound icon Leon Russell. "He played blues all night. It was an unusual show. Of course, in the South, there were a lot of stations that had that blues format, but it was kind of a bonus in Tulsa."
"Your parents didn't like for you to listen to Frank Berry, because it was sex music, you know," adds Dunham. " 'Sexy Ways.' 'Annie Had a Baby.' All the people I ran around with listened to him, though; you had a radio hidden by your bed."
"I was Frank Berry's engineer, so to speak, at KTUL," remembers Harry Wilson, who later -- as Happy Harry Wilson -- became one of the fabled Big 7 deejays at Tulsa's KAKC. "I played the records, and he did the announcing. He was a very pleasant guy to be around. He wasn't rambunctious or anything on the air.
"I learned some things from Frank Berry," he adds. "I realized what a power he was, what an audience he had. And I'd say well over 50 percent of his audience was white."
Undoubtedly, Berry was one of the first in Tulsa to play "Honky Tonk," the early-1956 hit instrumental by black organist Bill Doggett. David Gates calls it "the quintessential early rock 'n' roll record," and there's no question that it made a huge impression on the first wave of Tulsa's rockers. That includes drummer Chuck Blackwell, who went on to become a member of the Shindogs, house band for TV's "Shindig," and to work with the likes of blues great Taj Mahal and Russell's Shelter People.
"I used to play with 'Honky Tonk,' " he recalls. "I only had a snare drum, and then I got a foot pedal and hooked it up to a cardboard box. I remember sitting by the radio, waiting through 'Red Sails in the Sunset,' 'Shrimp Boats a Comin' ' -- all that stupid stuff, you know -- and when 'Honky Tonk' came on, I'd run to my drums and play that shuffle."
What is Rock of Ages?
Today begins a five-part series on the early history of rock 'n' roll in Tulsa. We'll continue it in The Scene through Wednesday, skip Thursday (no paper) and conclude it Friday in Spot.
Today is Sunday: The birth of Tulsa rock 'n' roll
Monday: The venues, from clubs to the hop
Tuesday: A laboratory for racial integration
Wednesday: Teens tuned into the radio
Friday: The Tulsa Sound comes around
John Wooley grew up in Chelsea, listening to radio station KAKC and occasionally dancing to live music from Tulsa bands. He played a little himself, too -- his group the Beef Squad was the first band to play on "Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidii's Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting," making several appearances on that fondly remembered late-night Tulsa television show.
Since 1983, he's been an entertainment writer for the World, with a special interest in the people who created, and continue to play, the unique music that's come out of our area over the years, stretching from Bob and Johnnie Lee Wills' Western swing through the classic Tulsa Sound to today's Red Dirt acts. Thanks in large part to his stories about Tulsa-area musicians, he recently became the first writer to be inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.