Every once in a while, you get hit with something big that you never saw coming. Such is the case with my discovery of Leon Russell.
As I’ve come to find out, Leon’s music has always been part of my life. I just didn’t know it. And I’m not alone.
Each year, I’m fortunate to have the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day off, so I’d been planning a day trip to Tulsa, OK — about 120 miles west of my home in Bentonville, AR. I’m always thirsting for a deep dive into some facet of music history, and my original plan was to visit the Woody Guthrie Center and the new Bob Dylan Center I’ve heard so much about. But, as the calendar flipped to December 2021 and it was time to actually circle a date, I realized Monday, Dec. 27 was the only day I had completely open. And, as luck would have it, both venues I had my eye on were closed.
Bummed, I suddenly recalled reading something about the renovation of an old church just outside of downtown Tulsa that had served as a major recording studio in the 1970s and early 80s. So I did a little digging.
Turns out, the Church Studio at 304 S. Trenton Ave. is a big piece of American music history — and the legacy of Leon Russell, who I knew next-to-nothing about. Set to reopen its legendary doors in the coming months, my adrenaline was already pumping. And I was thrilled when the staff at the venue not only emailed me a detailed driving tour of Leon’s old haunts of significance around Tulsa, but offered to give me a personal tour of the studio and share stories while I was in town.
The night before, I quickly did some Google research to create a giant Spotify playlist of songs that Leon had written or played on. At exactly 7 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 27, I rolled out of my driveway en route to Tulsa … and I hit play.
Right out of the gate, Freddie King’s Going Down from 1971 rattled my car windows. Leon enthusiastically banging away on the keys, like a match made in heaven alongside Freddie’s soulful guitar and vocals. And the audible butt kicking continued in mighty and unexpected ways.
Next, Eric Clapton’s rendition of After Midnight from his self-titled, solo album in 1970. You guessed it, that’s Leon on the piano. And, what’s more, his childhood friend from Tulsa, JJ Cale, penned the hit song, while Leon co-wrote a few other tracks on the same album.
Then, Bob Dylan’s Watching The River Flow, which I’ve spun countless times without ever knowing who that was putting down the perfect piano accompaniment.
And Joe Cocker’s The Letter, which I’ve come to learn Leon not only played piano on, but served as the ring leader of the entire 40+ member entourage of the first-of-its-kind Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour in 1970.
That, and a benefit concert collaboration with George Harrison, Dylan, Clapton and others in August 1971, propelled a solo career in which Leon was named the top major concert attraction in 1973 by Billboard Magazine. And that’s just the beginning.
Willie Nelson, Sam Cooke, Bing Crosby, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Everly Brothers, Aretha Franklin, The Byrds, Nat King Cole and B.B. King — just a few of the others Leon wrote for, played with, toured with, arranged or produced. Heck, he’s even credited as a songwriter on the original A Star Is Born soundtrack.
Leon’s work appeared on thousands of albums, released by more than 100 labels, spanning multiple genres, including rock, country, gospel, bluegrass, rhythm & blues, southern rock, blues, folk and surf. His solo career alone earned six gold records, two Grammy awards from seven nominations, and induction into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His music inspired fans and fellow musicians alike for more than five decades, including the great Elton John:
“He was my idol. To meet him, I was shaking. He sang, he wrote and he played just how I wanted to do it … He could eat me for breakfast [playing piano].”
My playlist continued to kick out song after song, as the miles between Bentonville, AR and Tulsa, OK rolled by outside my car window. I quickly realized this church-turned-recording-studio represents a HUGE window into one of the most prolific — yet, somehow, best-kept-secrets — in American music history.
Leon’s Early Days
Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1942, near Lawton, OK. Complications at birth damaged a few of his vertebrae, leaving him with cerebral palsy. As a result, the right side of his body developed slightly smaller but, according to William Sargent in his book Superhero In A Masquerade, that didn’t keep Leon from excelling at the piano at an early age.
The story goes that his mother walked into the parlor in their home one day to find a four-year-old Leon playing a hymn he’d heard countless times. He’d simply learned to play by ear.
By his early teens, Leon was hanging out in the back rooms of honky-tonks and other local music venues. One popular tale is that, at just 14 years old, he lied about his age so he could play a Tulsa nightclub behind Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks.
While attending Tulsa’s Will Rogers High School from 1956–59, Leon wowed classmates with his playing on the school’s 1937 Baldwin grand piano. There must have been something in the water in Tulsa, as Leon was in the same school band with David Gates, who went on to work as a successful session musician and formed the band Bread. And, as mentioned earlier in this story, Leon was friends with Tulsa-native guitarist JJ Cale. Together, the three are credited with hatching what has been coined “the Tulsa Sound.”
According to several accounts, when a traveling show featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and others came through Oklahoma in 1956, teenage Leon Russell was in the right place at the right time. Lewis, who was known for missing shows due to drinking and trouble with the law, was MIA … so young Leon not only filled the open slot, but dazzled the audience.
