A couple of months ago in this space, I wrote about a then-upcoming event at Tulsa’s Will Rogers High School auditorium, honoring the musical legacy of one of its most famous alumni, Leon Russell.
The tribute concert included the dedication of the refurbished Baldwin piano that Russell played in the ’50s for the amusement of his high school peers during their lunch breaks.
Producer Dick Risk, one of Russell’s classmates, had invited rock star Elton John, in Tulsa to do his own show that evening, to drop by the afternoon presentation because Sir Elton had been an early admirer of Leon and responsible for a career resuscitation in the later years of Leon’s life.
Although he gave his own tribute to Leon at his evening concert, Elton John did not show up that afternoon.
However, Leon did.
On that day, his imperishable rock ’n’ roll spirit soared from a top-notch group whose members ranged from first-generation rock ’n’ rollers and classmates (Johnny Williams, Bobby Taylor), through friends from his golden hippie-boy era (Ann Bell, David Teegarden), into the next generation of sidemen and collaborators (Brandon Holder, Brian Lee). The sold-out house responded with near-religious fervor, reminding us once again that the gospel influence in Russell’s work embodied much more than simply a musical style.
As emcee, I watched from the side of the stage as this alchemy occurred, multiplied and built to a frenzy, and, as it all happened, I found myself asking why. What was, and is, it about Leon that moves people to something beyond devotion – to kinship, maybe, or at times, something near worship?
In these parts, certainly, there’s a proprietary element involved. Just as the Beatles belong to Liverpool, the Beach Boys to Southern California and Bruce Springsteen to New Jersey, Leon belongs to Oklahoma – and especially to Tulsa. In each case, the artist is not only a symbol for a place, but also for a specific feeling during a certain time within that place. The word for it is zeitgeist. And the zeitgeist Leon represents is Tulsa in the early 1970s.
It wasn’t a long stretch, but it was a magical one. It began, more or less, when Leon assumed the role of ringmaster with Joe Cocker and that hopelessly piebald collection of rockers known as Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and continued as he and his Shelter People became one of the world’s top touring acts. Along the way, he wrote and recorded the great hits “Tightrope,” “This Masquerade,” “Superstar” and “A Song for You,” and became co-owner of Shelter Records – with offices and a studio in Tulsa – giving many great artists, including himself, a recording home.
It’s not that Leon hadn’t made his musical mark before that. It’s simply that it was neither as publicly visible in the ’60s nor as closely identified with Tulsa. Then, he was working in a far more behind-the-scenes capacity as an arranger, songwriter and session musician, well-known in the industry but not outside of it.
Although his contributions went a long way toward defining the sound of Southern California pop music during that decade, the record buyer and Top 40 radio listener never really knew he or she was hearing Russell playing on big hits by the likes of the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Ronettes, Jan and Dean and many more. Especially tuned-in music fans might’ve recognized his name as songwriter on several numbers from hitmakers Gary Lewis and the Playboys, but there would’ve been no reason for them to have known that Leon was intimately involved with that group by doing everything from arranging songs to stocking the band with first-class Tulsa expats like guitarist Tom Tripplehorn, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Karstein.
An objective observer would note Leon Russell’s time of true rock-star incandescence was brief – really, only those few years in the ’70s. And while he continued to tour, perform and record, he was never again the draw he’d been then. I remember a conversation I had in the ’90s with Russell friend and historian Steve Todoroff, who’d gauged major-publisher interest in a Leon biography – without success. An executive at Hyperion Press pithily summed up the situation: “Leon is timeless, but he’s not timely.”
That brings us back around to the why of Leon’s great and lasting fame in these parts. I don’t know, but I can hazard a guess – it has something to do with turning the Okie stereotype on its ear.
In the generation preceding Leon’s, an exodus of Oklahomans fled the horrors of the Dust Bowl to California, where they chased what too often turned out to be an uncapturable will o’ the wisp. Rightly or wrongly, the hard-luck, hardscrabble Okies and their desperate journeys became the faces of our state to much of the world.
About a quarter-century later, Leon made that same trek. But he came back. And when he did, he had the will o’ the wisp with him, packed in rock ’n’ roll stardust. In a reversal of the Okie migration, music-industry people from the West Coast – and just about everywhere else – came to Oklahoma and turned Tulsa into an international rock-music crossroads. It was a brief, shining moment, but all the more precious for its brevity.
I was overseas for Uncle Sam in the early ’70s, so I didn’t really understand this until some years later when I watched a VHS copy of the 1971 documentary Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Chronicling the tour of the same name, it’s remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which is how Leon absolutely takes over the proceedings without even trying. Cocker is the star of the tour; Leon is the undisputed focal point of the movie. And Tulsa itself emerges as a major character, offering the viewer a cornucopia of unusual sights and fascinating people (den mother Emily Smith, among many others). The aura of mystique that surrounds Leon radiates to the other cast members and glows from the city itself, imbuing the movie with a mythology that hints at arcane secrets and forbidden pleasures – all somehow connected irrevocably with Tulsa.
Leon was pretty much a mythological figure then, head of a pantheon, bestowing favors, advice and dispensation as he sprinkled his cosmic dust over the lives of those in his orbit. While overseas, I remember reading a Rolling Stone letter from a Tulsa reader relating with an unfettered sense of wonder how he’d seen Leon and his wife, Mary, pull up next to him in their Rolls Royce at Pennington’s Drive-In.
Years later, when I went to work for the Tulsa World as an entertainment writer, scores of folks told me of memorable, if brief, encounters with Russell in their lives. These included a singer-songwriter who, based on a comment from Leon, began performing under a monicker that was his own name spelled backwards.
Had Leon left and not come back, who knows what his Oklahoma legacy would have been? But just as he telegraphed in his 1971 recording “Home Sweet Oklahoma” (and later, perhaps, in his 1975 Will O’ the Wisp album), he did return – an Okie back in his own sweet land and moving through the throngs around him like a magical hippie archetype.
He’d come back, he was a raging success, and he was ours.
That’s why Leon Russell’s ghost is pervasive around here. Back from California, he brought a sizable chunk of the Promised Land with him, setting it out in his hometown, where it became a lodestone for rockers and camp followers from all over. And while he ultimately left again, those few white-hot Tulsa years, in which you might see George Harrison walking down the street to Russell’s Church Studio or Eric Clapton jamming in a bar with a local group, will always be – at least for a certain demographic – the golden era, when Leon was home.