April is a big month for Leon Russell-related events.
Russell, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from Tulsa, died Nov. 13, 2016.
Among April events are an April 8 Leon Russell Birthday Celebration at Cain’s Ballroom, an April 20 Alarm 58 concert at Cain’s Ballroom to raise money for the Leon Russell Monument Fund and an April 21 event at Circle Cinema that will also raise money for the monument fund. (A goal of $42,000 has been reached for the monument fund, but additional funds will go toward upkeep and improvements.)
The April 21 event — titled “The Extraordinary History of Leon Russell” — will include a lecture by historian Steve Todoroff.
In honor of Russell’s big month, Todoroff agreed to provide the Tulsa World with a list of “10 things everyone should know about Leon Russell.”
Before starting the countdown, Todoroff provided a little background about the person he likes to call “Tulsa’s mayor of rock ’n’ roll.” He said Russell (born in Lawton in 1942) called Tulsa home beginning in the fall of 1953, when his father relocated the family from the oil patch town of Maysville, Oklahoma. Russell attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa.
“No matter where his career or travels took him, he would always return, usually to play at his annual birthday bash at the Brady Theater or other venues,” Todoroff said. “But sometimes he would stop in Tulsa while criss-crossing the country in his tour bus, where he would take a break playing over 100 concert dates annually.”
Details about Russell’s life and musical career are well-known to many in northeast Oklahoma. What things should people know about Russell? Todoroff came up with this list:
1. Russell was born with an injury that shaped his musical style.
“I interviewed Russell’s mother, Hester, in 1987, and she said this about the surprise diagnosis: ‘We had no idea that Russell had anything wrong with him until he was about 18 months old. He’d suffered a birth injury to his upper spine that somehow partially paralyzed his right side, particularly three fingers on his right hand.’ This impairment would eventually play a part in shaping Russell’s distinctive musical style, which featured a more dominant left hand in his keyboard playing, as well as finding inventive ways to utilize his right hand while disguising his impairment.”
2. Russell’s lineage included two grandfathers who participated in wars that shaped U.S. history.
“Russell’s great-great grandfather William Irvin Bridges (1765-1850), a freight hauler wagon driver who was born in Virginia, participated in the War of 1812 at the age of 47. His son and Russell’s great-grandfather, John Griffith Bridges (1831-1911), served in the Union army during the Civil War in Company F, Illinois 113th Infantry Regiment. He enlisted on Oct. 1, 1862, and mustered out on Sept. 26, 1864, eventually receiving a Civil War pension.”
3. Russell, who was born Claude Russell Bridges, was named after a maternal uncle.
“Russell’s mother told me that he was named after one of her brothers and Russell’s uncle, Russell Claude Whaley. The family called him Russell for short.”
4. Despite physical limitations, Russell was a child prodigy on the piano.
“Both of Russell’s parents were proficient on the piano but never pushed it on either of their sons. One day at the tender age of 4, young Russell began to take an interest in the family piano.
“Russell’s mother, Hester, recalled this about his early interest: ‘From the start I guess you could say he was a child prodigy, or what the old folks would call gifted. He just sat down one day and started playing by ear. He picked out the church hymn ‘Trust and Obey’ by ear with his stronger left hand and transposed it to his right hand. That’s the way it started out. We noticed that practicing seemed to be good therapy for his right hand. After we saw how good he was, we decided to enroll him in some lessons.’ ”
5. There was another student at Will Rogers High School named Leon Russell.
“After Russell began working steadily in Los Angeles, he began to go by the name Leon Russell instead of Russell Bridges. Ironically, there was another student at Will Rogers High School, where Russell attended high school, whose name was actually Leon Russell, and graduated two years ahead of Russell. No doubt this spawned a lot of erroneous ‘I went to school with Leon Russell’ stories.”
6. The late Tommy Allsup, an Owasso native, was instrumental in helping Russell work his way into the Hollywood club and session scene, securing his future as a professional musician.
