Leon Russell: ‘Going Back To Tulsa One More Time’

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An amazingly detailed mural of Leon Russell — complete with the Master of Space & Time’s signature top hat and flowers — at 415 3rd St. in Tulsa.
The Church Studio at 304 S. Trenton Ave. in Tulsa was recently renovated with the intention of once again serving as a recording studio and continuing the legacy of the great Leon Russell.
The Church Studio at 304 S. Trenton Ave. in Tulsa was recently renovated with the intention of once again serving as a recording studio and continuing the legacy of the great Leon Russell.

Whoa!

Will Rogers High School at 3909 E. 5th Place in Tulsa, where Leon was a student from 1956–1959. The 1937 Baldwin grand piano Leon used to wow classmates with was recently restored and remains in the school auditorium.
Will Rogers High School at 3909 E. 5th Place in Tulsa, where Leon was a student from 1956–1959. The 1937 Baldwin grand piano Leon used to wow classmates with was recently restored and remains in the school auditorium.

Leon’s Early Days

Breaking In

He and the Wrecking Crew played on so many of the hits of the 1960s, for household names like The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, and The Mamas & The Papas. In 1969, while in the studio writing and recording songs for his self-titled, debut solo album with the likes of Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts, George Harrison and Ringo Star, Leon received the break that ultimately pushed him out of the shadows and into the spotlight— Joe Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour.

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Stepping Out Of The Shadows

Trailer for the historic Concert for Bangladesh fundraiser show, featuring Leon Russell, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and others in 1971.
Cover artwork of Leon Russell’s early solo albums.
Cover artwork of Leon Russell’s early solo albums.

Master Of Space & Time

Leon performing “A Song For You”

At The Top

Leon performing “Stranger In A Strange Land,” with accompanying video collage. This song has emerged as my favorite Leon original.
The old and the new coming together at the renovated Church Studio in Tulsa.
The old and the new coming together at the renovated Church Studio in Tulsa.
Photo from inside the renovated session room at the Church Studio. The building also includes a room of historical Leon Russell, Shelter Records and Tulsa Sound artifacts, and several other interesting nooks and crannies the staff has plenty of interesting Leon-related stories about.
Photo from inside the renovated session room at the Church Studio. The building also includes a room of historical Leon Russell, Shelter Records and Tulsa Sound artifacts, and several other interesting nooks and crannies the staff has plenty of interesting Leon-related stories about.
I’m all smiles to be sitting at the same board Bob Dylan is pictured at on his “Time Out Of Mind” album. The board was recently installed in the sound booth at the Church Studio during the renovation of the building.
I’m all smiles to be sitting at the same board Bob Dylan is pictured at on his “Time Out Of Mind” album. The board was recently installed in the sound booth at the Church Studio during the renovation of the building.

The Church Studio

The Beatles, Bob Marley, Tom Petty & more

The view of the Church Studio from the doorway of the diner across the street, where Leon Russell and Denny Cordell signed Tom Petty to his first recording contract. And, yes, I ate lunch there during my visit to Tulsa in December 2021, just so I could look out the same window Leon, Denny and Tom once did.
The view of the Church Studio from the doorway of the diner across the street, where Leon Russell and Denny Cordell signed Tom Petty to his first recording contract. And, yes, I ate lunch there during my visit to Tulsa in December 2021, just so I could look out the same window Leon, Denny and Tom once did.

Falling Out

Willie & Leon

Out Of The Spotlight

My girls and I outside the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where Leon Russell and Elton John first met.
My girls and I outside the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where Leon Russell and Elton John first met.

The Union

Video of Elton John inducting Leon Russell into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

R.I.P.

leonmemorial
This is just a sliver of the Mural of Space and Time, located in the shadows of the Church Studio. In November of 2020, Brian Lewis replicated eight Leon Russell-inspired oil paintings by Patrick Gordon, commissioned by Teresa Knox. The entire mural is on 190 feet of the Mac’s Electric building wall just east of the studio.
This is just a sliver of the Mural of Space and Time, located in the shadows of the Church Studio. In November of 2020, Brian Lewis replicated eight Leon Russell-inspired oil paintings by Patrick Gordon, commissioned by Teresa Knox. The entire mural is on 190 feet of the Mac’s Electric building wall just east of the studio.
View from the control room at the Church Studio.
View from the control room at the Church Studio.

Keeping The Legacy Alive

A 14-minute documentary on the creation of the Mural Of Space And Time artwork — a tribute to Leon Russell — by Patrick Gordon and Brian Lewis on display across the street from the Church Studio in Tulsa. This documentary was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival in 2021.
A 1-minute backgrounder on the Church Studio, past and present.

