Leon Russell: The Early Childhood Years
Most of us know about Claude Russell Bridges playing the piano by ear at 4 years old and hitting the honky tonks around Tulsa at 14 – but not a lot is recorded about his formative childhood years. Who was young Claude Russell Bridges?
I’m always fascinated by the backstories of famous people, trying to piece together how their lives unfolded, the roadblocks they overcame, and what made them so successful. Did they ever lose sight of their dream, ever waver in their pursuit of it? Were they just at the right place at the right time? Did doors automatically open or did they pry them open with their talent?
Russell’s parents, John Griffith Bridges and Hester Evel Whaley Bridges came from big families and grew up in rural Oklahoma. John had 9 siblings; Hester was one of 7. Despite this, by the 1930s, both had graduated from college and shown considerable skill as pianists. Settling in Apache, Oklahoma, family, church, and community were everything, and they were involved in all the activities small-town life had to offer. John worked for the Apache Farmer’s Union as a clerk and bookkeeper. Hester was a mom to two boys and a leader in local women’s ministry activities.
It was an unseasonably chilly April Fool’s Day, in 1942 when John bundled up Hester for the frantic 22-mile drive to the Southwestern Hospital in Lawton where she would give birth to the future Master of Space and Time. He was born on April 2, 1942, at 3:10 a.m. and weighed 8.8 lbs. He was named after his mother’s older brother, Russell Claude Whaley. I found it interesting that while big brother Jerry was born August 13, 1934, 13 months after John and Hester were married – Claude Russell Bridges arrived 6 and 1/2 years later.
Because John and Hester were both pianists, their modest house included an upright piano, which was luxury in those days. Upon hearing Russell play for the first time at age 4, she immediately enrolled him in music lessons at the acclaimed Popejoy School of Music in Anadarko, 19 miles from Apache. In Oklahoma’s post-war economy in 1946, it was very unusual to drive that far weekly.
Sarah Dora Popejoy, the proprietress of the 1904-founded Popejoy School of Music, had a strong musical background and a “Distinguished” degree from Philadelphia’s Combs Broadstreet Conservatory of Music. She signed Russell up as a member of the Popejoy Junior Music Club. Russell gave his first public performance, a vocal solo, and a place in the chorus, barely 30 days after he had started attending. By spring, he was performing piano solos at events, festivals, and competitions. At the age of 5, he won an “excellent” rating from the National Federation of Music Clubs for his piano solo at the State Junior Competitive Festival. In May 1947, he was one of the performers at a Farewell Tea and musical program for the Women’s Society of Christian Service – where his mom was being honored. There were more than fifty people in attendance as he played “Bold Adventure” on the piano. The Bridges family was moving from Apache to Maysville.
Apache Schools didn’t offer a kindergarten class – so Russell started first grade in September 1947 at the age 5 1/2. In Tulsa, he would always be the youngest student in his class.
During Russell’s 3rd – 5th-grade years, the Bridges lived in Maysville, Oklahoma, 63 miles east of Apache. Their yearbooks included elementary classes through High School.
Russell broadened his musical horizons by learning to play the baritone horn in his school’s band program, all while still attending piano lessons. Maysville High School band director, Joe Reed, was so impressed by Russell’s 5th-grade ability on the baritone horn that he invited him to join the high school marching band. Hester, ever encouraging, served as president of the Maysville Band Mothers’ Club. Russell’s favorite part, I’m sure, was watching his older brother, Jerry, play center for the Maysville Warriors High School football team.
On January 15, 1953, Wynnewood Band Director, Robert Young, hosted the Third Annual Golden Trend Band Festival, which Russell attended as a 5th Grader. Over 325 students participated from 14 different communities. The day began with the solo and ensemble contests and ended with a performance at the High School Auditorium. There were 12 other baritones in addition to Russell.
When Russell was 11, the Bridges family moved to Tulsa, for John’s position with the Texas Oil Company, which later became Texaco. They bought a six-year-old, 2-bedroom home at 1598 No. Marion Avenue.
Russell attended Cleveland Jr. High from grades 7-9 and Will Rogers High School from grades 10-12. He continued his classical piano studies in Tulsa with Margaret Frese, a renowned Tulsa piano instructor. But, at the age of 13, he stopped taking piano lessons. Instead, he concentrated on perfecting his rock and roll style by imitating his musical idols, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
It was during Junior High, Russell met Johnny Williams, Ron Wallace, and Gerald Goodwin in band class. Their friendship grew into a musical partnership, playing at sock hops and events, and, eventually, the band was named Johnny Williams and the Starlighters and lasted through high school.
Russ, as he was sometimes known in high school, had always been a straight-A student, (at least until the lure of the Big Time had him trekking to Los Angeles by Greyhound bus). He was 5′ 9″ tall, enjoyed go-karts, boats, all types of music, music theory, and had perfect pitch. He was shy and a bit aloof (classmates found him unusual with his horn-rimmed glasses, smokes, and slicked-back hair and ducktail). He was a risk-taker, intensely focused, and left-handed. The picture shows Russell, Janice (Gibson) Carr on Leon’s right, and Sharon Handley playing the Shaw Memorial Organ at Will Rogers High School.
Piano players were in short supply in Tulsa in the 50s, so Russ was in demand with high school bands and professional musicians! At 14, Russell began performing in Tulsa nightclubs with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and other bands in supper clubs and bars in all parts of Tulsa, often until 5 am.
David Gates, a year ahead of Russ at Will Rogers, started the band the Accents, which included Russell on piano. On December 10, 1957, David Gates and the Accents released the 45 RPM Single “Jo-Baby” with “Lovin’ at Night” on the flip side with Perspective Studios in Tulsa. Marty Robbins in Nashville picked up the single and re-pressed it for national distribution in 1958. Leon was 15 and David Gates was 16.
In his junior year, Russ was a member of the Will Rogers High School Marching Band with his baritone horn. As he started to get traction in his musical career, he spent less and less time in Tulsa at school.
After his graduation on May 27, 1959, Leon looked to TU to further his education. After days of studying for the entrance exam, he decided to pursue music full-time. (Senior photo Will Rogers High School Yearbook)
What molded him and his remarkable talent and dedication? Leon was already a prodigy on several instruments before we heard about him at Will Rogers High School. He said in an interview that his disability contributed to the development of his distinctive left-handed playing style.
Little did Claude Russell Bridges know as he set his sights on Los Angeles, what would come next: The Wrecking Crew, sold-out concert performances around the world, the Shindig Show, television appearances, Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tour, Concert for Bangladesh, #1 Touring Artist, recording studios and record label owner, friendships, fatherhood, mentorships, multiple Halls of Fame honors, and Grammy Awards.
Leon was credited on over 408 Albums as an arranger, band leader, vocalist, guitar, bass, percussion, xylophone bells, trumpet, horns, piano, keyboards, and 282 songwriting or composing credits, and it all started in the little town of Apache, Oklahoma.