The Showman’s Hats

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Leon Russell’s distinctive style, both vocally and instrumentally, made him one of the great singer-songwriters of all time. A unique pianist, composer, singer, song craftsman, and showman. He collected a lot of items and the most well-known were his canes and of course his hats. Those items certainly became a big part of his great showmanship in life and on stage.

 

In his biography, Leon Russell in His Own Words, shares a story of being shamed at the age of four. An aunt embarrassed him in front of other relatives, and he never forgot it. It was the onset of his stage fright, and he struggled for years with it.

 

However, as his brilliance on the “Piana” grew and his success in the music industry took him to California in the 1950s and 60s, the young, shy boy from Oklahoma gained confidence. By the time he had over a decade of studio recording with some of the greats in rock-n-roll, Leon was ready to become the master of his own show. He grew his short, slicked-back hair out, and at about that time he was seen sporting his top hats. They were magical and changed the shy guy into a true master of ceremonies. His hats certainly added to his stage character and set him apart. Leon was already photographed with top hats by 1970.

 

Mike Elliott best describes Leon in Albumism.com : “A cool look of supreme confidence peeks out from under a top hat with part of the brim turned up-the absolute coolest anyone’s ever looked in a top hat, with apologies to Abe Lincoln, Slash, and Willy Wonka.”

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In March 1971, his second album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People was released. Elliott again describes Leon’s great showmanship, “Make no mistake, Leon Russell dominates Leon Russell. It’s all his show. You may hear a signature lick here and there from, say, Clapton (on “Prince of Peace”), but the guests never detract or distract, they merely enhance the overall vibe.”

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Leon was THE showman! And his hats would be an ongoing part of his life story.

In the spring of 1970, Leon was invited to put together the musicians backing Joe Cocker for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. On the way to the tour, Gram Parsons met up with him at the airport, where he handed Leon a top hat. The hat was a feature on the tour and got quite worn out. Leon had a story about that hat, “a green silk number.” It wasn’t until someone sat on it and he turned it over to punch it out to restore the shape, that he noticed a handwritten label inside reading, “Jolson/Jazz Singer.” A surprise and mystery to all.

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Another top hat story involved his girlfriend, Carla Brown McHenry’s toddler son, Shawn (who is photographed laying on the floor in front of the band on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen album). Shawn peed in one of Leon’s top hats. According to Leon’s friend, Michael Mullen, “it was okay though, they were in New York City and quickly rushed out to buy another one.”  Oh, the stories those hats could tell!

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While Leon was often seen and photographed with his top hat, his love extended to many types of hats. His cowboy hats featured on his Hank albums and crocheted pillbox hats topped his head in several family photos. My personal favorite was his flower-covered top hat. While many rock-n-rollers wore top hats, Leon was probably one of the first and inspired others. I remember going to concerts at Mohawk Park in Tulsa in the early 70s and seeing numerous hippies sporting black top hats – a nod to our local hero.

Tulsans remember those hats and you can find various murals and fun hat art around town – including a “steel top hat garden pole inspired by the late great Leon Russell” at the Garden Deva. At The Church Studio, visitors can enjoy an over 5,000-piece archive that includes artifacts, music memorabilia, and several of Russell’s hats and canes on display.

Let us know if you have a Leon hat photo or story.

Deborah McLaren

Deborah McLaren was a student at OSU in the early 1980s, where she worked at the Hideaway and spent nights rocking out to Red Dirt Music. She then spent 25 years traveling to villages in places like India, Mexico, Ecuador, and rural Alaska to work with Indigenous Peoples and tribes. She worked with them to protect their cultural and natural resources while creating sustainable tourism alternatives. Her first book was published in 1998, and she’s continued to research, write, and explore ever since.

She recently returned to Tulsa, her hometown, and is delighted to be part of the cultural renaissance happening here by writing for The Church Studio. “Leon Russell was a huge influence on me growing up – especially Carney. I had no idea he was just down the road recording it while I was just a few miles away grooving on it. My 12-year-old self was mesmerized by his creativity, sexiness, and sound.”

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11 Comments

  1. Diane Stone on June 15, 2022 at 6:46 pm

    Loved Leon & his musical artistry ❤ saw him several times…once at the Filmore East in the 1970s..I think I was 14-15 years old.

    • Paul on June 25, 2022 at 8:14 am

      I would of loved to accompany you at that show I’m a little bit younger than you but could recognize his original unique style. I listen first to his “stop all that jazz” lp been a fan ever since, seen him at spirit fest in kcmo great show.

  2. Gwen Dye on June 22, 2022 at 10:43 am

    I love Leon Russel…he was such a talented man…I love his music…

  3. Janet Salter on July 1, 2022 at 8:57 am

    Met leon when I was a teenager at a Target store in Tulsa, OK. He came to my register in the early 70’s purchasing some tools. No beard and short hair so I didn’t recognize him at first till he handed me his check and I noticed his name. Lol! Very striking looking man I remember thinking. 👌

  4. Cheryl Dupree on July 1, 2022 at 6:23 pm

    Oh my goodness I love Leon Russell I just love him I love the way he was kind of nerdy when he was young and he turned out to be the coolest dude best piano playing mofo I love Leon yes sir ma’am I do

  5. Shon Swinford on July 2, 2022 at 10:22 pm

    Leon is my favorite musician. Master of space and time.

  6. Linda Darnold on July 3, 2022 at 11:22 pm

    Love Leon, best of the best! He wore his hats well.❤️

  7. Cheryl Dupree on July 9, 2022 at 6:39 am

    I loved his style! His songs know how to get in my head and comforts me to my core! Love love love Leon!!!!!

  8. Vicki Camp on July 9, 2022 at 10:40 am

    Great article !

  9. Hans Ebert on July 27, 2022 at 2:19 pm

    Thanks for the post. The Al Jolson/Jazz Singer mention is really interesting. It made me think about all the greats from old Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley who wore hats well, especially Sinatra. And, of course, there’s a connection with Leon there.

  10. Bob Rowe on July 27, 2022 at 2:39 pm

    When I was stationed in Thailand in the early 70s. A girlfriend wore a top hat because she saw the movie “Mad dogs and Englishmen” and loved Leon. How could an okie boy from Tulsa pass up a beautiful girl like that?

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