Traveling in Leon Russell’s Tulsa Footsteps – A Tulsa Driving Tour
It’s hard to overstate the influence Leon Russell made to the music world in his 60 years in the industry; inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Grammy recipient and more. Likewise, his musical genius made a lasting impact on Tulsa – from the impressions and stories from his high school years – his social significance from age 14 in the backroom honky tonks and local music scene – his reemergence in his hometown of Tulsa in the 70s to settle in, his importance to the community or the emerging rock & roll scene and the music industry at large. He was a musical prodigy from age three, singer, songwriter, collaborator, arranger, session musician, headliner, and local rock legend.
There are several local sites of importance in Tulsa that are Leon-friendly. Step back for an hour or two and follow your heart walking (driving) in Leon’s footsteps.
Will Rogers High School: 3909 E. 5th Place- built in 1939 using WPA workers. The Art Deco masterpiece is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was named for the Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers. (photo from a 1940 post card).
David Gates top left and Leon Russell top right at the piano during Leon’s high school years as the Fencemen. Courtesy Steve Todoroff.
Tulsa’s Native Son, Leon Russell was born in Lawton, Oklahoma as Claud Russell Bridges – but moved to Tulsa as a sophomore and attended Will Rogers High School. Leon fascinated and entertained classmates by playing the school’s 1937 Baldwin grand piano during downtimes. Leon attended Will Rogers High School from 1956 till his graduation in 1959.
Aaronson Mansion: 1151 E. 24th Place - Leon bought a portfolio of over 50 Northeastern Oklahoma properties in the 70s during the height of his touring career including the Maple Ridge estate above as his Tulsa residence. A huge Georgian-style home on two acres, was originally built in the 20s by oilman and philanthrope Lionel Aaronson. As you might expect the house in Maple Ridge was the scene of festivities of all sorts, but primarily warm gatherings of friends rather than raucous rock & roll bashes. In June 1973, Leon’s friend Emily Smith was married at the house as seen in the film, “A Poem is a Naked Person.” In July 1973, Russell hosted a benefit party to help the Maple Ridge Association raise money to pay the legal debt it incurred while opposing construction of the proposed Riverside Expressway. It also housed a recording studio in the basement. Eventually, the home was torn down due to structural issues and several homes sit on this sacred site.
Grooper Building: 415 E 3rd St - painted by Jeks, Brian Lewis of Greensboro North Carolina and commissioned by Danny Rotelli, CEO of Oklahoma Based software company BIS.
Hail Factor: 1016 E 4th Street- owned by Jason Sales, who commissioned local artist Josh Butts, who painted the mural in just 3 hours.
Ranch House Restaurant (currently Freeway Café): 1547 E Third Street – Leon was eating with Denny Cordell and Carla Brown (Blue’s Mother) at the Ranch House Restaurant at 3rd and Trenton just across the street from The Church. While sitting in the circular booth, Carla saw the “for-sale sign” on the stone-structured Church – they crossed the street and while climbing up the steps, realized that “The Church Studio” would accomplish Leon’s vision to do all genres of music and help musicians fulfill their dreams without all the Los Angeles record company restrictions and entanglements.
The Church Studio: 304 S Trenton – Leon purchased the Church in 1972, converted it to a recording studio and it became the Tulsa home of Shelter Records. The brick Gothic Revival structure was built in 1915 as the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church and the exterior permastone was added in 1953, although the church at the time ran out of money and only partially covered the original brick. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017 due to its significance to American music culture and as the heart of the Tulsa Sound. The Church Studio will open in 2022 as a recording studio, event center, audio engineering school, music venue, exhibit space and archive of items relevant to Leon Russell, other Tulsa Sound musicians and local musical history. Daily historic tours will be available.
Mural of Space and Time: 304 S Trenton – In November of 2020, Jeks, Brian Lewis replicated 8 Leon Russell-inspired oil paintings by P. S. (Patrick) Gordon commissioned by Teresa Knox and painted on 190 feet of the Mac’s Electric building wall just East of The Church Studio. A mini documentary of the making of the mural was shown at Circle Cinema in January, 2021 as a local piece of the Sundance Film Festival and can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tr-IU2oRwGE “My goal is to pay tribute to Leon Russell’s legacy and the investment he made in his home town in 1972, when he turned an old church into a recording studio,” Teresa Knox said.