By the age of 17, Leon was on his way to Hollywood to try to make a career out of music. There, he eventually hooked up as a studio musician with producer Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound, also known as the Wrecking Crew. It was a rotating cast of 30+ amazingly talented musicians, like drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, guitarists Glen Campbell and Tommy Tedesco, fellow keyboardist Don Randi and others.
It’s suggested that Leon was a bit quiet and even shy at first, but that once he learned to embrace his Oklahoma roots and the melting pot of influences that gave him his unique sound, he really started to make his mark.
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.
Stepping Out Of The Shadows
Fresh off a performance at the 1969 Woodstock festival, Cocker found himself locked into a full U.S. tour, but without a band. The powers that be turned to Leon, and the Tulsa native not only took over on piano (and some guitar), but auditioned and assembled the entire entourage of 40-plus people behind Cocker. Leon served as ring leader for what became a wildly successful tour, resulting in a double-live album that soared to #2 on Billboard’s album sales chart and a documentary film.
The success of the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, followed by his prominent role in the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh benefit with Harrison, Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston and others provided all the momentum and recognition Leon needed to skyrocket his solo career.
In 1970, 1971 and 1972, Leon put out his first three solo albums— Leon Russell, Leon Russell & The Shelter People, and Carney — all on the Shelter Records label he founded in California with English record producer Denny Cordell.
Master Of Space & Time
He became an enigmatic, larger-than-life persona — the image portrayed in the lead photo at the top of this story, with the wild hair, beard and top hat adorned with flowers. One source described his sound as “gospel-infused Southern boogie piano rock, blended with blues and country music, fused with his nasal and gravelly voice.” Leon was now referred to as the Master of Space and Time, plucked from the lyrics of A Song For You, a Leon original that has since been covered by more than 200 artists, spanning multiple genres, including Andy Williams, Ray Charles, The Carpenters, Herbie Hancock, The Temptations, Willie Nelson and Amy Winehouse.
At The Top
Leon originals like Tight Rope, Stranger In A Strange Land, Delta Lady (which Leon wrote but Joe Cocker made famous first in 1969), Out In The Woods, This Masquerade, Magic Mirror, and Alcatraz were drawing the masses. Within a matter of a few years, Leon was headlining shows with Boz Scaggs, Ike & Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, Elton John and Pink Floyd. And, in 1973, he was named the top concert draw in the U.S. by Billboard magazine.
The Church Studio
In 1972, Leon was having lunch at the Ranch House Restaurant (now called the Freeway Cafe) at 1547 E. Third St. in Tulsa with his Shelter Records partner Denny Cordell and Carla Brown (the mother of Leon’s first born, Blue Bridges), when they noticed a for-sale sign in front of the abandoned, stone church across the street.
According to the Church Studio’s driving tour of Leon Russell history, “While climbing up the steps, Leon realized that turning the church into a studio would accomplish his vision to do all genres of music and help musicians fulfill their dreams without all the Los Angeles record company restrictions and entanglements.”
Leon purchased the church, which had been constructed in 1915 as the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, and converted it into a recording studio that served as the second home of Shelter Records. It served as a creative workshop for songwriters, musicians, engineers, and singers. In addition to Leon himself, artists who recorded there include JJ Cale, Jimmy Buffett, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, The GAP Band, Kansas, Mary McCreary, Freddie King, Jimmy Markham, Dwight Twilley, Phoebe Snow, Peter Tosh, David Teegarden, Wolfman Jack and others.
The Beatles, Bob Marley, Tom Petty & more
During my visit to Tulsa, I was told that every member of the Beatles visited the studio, and that Shelter Records released Duppy Conqueror, the first American single by Bob Marley. In fact, Leon and Denny signed Tom Petty to his first recording contract over lunch at the very same cafe where they’d first noticed the old church. To this day, longtime Tulsa residents tell stories about how exciting it was to spot Leon and other famous musicians around town on any given day.
“When (Leon) descended upon that church — when he descended upon Tulsa, Oklahoma — it really became this ecosystem — this musical ecosystem — that artists from across America wanted a part of. And that’s why so many artists and musicians came to Tulsa — to see what Leon was doing,” said Teresa Knox, owner of the Church Studio.
If you ever have a chance to visit the Church Studio (I highly recommend it), be sure to spend a moment looking at the big staircase outside the original front door. Those chips and nicks on the stairs — that’s from all of the gear that was hauled up and down for recording sessions and jams during the building’s Shelter Records years. Odds are, several of those sessions produced songs and albums that are forever etched in your brain, whether you realize it or not.
Oh, if those walls could talk.
By 1976, however, Leon and Denny had a falling out that spelled the beginning of the end for Shelter Records. Leon separated himself completely from Denny and, eventually the company, going as far as to return to California to open his own label, Paradise Records. He continued to work with a variety of artists in the studio, and put out additional records of his own, including a few with his then-wife Mary McCreary, under the name Leon & Mary. In a settlement, Cordell became sole owner of Shelter Records, but the organization folded completely by 1981.