When I was a young man, barely seventeen

I went on out to Hollywood, chasing my dream

And dusty Oklahoma was all I’d ever seen

And, I was getting older

The memories of the greyhound

Fade and quickly pass

In the lonely restaurant windows

And the empty hourglass

Reflect the human hunger

For the questions never asked

And I only had my time for spending

But I’m goin’ on back to Tulsa just one more time

Yes, I’m goin’ on back to Tulsa just one more time

Yes, I’m goin’ on back to Tulsa just one more time

I’ve got home sweet Oklahoma on my mind

Audio of Leon’s “Home Sweet Oklahoma.”
This wall mural of Leon Russell, titled Hail Factor, is located at 1016 E. 4th St. Tulsa’s Jason Sales commissioned local artist Josh Butts to paint it.
This wall mural of Leon Russell, titled Hail Factor, is located at 1016 E. 4th St. Tulsa’s Jason Sales commissioned local artist Josh Butts to paint it.
Snapshot from my visit to the Church Studio in December 2021.
Snapshot from my visit to the Church Studio in December 2021.
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Jeff Mores is equal parts professional storyteller, music history junkie, backyard BBQ enthusiast, college sports nut, and proud dad. He worked as a reporter in the Northwest Arkansas, Minneapolis and Chicago areas, and has made a living wordsmithing for a quarter-century. He makes his home in Bentonville, AR, and is fascinated by Tulsa’s deep roots in American music.

25 Comments

  1. Linda wolf on February 2, 2022 at 9:16 pm

    Wow. Someone does a lovely job copying the photo I made of leon at the Anaheim stadium

    I wonder who it was! http://www.lindawolf.net/new-products/leon-russell-anaheim-stadium-june-1970

  2. Patti Johnson on February 2, 2022 at 10:03 pm

    Great story! I’ve loved & been thrilled by Leon’s music since the early 70’s, but always love to hear that someone new has learned about Leon, gotten drawn in by his music, & is appreciating his genius.

  3. Donna Leming on February 3, 2022 at 7:34 am

    What a great compilation of the history, times and life of Tulsa’s very own Leon by you, Jeff.

    I was fortunate to gain friendship with Emily Smith – “Sweet Emily” – and through her spent a few times in the personal presence of Leon. I have several friends who knew him on a much deeper level.

    It was a bit mind-blowing as I remembered going to the drive-in movie in my hometown, Bartlesville, OK, to see the Mad Dogs tour documentary in 1971 at the age of 13.
    Then to be sitting across the dinner table with Leon at the age of 45 was, to say the least, surreal.

    Music has always been an integral part of my life and as you’ve realized on your Leon journey, his magnitude in that arena is quite amazing.
    I enjoyed all of the clips you integrated through your story.

    Thanks for your dedicated research and words for the “Master of Space and Time”!

  4. Robert Rector on February 3, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    I have listened to Leon Russell since I was in High School. I really enjoyed your article and introduction to The Church Recording Studio. I will be going there when spring comes thank you.
    Two great early albums you didn’t mention are well worth your attention. Asylum Choir 1 and Asylum Choir 2 with Mark Benno. In my opinion some of his great early piano work.
    I’ve seen Leon Russell on several occasions and bought most of his LPs. Check out Tedeschi Trucks Band. They brought Leon back out in your doing a lot of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen material as well as many of their original members. They are doing a week long stint at the Rhyman Auditorium in Nashville in mid February with tribute to Leon and Mad Dogs and Englishmen with some of original members of that entourage. Thanks again for your taking the time to honor Leon Russell in your article.
    Best Wishes, Robert Rector

  5. paul bryden on February 3, 2022 at 1:26 pm

    Well written sir, come back anytime, will buy lunch at freeway cafe. Love Leon”s music, he was truly a member of the” Tulsa Sound.”

  6. Baz Golin on February 3, 2022 at 3:16 pm

    I graduated high school in 1973 wearing a green Leon Russell t-shirt under my cap & gown. I played guitar but Leon’s honky tonk piano and southern twang were 2 of the sweetest sounds I’d ever heard. Got to see him once with Freddy King opening. That show remains in my all-time top 10. Still love his music to pieces. You’re article and links captured so much – I’m having flashbacks! Thanks for keeping the legend of Leon alive. He deserves it!

  7. Lila Muzik on February 3, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    Leon Russell is and always will be a groundbreaking musician, singer. I have seen him in person in small venues several times. My brother and sister, long deceased loved him so much. Thank you Elton John for not forgetting this wonderful man. He belonged in the R&R HOF for a long long time. Thank God he was still alive to see it. So many aren’t. I Thank you Elton forever. And thank you sir for digging deep and exposing new information about this icon. I may take the same sentimental journey myself.

  8. Terry Gates on February 3, 2022 at 9:41 pm

    Great story! Thanks for helping to keep Leon’s memory and music alive. I’m a native Oklahoman and am so proud of all the talented men and women from our state that help weave the treads of our lives with their talent through words, poems, songs, music, talent!
    Thank you,
    Terry Gates

  9. Scott sewell on February 6, 2022 at 6:00 pm

    Was happy to have seen him play a few times over the years.lots of great shows.

  10. Eileen Lane Boyle on February 7, 2022 at 3:04 am

    I was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma and am amazed what the general public imagines Tulsa to be. How it is really very cosmopolitan! So many people I have talked to have never heard of Leon Russell or the Tulsa Sound. I loved your story and all of the clips about Leon. Thank you so very much. I live in Sarasota, Florida, but still have a lot of family in Tulsa, Jenks, Bixby and Skiatook. I cannot wait to make another trip to Tulsa to see the Church. Leon’s Church, his grave, etc. Thank you is simply not enough to you!!