Memorial Park Cemetery Monument: 5111 South Memorial Drive – A memorial for Leon Russell was constructed to commemorate his Tulsa legacy, 2 years after Leon’s passing in 2016. Jim Halsey, whose company once represented Russell, said at the funeral, “Every so often, the stars and the planets align to give us some special event or person. The creator did that with Leon. The stars were aligned and here came Leon Russell. He changed lives with his persona and his music. People that never knew him personally were affected by the depth and seriousness of his music. … God bless Leon and what he has brought to us.”
Other Locations of Note:
Cain’s Ballroom 423 N. Main St, Tulsa
Tulsa Theater (formerly Brady Theater) 105 W. Reconciliation Way, Tulsa
Leon Russell Statue at The Church Studio 304 S. Trenton, Tulsa
Leon Russell-Stained Glass at The Church Studio 304 S. Trenton, Tulsa
Leon Russell Road and Studio Row 3rd & Trenton, Tulsa
The “Shelter House” 316 S. Trenton, Tulsa
OKPOP 422 N. Main St, Tulsa
Freeway Café, 1547 E. Third Street, Tulsa
Leon Russell Cove (Grand Lake Studio) Tiajuana, OK
Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame 401 S. 3rd Street Muskogee, OK
Thanks so much, I hope you take the trip!
I loved Leon! Hey was brilliant. I had his Will’o the Wisp album. Leon’s music was wonderful but anyone who remembers that album knows the cover art was done by none other than Gailard Sartain!! We have many very talented people from Tulsa! I am proud to live here!
You are right about the talent in Tulsa – and some of them were alumni at Will Rogers High (Leon was Class of ’59) – David Gates, Anita Bryant, Elvin Bishop and Gailard Sartain! Thanks for your comments!
My first encounter with Leon was 1970 when I moved back to Tulsa and started attending Will Rogers HS. The school was buzzing with talk about Leon the piano player and band leader for Joe Cocker. I knew of Joe Cocker but not Leon. Well it didn’t take long for me to become a fan. A bunch of us heard he supposedly playing at the Filling Station on S Peoria so of course we headed that way. Never got in. Underaged and overcrowded. So we just cruised Brookside.
I am forever a fan and listen to him daily. He is missed and loved in my house daily. The last time I saw him was in Biloxi Ms at the Hard Rock. My wife,myself and four friends from Mobile went to see him. First time Leon concert for them. Add five more fans to the fan club. My next trip to Tulsa will include this drive to see all the places on the list and one other stop.
N. Atlanta Ct. 1500/1600 blocks where I grew up from 1952- 1960. I lived at 1520 and jj(Jonny) cale lived at 1612.
I would walk down the alley behind his house to go to the park. This was about 1957 and would hear him playing guitar in his bedroom at the back of the house. Never thought anything about it. My brothers in law played so no big deal. Now I realize that I was listening to history. If I only knew then what I know now. He was about 15 years older than me but my sisters knew him and being neighbors would go to kids birthday parties and stuff together. One of my sisters said that he borrowed a nickel from her and never paid her back. I don’t believe she’s going to get it back or is going to miss it.
Thanks for the article. Much appreciated.
Great stories, thanks so much for sharing! Stop into the Church when you get to Tulsa!
This is a great thing for a great man. If old photos are around the blue note, and some of the old dance halls that everyone used to get in when they could to play.
Thanks for checking out the blog! When The Church Studio opens this summer, we’ll display some of the almost 5000 pieces of memorabilia we have acquired! Stay tuned!
Leon was the base of a musical movement. The Tulsa Sound had its roots in country rock blues and Western swing. Today’s country music owes much to Leon!
Kevin – you are so right! Leon was a musical prodigy and his style, songs and influence are seen throughout his career and beyond! We’re excited about all that is happening at The Church Studio and who might be hanging out there down the road.
Nice tribute Nancy!
Thanks so much – it was a fun ride discovering these spots!
On a warm December night alone in the house a 7 year old awoke and from his father’s records pulled out the album with Leon in top hat sitting on a chair and cued up “a song for you “his father passed him without a word,on his way back outside beer in hand he asked did you put that on the child nodded yes his father saw him anew and I’ve been been involved with music eversince ive caried Leon with me every day and he has caried me.Everyone that knows me knows leon
Nice memory Rick! Both you and you Dad loved Leon!
Great story Rick
I feel ya 😎
I too met Leon, he came for the ‘Gap Band’ when myself and the group of girls I was with, ‘The Crystals’ we were performing at the Tulsa ‘ Gallery Supper Club off of Pine st and Cincinnati Ave. and one night there sat Leon, the only white man visiting an all black establishment, ya couldn’t miss seeing him: long blond hair with full beard, headed to the ‘ Nite Club International’
Signed: LOVE 💕 Herself aka Darlene
Darlene! What a great story! Leon loved music – I bet you girls were fabulous and he had an amazing time!