Willie & Leon
Along the way, Leon and his buddy Willie Nelson, who was at the height of his career, climbed the charts — together. The duo put out a double album, Willie & Leon: One For The Road, featuring covers of their favorite songs by Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Hank Thompson, as well as a host of collaborative originals. They hit #1 with their remake of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, and Leon has shared the stage at several of Willie’s famous 4th of July picnics.
“Leon came down to the first Fourth of July picnic that I had,” Willie Nelson said. “And it was the first time that the rock n’ roll crowd had mixed in with the cowboy crowd — the hippies and the rednecks — we were called. So, thanks to Leon, all those wild things started happening.”
Leon continued to write and explore various genres, as was the case with his 1981 live album release, Leon Russell & New Grass Revival. It’s a fun dip into Leon’s take on yet another genre — and even offers a handful of bluegrassy covers of household favorites, like the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Wild Horses.
Out Of The Spotlight
For the majority of the late 1980s through the early 2000s, the venues Leon was playing shrunk. And, for long stretches, he would slip almost completely out of sight and mind.
Leon admitted on several occasions that, while he had been known for his stage presence at the height of his career, he’d always struggled internally in front of large audiences. And he was dealing with other personal and health-related issues later in life that took him out of the limelight. That, and the fact that so much of his early work was in the studio —rather than being the name on the album or the stage — caused Leon to, in many cases, get lost in the shuffle or missed completely by more recent generations of music fans.
But an old friend who was inspired by and even embraced by Leon when he, himself, was an aspiring young musician, hadn’t forgotten. Elton John remembers spotting his hero, Leon, in the audience while making his U.S. debut with a string of shows at The Troubadour in Los Angeles in August 1970. Elton has often talked about how nervous he was on stage the moment he’d noticed Leon in the crowd — but that nervousness quickly turned to confidence and opportunity.
“I’d just come in from England and being a huge fan of someone like Leon, I froze,” Elton John recalled in an interview from 2010. “So when I met him after the show — to have him accept me and kind of take me under his wing and be really fantastic to me the whole time — it meant the whole world to me. The fact that someone I admired so much could show me that generosity and even take me on tour … It helped validate me by saying, ‘Well, if he thinks I’m alright, then I must be alright because he’s my hero.’”
Four decades later, in a gesture of thanks — and in an effort to bring Leon back into the spotlight one more time — Elton made a phone call. He asked Leon if he’d be interested in making an album together and quickly enlisted the help of producer T-Bone Burnett to help make it happen. Leon agreed and, one year later, the result was the full-length LP, Elton John & Leon Russell: The Union.
Hearing this story while researching Leon — and then dropping the needle onto my turntable to listen to The Union for the very first time just a month ago — gave me chills. I’ll never forget the feeling when the very first track, If It Wasn’t For Bad, kicked in. The sound of a gospel choir giving way to Leon and Elton’s fingers dancing over the keys, and Leon’s signature voice immediately moving to the forefront. The Master of Space and Time still had some magic left in the tank. The Union set the stage for Leon’s long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The following video of Elton John’s induction speech for Leon absolutely says it all:
Leon’s time on this planet came to an end on Nov. 13, 2016, and a memorial was erected two years later at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa. I’d been told about the memorial, but I got chills searching for it on a recent visit to the cemetery, as the piano-shaped headstone came into view. And it did my heart good to see the many bouquets of flowers, beads and other knick knacks fans continue to leave at the foot of his final resting place.
I don’t claim to be an expert on Leon Russell’s life story or legacy. But I’ve tried as best I can to capture what I’ve learned and, more importantly, what I’ve felt via the words above. In the span of just over a month, I’ve gone from not really knowing who he was, to having traveled to the Church Studio and his former haunts in Tulsa, read an 800-plus-page book about him, and immersed myself in documentaries, stories, interviews, his albums and anything else I can find. And that’s what makes me even more excited about the soon-to-be reopening of the legendary Church Studio.
Keeping The Legacy Alive
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, in recognition of its significance to American music culture and as the heart of the Tulsa Sound. But I see the Church Studio renovation as much more than that. It’s a reopening of a window into Leon’s amazing legacy and the mark he left on American music, regardless of genre. And that legacy came through Tulsa.
To be able to experience spaces, places, people, stories and things where they happened — those are the “real” connections that bring history to life. It’s what lifts the history from the pages of a book and forever plants it in our souls.
Leon’s Oklahoma roots are such a huge part of what made him unique — what gave him a voice and a sound — in the landscape of American music. And I love that he recognized the power of coming home at the height of it all, as he so eloquently penned in the lyrics of his song Home Sweet Oklahoma. And how the sound of the piano starts to dance beneath his fingers the second he belts out the line, “But I’m goin’ on back to Tulsa just one more time.”
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