“Allsup, an accomplished guitarist and producer best known for losing a coin flip to Ritchie Valens on Buddy Holly’s ill-fated charter plane, heard from his nephew that Russell and other Tulsans were headed to Los Angeles in late 1960. ‘The job they had lined up fell through so I tried to find them as much work as I could,’ Allsup told me in an interview. ‘I found some club gigs down in the Valley. I also started using (David) Gates, Leon and (Chuck) Blackwell on the weekends backing up talent like George Morgan. Eventually, I got them the weekend relief gig at The Palomino Club in North Hollywood.’
“Allsup was able to use his clout as a producer and session contractor for Liberty Records to hire Russell to work on non-union demos at Liberty. ‘You had to be 21 to work the union gigs,’ Allsup told me. ‘Once I got Leon into demos, it was just a matter of time until his talent came bubbling to the top, and he soon started doing legit union gigs. He went straight to the top once he got his foot in the door.’ ”
7. Russell produced an instrumental album in 1966 using a string quartet. It was supposed to be a Leon Russell album.
“While working for producer Snuff Garrett and his Viva Records label, Russell approached Garrett about producing a record with himself as the artist and suggested using a string quartet, along with his keyboard. Russell put a list of songs together, hired the musicians, spent two weeks writing arrangements and recorded the album in two days. He used Michel Rubini on piano, and he played harpsichord. When the album was finished, Garrett was so impressed he decided it should be released under the title ‘Rhapsodies For Young Lovers’ by The Midnight String Quartet on his Viva Records label. The album stayed on the charts for 59 weeks and spawned a whole series of albums under the Midnight String Quartet name. Needless to say ‘Rhapsodies’ was the only one in the series that Russell worked on after this experience.”
8. In the city of Tulsa, no one has probably done more to help and mentor scores of fellow singers and musicians as Russell.
“After he became a successful session player in Los Angeles, Russell purchased a house in the Hollywood Hills on Skyhill Drive, which became the central hangout and place to crash for many Tulsa musicians who made it to the West Coast. Russell would also find them gigs or use them on recordings at his home studio. And when Russell returned to Tulsa in the early ’70s to live, he not only put Tulsa on the map as a legitimate recording center, but created an outlet for local musicians to record and release records on his Shelter Records label. To quote my friend and writing partner John Wooley, ‘every rock ’n’ roll musician from Tulsa owes a great deal to Leon.’ ”
9. Russell wrote and recorded two songs in honor of his longtime friend, the late Emily Smith.
“In late 1971, Russell booked a week at the famous Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, and took along his band and entourage, including his longtime friend Emily Smith. Emily recalled the occasion in an interview, ‘I fell asleep in the studio on a couch during an all-night session while Leon continued to work, and when I woke up, he said he’d been working on a couple of songs that he proceeded to play for me. The first one was ‘Sweet Emily’ and the second was ‘She Smiles Like A River.’ He had written both songs about me, and at first, I was mortified that he spent the whole night writing these songs about me, but then I realized this was Leon’s way to tell me what I meant to him, and I was touched and honored beyond words.’
“Both songs appeared on the ‘Leon Russell and The Shelter People’ album. After Smith’s death in 2013 Russell began performing ‘Sweet Emily’ at every show until his own passing in late 2016.”
10. For more than 40 years, Russell wouldn’t allow filmmaker Les Blank release the Russell documentary “A Poem Is A Naked Person.” A Disney movie changed Russell’s mind.
“I had first heard about the film in 1974, which was never released for various reasons, primarily because this was about the time that Russell and Shelter Records partner Denny Cordell were splitting up. Russell had forgiven some loans to Shelter in exchange for full ownership to the film as part of the break-up. In his estimation, he had over $600,000 invested in the film, which he didn’t care for, and refused to allow it to be released by Blank.
“For many years, I had asked Leon to allow it to be shown in conjunction with the annual Tulsa birthday bashes, but he refused to budge. ‘This film will never be seen in public,’ he finally told me.
“Five months later, imagine my surprise when I received an invitation to a screening of ‘A Poem’ at the upcoming SXSW festival in Austin. At dinner before the screening, Leon explained to me why after 40 years he had changed his mind. ‘After Les Blank died, his son, Harrod, came to see me, offering to recut the film and also digitize it to enhance the quality. Plus, I had recently seen a Disney movie, ‘Saving Mister Banks.’ After watching that, I realized sometimes we just say no to be just saying no, and I realized I was being selfish about it.’ ”