Some Tulsans were blessed to know Leon went would visit Ann and Larry Bell. I met them when they were playing at the Factory. I was also honored to have caught Leon and George Harrison who would set in with what ever band was playing at Fat Fanny’s on Harvard not far from the Bell’s house. You always knew Leon was around when his touring car was there at the Bell’s. Leon would always be packed at their baby grand that took up most of their living room. I left for college at OU some time after and lost track of Ann. I had been putting myself through my first two years of college here in Tulsa working part time at the Factory. Those were awesome days in Tulsa.
Thanks Terri for your comment! Wish I had been around to see them play, so amazing! I’d love to see a picture if you have one!
As a Tulsan raised on Leon, I’ve seen all these places except the new mural. Looks like its time to revisit it all! My son portrayed Leon in his Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour look as a history project in high school. Me, Mom, my ex-wife, our daughter all went to Will on the Hill. Now I live with my wife (a BTW gal!) near most of Leon’s 50 properties.
That’s a great story, Allen, thanks for sharing. You’ll have to check in with us at The Church when it opens this summer.
Thank you so much for this, Nancy! My sister, who was five years older than me, introduced me to Leon’s music in the early 70’s and I’ve been a fan ever since. I have been to all but four of the United States and one of them is Oklahoma. I’ve been holding off until the OKPOP museum opens to take a southern retirement trip through OK, AR, & MS. Your tour gives me so much more to see and experience in Tulsa. Thank you!
We’d love to see you Harold on your trip to our beautiful city. Tulsa has always been a music mecca; and now even more so! Stay tuned for more info on Leon, our Grand Opening and the Tulsa Sound!
As an 8 year old child, mom worked during the day and dad worked nights. My grandpa lived a block down 3rd street from the Church when Leon bought it and made it into the studio. My dad and I would often eat lunch at the Ranch House. I remember vividly seeing Leon there with his friends. From that early age, Leon influenced my musical taste. I still love Leon. I have been to all the places listed except for the Master of Space and Time mural. I cannot wait for the Church Studio to reopen so I can tour it. Thank you for keeping Leon’s legacy alive for the future.
Thanks Carol! Lovely memories with Leon & family! Please come and see The Church Studio when it opens this summer!
Thank you for this! I will be traveling to Tulsa with my mom this month (she was born and raised in Tulsa), and she absolutely loves Leon Russell. Does anyone have any tips for where we can hear Leon’s music live in the area? Are there any tribute or cover bands that play regularly in Tulsa? Thank you in advance! 🙂
I hope you will stop by The Church Studio when you are in town. It won’t be open to the public until Fall – we are so close, but the mural is amazing. Tulsa has a very vibrant music scene; from national touring acts at the BOK, Hard Rock, River Spirit, Cain’s and other local venues to amazing Live local bands of all genres. Safe travels! Have your Mom, like us on Facebook to see what’s happening at The Church!
I had the honor of seeing Leon twice. Once in Emporia Kansas, and once at Knuckleheads in KC, Mo. Both small intimate spaces. We were right up front. It was fantastic. I listen to his music everyday.
1970 in Chicago saw 🎩 Leon Live, my hubby got me his life-size cutout poster. 9 months later our baby girl was born
2000-16 joined LeonLifers 💕 & saw 67 Live shows in 22 states; Louisville Chicago Clearwater Phoenix SoCal, from Montauk to Minnesota, + Tulsa’s birthday bash for Leon’s 60th. Oh, and his signed poster still stands in my bedroom.
🎶 Grateful to the musicians , songsters fans and Church Studio for carrying the torch🎩 Play on….
The hard rock casino in catoosa has some memorabilia of his back by the hotel. Personally I wish they would erect a statue of him there, front and center. I doubt either music themed casino would make sense in this town without the mark he made here.
I worked at Sears on 21st & Yale when in college. Leon would often come in & but chambray shirts in Work Clothing Dept. My friend always called me when he was there & I would go talk with him. Now in TX I tried several times to see him in concert but failed. Finally about 3 years before his death, saw him in an intimate concert in Dallas. He was older & never stood but sat at an electronic piano and just mesmerized me. I even saw his stuff right after his induction in R&R Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Will never forget even now at 73, he lived the life I always envied. He is a legend who lives on in his music. Memory flood.