A lot of Tulsa residents are glum today. That’s because songwriter and session musician Leon Russell died in his sleep at age 74, it was announced Sunday.
Russell was Tulsa’s favorite musical son. He certainly became the city’s most prominent musician during the rock era. The only Tulsa music artist who rivaled him was western-swing legend Bob Wills, who didn’t grew up in Tulsa but spent his best years there at the now-iconic Cain’s Ballroom.
Though Russell was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, he was considered a Tulsa native because he grew up there, attended Will Rogers High School there and cut his teeth musically by playing piano in speakeasies along Route 66 and other places in the city (Oklahoma was a dry state at the time). In the late 1950s, he headed to California to become a high-in-demand session musician.
It’s not exaggerating to say Leon Russell probably played on 10,000 recordings during his time in Los Angeles, including piano on “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra and, as I found out recently, this hit by Badfinger.
It’s safe to say if a hit song was recorded in L.A. during the 1960s, Leon Russell probably played on it.
He became music director of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and George Harrison’s Bangladesh benefit concert. He showed up at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July festivals in Texas. He seemed to be everywhere during the late 1960s and much of the 1970s.
He became an esteemed songwriter, with “Superstar” by The Carpenters, “This Masquerade” by George Benson, “Delta Lady” by Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge and hundreds of versions of “A Song for You,” which forever gave him the title of “Master of Space and Time.” His own version of “Tight Rope” nearly became a Top 10 hit.
But an interesting thing happened with Russell. Unlike many musicians who left Oklahoma and never returned, Russell came back to the state of his birth — no doubt elevating him in the esteem of residents.
Russell lived in a house in the Maple Ridge area of Tulsa, then another in the Grand Lake area. He built Church Studios (only a block from Route 66) near downtown, started Shelter Records and recorded Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album there.
It’s from this time you would find many Oklahoma residents holding fond memories. One woman said she remembered Russell jamming with Paul McCartney on “Get Back” at Russell’s Maple Ridge home. Another Okie who lived next to Russell near Grand Lake recalled hearing many jam sessions on Russell’s porch and smelling burning reefer when the wind was right.
Russell eventually left Oklahoma again once his fortunes waned. He still played at Tulsa’s Brady Theatre at least once a year and provided memorabilia for the upcoming OKPop museum. But his health began to fail, including eight hours of brain surgery to correct a problem that was much more serious than first believed.
Russell earned another round or two in the spotlight when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Elton John’s induction speech explains as well as anything why Russell deserved the honor.
John and Russell collaborated on the well-received and No. 1-selling “The Union” album. John didn’t have to do that, but wanted to because Russell had a profound influence on him. Because of his generosity, John always will receive props from many Leon Russell fans and Oklahomans.
Russell also helped with publicity for the 2015 release of “A Poem Is a Naked Person,” a documentary about him that Les Blank filmed in Oklahoma during the early 1970s but was shelved for decades. Russell objected to a couple of scenes but relented after Blank died.
In Tulsa, a street is named after him. And the historic Campbell Hotel along Route 66 contains a Leon Russell Room.
(Image of Leon Russell in 2014 by Tom Saunders via Flickr)