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Route 66 News

Leon Russell’s Church Studio named to National Register

Church Studio in Tulsa, once owned by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Leon Russell, recently earned a designation to the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation became effective Sept. 8, according to an email Friday from the National Park Service. It had been widely expected after its National Register submission to Washington was reported in July.

The designation came less than a year after Russell’s death at age 74.

Church Studio’s Wikipedia page contains the basics about the building, which is just a block away from Route 66 east of downtown:

Originally built in 1915 as Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, the stone structure located at 304 South Trenton Avenue in Tulsa’s Pearl District was converted to a recording studio in 1972 by Leon Russell, who bought the building and adjoining properties for his diverse recording activities and as a home for Shelter Records, the company he had earlier started with partner Denny Cordell.

Numerous musicians recorded at The Church, including Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Twilley, Dr. John, JJ Cale, The Gap Band, Freddie King, Phoebe Snow and Peter Tosh. Tom Petty, with his early band Mudcrutch, signed his first record deal with Shelter Records there.

The street near the building was renamed Leon Russell Road a couple of years ago. After his death, the front steps of Church Studio became an informal memorial site of flowers, cards and memorabilia. He is buried at Memorial Park in Tulsa.

The Tulsa World reported in October that local resident Teresa Knox bought the building and helped shepherd the National Register application.

Knox told the newspaper she plans to restore the building and use it again as a recording studio, a space for community gatherings, and as a historic space about the building and neighborhood.

Russell wasn’t born in Tulsa, but he grew up there and developed his musical chops in many of its clubs before heading to Los Angeles to become a high-in-demand studio musician. He played on thousands of records, including those for Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.

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 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 gave him the title of “Master of Space and Time.” His version of “Tight Rope” nearly became a Top 10 hit.

Elton John’s speech for Russell’s induction in 2011 is as instructive of Russell’s talents and impact as any.

(Image of Church Studio in Tulsa in 2016 by teresaknox via Wikimedia Commons)

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