  11. Cathy Filgas Carter on February 7, 2022 at 4:48 am

    Enjoyed this whole article so much. It was excellent. I grew up in Tulsa. Have lived here all of my 70 years, though I have been fortunate to travel when younger.

    It really made me appreciate the rich history that makes up Tulsa. Especially the music and art scene.

    Thank you for writing this.

  12. Carla Jones on February 7, 2022 at 10:20 am

    Great article…..wish I could have been around during the recording days at the Church

  13. Jen Grove on February 8, 2022 at 12:56 am

    Excellent article! As a lifelong Tulsa girl I’m very excited for The Church reopening! Cool story – a guy I grew up with, Brandon Holder, was Leon’s touring and recording drummer from the early 90’s until the end.

  14. Deb Davus on February 8, 2022 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story! In the 70’s, Leon had a huge house in the Maple Ridge neighborhood of Tulsa. I went there with a friend but Leon wasn’t home. We met Emmylou Harris who was spending the night on her way to somewhere. I wish I could’ve met Leon.
    He also owned real estate on Grand Lake in NE Oklahoma & I heard about parties & concerts held there.
    My husband and I got to see Elton & Leon in concert about a year before he died. It was fantastic!

  15. M. Hawksworth on February 8, 2022 at 7:37 pm

    Really miss this gentleman. I left Tulsa in ’76 but have always lived with his music and was fortunate to see him many times in both large and small venues during his tours. I am looking forward to someday visiting the Church Studio.

  16. Johnny Mcdonnell on February 10, 2022 at 7:17 pm

    Fantastic Blog…well Done Jeff..!😎🎩🎹🎸

  17. Johnny mcdonnell on February 10, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    Fantastic Blog…well done Jeff…😎🎩🎹🎸

  18. Deborah Ohlsson on February 11, 2022 at 6:13 am

    I grew up in Oklahoma, Seminole Ok. I’ve played the piano since I was 5. At 21 I married a San Francisco drummer and we packed up our crazy little family and headed back out to California. I’ve always felt Leon to be a kindred spirit. I only just discovered The Church Studio and was thinking about a road trip back to Oklahoma. After a little research and reading this article I’m definitely heading to Tulsa this year. Thanks for sharing this story!

  19. Cynthia Angell on February 11, 2022 at 11:29 pm

    Thank you for this great telling of the back story of this legend. I was blessed to know Leon briefly in 78-79 and still think of him often. A beautiful soul.

  20. Ron Veit on February 13, 2022 at 9:32 am

    What a wonderful article from a “new” fan of the MOSAT. I grew up near Tulsa and I have been enjoying his talents from the beginning of Leons career. Looking forward to the future and sharing Leon with others like Jeff describes in this article. Love you Leon!

  21. Lisa Stearns on February 13, 2022 at 9:46 am

    Grew up in Tulsa…loved Leon. Saw him many, many times in concert. Saw him with Mary also. Had all his albums including a bootleg one where he performed the jumpin jack flash medley live. I took driver’s Ed at Will Roger’s High School. I live in Saint Louis now and went to see him at “The Ready Room” just before he passed. Planning to visit Tulsa in May (PGA championship) will stop by the church studio and cemetery. Loved my Leon MOSAT.

  22. Sam on February 19, 2022 at 8:36 pm

    Loved your blog about Leon. I’m going back to Tulsa one more time to celebrate Leon’s 80th. There’s going to be a lot going on April 1st 2nd and 3rd.

  23. George DeLeo on March 5, 2022 at 2:01 pm

    Hello,This is an EXCELLENT ARTICLE,About LEON’S MUSIC 🎶 And His LIFE! I am from New York, I am 68,I was at the FILLMORE EAST,For 2 Shows of (MAD DOGS And ENGLISHMEN)The Early and Late Shows, On the Second Night!I Have Seen LEON 4 Different Times,In His Career,The Last Time was at LAKE TAHOE,Nevada, In a Small Casino Lounge,He Signed a WATERCOLOR PAINTING I did of Him in 1974,(I am a Professional Artist)With His Top Hat 🎩 on and Long Silver Hair/Beard,He Passed Away Shortly After the TAHOE Show!😢I am Planning a Trip to TULSA,Next Year to See That CHURCH Studio,And Other Leon Landmarks.Then on to GEORGIA to the Big House,Where the ALLMAN BROTHERS,Recorded and Hung Out!They are One of My Very Favorite Bands,I Saw Them at THE FILLMORE,Also in March of 1971,I was at the Famous(LIVE AT THE FILLMORE)Album! Thank You Very Much,For Your BEAUTIFUL LEON RUSSELL STORY! George DeLeo.

    • LeRoy Mondier on March 23, 2022 at 3:55 pm

      Beautiful story of Leon, I met him thru Leo Feathers guitar player and Danny McBride early to mid 70s at the church, Strangely my father n law built the studio for Leon either there or at his house, if you get my email address and email me I can tell you a lot of good times,after hours, nothing bad, and there is a musician who lives by Springdale who was part of the Tulsa sound in 50s. Give me a shout.

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