Michelle Owens held onto her black top hat as she dashed across the Cain’s Ballroom floor Thursday night, headed to her spot front and center at the stage.
She had to be in her spot as Tulsa said goodbye to one of its musical superstars.
Leon Russell, Owens said, “was probably the first person that made me proud to be an Okie.”
Owens was one of hundreds who packed the historic venue Thursday night for a free show to celebrate the life and music of Russell, who died in November at 74. More than two dozen musicians streamed across the stage playing songs from throughout his career, from the musicians who played with Russell in Tulsa in the 1950s and defined the Tulsa Sound to the musicians who toured with Russell up to this year.
A public, solemn memorial service was held in late November, but Thursday’s event was a celebration of his life and especially the music.
“That’s what we’re here to celebrate tonight,” said music historian John Wooley, who emceed the event.
With his saxophone strap hanging around his neck, Johnny Williams said Thursday was a special and once-in-a-lifetime moment for those musicians who, like himself, played with Russell in the 1950s, when they played the bars and clubs as teenagers.
“His tunes are just so catchy,” Williams said. “I think they’re going to be blown out of the water” he said about the concert.
Whatever was about to happen, Owens was ready. A dark blue feather stuck out of a scarf wrapped around her top hat, a signature of Russell’s when he performed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Her love for Russell ran deep, going back decades to the time Russell operated a studio near the shores of Grand Lake.
“When kids my age were listening to Donny Osmond, my aunt turned me on to Leon,” she said.
When she was about 9 or 10, she said met Russell once at Dorothy’s Restaurant in Ketchum. She and her family would ride in a boat around Grand Lake, hoping for the chance to see the Master of Space and Time at work in his lab.
When Russell died Nov. 13, several months after suffering a heart attack, Owens said friends from all over reached out to her.
“My Facebook was flooded the day he died,” she said.
She reconnected with a friend and fellow Russell fan whom she hadn’t seen in 15 years. They were two of the hundreds who came out to the Nov. 20 memorial service at the Mabee Center.
Some of the musicians scheduled to play the show, organized in part by Larry Shaeffer and Jimmy “Junior” Markham, included Paul Benjaman, Chuck Blackwell, Jim Byfield, Wink Burcham, Beau Charron, John Cooper, Tommy Crook, Gene Crose, John Fullbright, Steve Hamm, Ben Han, Matt Harris, Brandon Holder, Jimmy Karstein, Rodney Lay, Brian Lee, Peter Mayo, Mike MacKay, Ron McRorey, Jamie Oldaker, Bill Pair, Brad Piccolo, Walt Richmond, Bobby Taylor, David Teegarden, Charles Tuberville, Casey Van Beek, Jack Wessel, Don White, Steve White and Johnny Williams.
They were playing Russell classics like “Goodnight Irene,” “A Song For You” and “Home Sweet Oklahoma.”
For Owens, seeing the musicians who were influenced by Russell’s talent and work play his songs on the storied stage of Cain’s Ballroom, it was a new level of pride for that Okie.
“I think it’s moving. I think it’s iconic,” Owens said. “It’s a part of history.”