Teresa Knox, owner of the Church Studio, entrusted Amber Acosta with the responsibility of cataloguing thousands of items in the Church Studio Archive.
Nearly two years into the project, Acosta said this: “It has been so much fun.”
It’s a thrill ride if you enjoy traveling back in time to revisit Tulsa music history.
Background: In 1972, a church at 304 S. Trenton Ave. was purchased by Tulsa music legend and Shelter Records co-founder Leon Russell.
The church became a recording studio, and the “mysterious-looking stone structure” served as a creative workshop for songwriters, musicians, engineers and singers, according to historical info available on thechurchstudio.com.
The site name-drops artists who played or recorded there — Russell, Tom Petty, JJ Cale, Willie Nelson, Georgie Fame, Michael Bolton, the GAP Band, Kansas, Mary McCreary, Freddie King, Jimmy Markham, Dwight Twilley, Phoebe Snow, Peter Tosh, Jamie Oldaker, Walt Richmond, David Teegarden and Wolfman Jack.
In 2017, the Church Studio was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In late 2020, the Church Studio is expected to re-open as a recording studio and as a destination/attraction for music lovers. Construction will continue until the transformation is completed in about 11 months.
Selected artifacts from the Church Studio Archive will be housed in the Church Studio.
“We will be able to create exhibits to really enhance the visitor experience when people visit the Church,” Knox said.
“We don’t want to live in the past. But we want to create engaging content that honors Tulsa and pays tribute to our rich musical history, Leon Russell, Steve Ripley and all the other musicians that came out of there. The Church was at the epicenter during those magical years and was an inspiration for a lot of people.”
Russell-related items make up 90% of the Church Studio Archive, according to Knox. The collection also includes items with a connection to other Shelter artists and the building’s original history as a neighborhood church.
By another name, the Church Studio Archive is simply Knox’s collection. Most items are from a personal collection she started decades before she became owner of the studio.
“A lot of it came from my older brother — he always collected song books — and then from my mother, who liked to collect different things,” she said.
Knox said she was taught by her mother to take pride in “where you come from.” Mom was always talking about things that were invented in Oklahoma or people who were from the state. Knox gained an affinity for Oklahoma rockers.
“It’s a lifelong passion,” she said. “Now, we have a really iconic building and visitors not only enjoy the historical significance of the Church, but also a behind-the-scenes experience with the archive, inspiring an emotional connection.”
The items in the collection will be donated to the nonprofit Church Studio Music Foundation after being catalogued. The beat goes on. Acosta sometimes gets excited by in-the-line-of-duty discoveries.
“You won’t believe what I found!” she tells Knox.
Re-discoveries are fun, too. Sometimes they’ll stumble onto a cool item they forgot was in the archive and they’ll get giddy all over again. And re-discoveries are prone to happen when you’re dealing with this many items — 4,000 catalogued, about 500 to go.
The items range from musical instruments (including a guitar from 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh organized by George Harrison) and music handwritten by Russell to 7-11 Slurpee Cups featuring illustrations of Russell. Slurpee once paid tribute to legendary rockers with a series of plastic commemorative cups. Russell was among the honored.
There are promotional items, concert tickets and apparel, plus several of Russell’s hats and canes. His image was carved into one of the canes.
Did you know Russell was a collector of masks?
“Leon had masks everywhere,” said Knox, who has several of the masks in the archive. “He had them in his house. He had them on his tour buses.”
Knox said the archive includes “massive” collections related to the Concert for Bangladesh and “Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” Hey, is that Joe Cocker in a photograph? And there’s a container reserved specifically for Bob Dylan items.
“Bob Dylan is really important to Leon’s career and vice versa,” Knox said. “They were in the Concert for Bangladesh together. They wrote songs together. They hung out at Grand Lake together. With the future opening of the Bob Dylan Center (in Tulsa), we really have honed in on Bob’s relevance to Leon Russell and exploring the creative process that both artists took to create music.”
Items from nonfamous folks are part of the archive, too, because Russell saved letters and other things sent to him by fans.
It’s a safe bet to say you can get all the Leon you want when Church Studio opens. Knox said Church Studio already has a built-in fan base of Russell fans, but the idea is to inspire a new generation.
“How can we make this old stuff that Generation Z has no interest in relevant to them?” she said. “That’s what it’s all about. The Church can’t be all about Leon, but by gosh we need to make sure we honor his legacy and pay tribute to all the remarkable things he did that impacted an entire generation.”
Exhibits at the Church Studio will educate younger artists, and Knox said it will be a living, breathing building that can be used instead of a place where you just walk through and say, “Look at that.” Ideally, the Church Studio is a destination and a starting point.
“We don’t want people to leave and go, oh, that was it,” Knox said. “Through storytelling and presentation, we want to engage all of the senses when visitors walk into the Church and encourage interaction with our archive. Of course, the biggest, most favorite item in our collection is the Church itself.”