Leon Russell Has Home Sweet Oklahoma on his Mind
Oklahoma native son, Master of Space and Time and hugely influential musician Leon Russell is going back to Tulsa one more time. August 6, Russell and his talented band will perform at The Joint in The Hard Rock Casino. This Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who brought us “Tight Rope” and “Delta Lady”, helped launch the careers of JJ Cale and Tom Petty, served as musical director for Joe Cocker’s historic “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour and whose fingerprints can be found on the keys of countless hit records, was front and center during the great days of classic rock and roll. Half a century after the release of his first solo single, Russell’s unique, soulful sound and keyboard wizardry continue to sell out venues and influence new generations of musicians.
Born in Lawton, Okla. in 1942, Russell began his musical career as an under aged performer in Tulsa’s club scene. Heading to California at 17, Russell became an in-demand session musician, part of the legendary “Wrecking Crew”, a group of studio musicians who played on a huge number of hit records produced and recorded in LA during the 60s.
Pursuing a solo career in the early 70s, Russell also became a bandleader, recruiting a large group of musicians for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour in 1970 and anchoring George Harrison’s house band for the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh benefits.
As a businessman, Russell founded his own studio (Skyhill), along with several labels (Shelter, Paradise and Leon Russell Records), purchasing The Church Studio, – eventual epicenter of the “Tulsa Sound” – in downtown Tulsa in 1972. Music legends like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, JJ Cale, Tom Petty and Peter Tosh all spent time in Russell’s converted sanctuary at 3rd & S. Trenton.
A much celebrated songwriter, Russell’s music is a soulful blend of rock, country, blues and gospel. Everyone from Ray Charles to Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera has covered his composition “A Song for You”. George Benson’s recording of Russell’s “This Masquerade” was a top ten hit for the jazz guitarist and vocalist.
While he was a central figure in the 70s rock scene, Russell’s career as a recording and performing artist has endured well beyond those early years. Russell is a “musician’s musician”, and artists like Bruce Hornsby and Elton John credit him as an inspiration and influence on their own music. In 2010, John and Russell collaborated on The Union, a T-Bone Burnett produced studio album that included cameos from Neil Young and Brian Wilson. The album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and a popular US tour followed.
Russell’s current band consists of long-time bassist Jackie Wessel and Tulsans Beau Charron and Brandon Holder. For Holder and Charron, good friends and occasional bandmates before their time with Russell, this gig is a dream come true.
Holder, who grew up playing drums in his father’s church, got the job after an evening subbing for Russell’s regular drummer who had suffered a stroke. “I got a phone call one Wednesday from Brian Lee, a buddy of mine who was playing with Leon at the time. He asked me if I wanted to play a gig on Saturday,” Holder recalled. “I said, ‘yeah, of course I’ll do it,’ and he said, ‘well, it’s going to be Leon Russell.’ I was like ‘Oh, crap. So I’ve got two or three days here to learn his entire set.’”
Holder was offered the job the next day and has been playing with the band since 2009. “When I was twelve years old, I remember mowing my dad’s lawn at the church. That was one of my first jobs,” Holder recalled. “I’d just pray and talk to god every day and say ‘if you’ll just give me a job in music. I don’t want to be rich or famous. Just let me earn a living doing what I love. That’s all I want.’ And so I feel like this is kind of an answer to my prayer from a long time ago.”
Charron joined the band a few years later. “I was always a big fan,” Charron said. “I remember the first time I went to see Leon at one of his birthday bashes at the Brady. I remember being dropped off at the show, so I had to be 15. I loved Leon’s music back then, and I was going to see him every chance I got…I’ve been a huge fan for a long time, but it’s weird to look back and think when you’re 15 or 16, you know I never would have conceived that I might someday be playing for that guy.”
Charron plays pedal steel, guitar, organ and mandolin in the band. “I kind of told a little white lie saying I could play all these instruments just to get the job,” he laughed. Charron credits Holder for helping him get the gig with Russell. “He may have been the first one to tell Leon that I played all of these.”
Charron said it’s the best little white lie he’s ever told. “I’ve always wanted to play pedal steel, and I’m in love with it. It will take me the rest of my life to really figure out how to play it. That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, really, was being put on the spot.”
Both musicians feel Russell’s influence in their own playing. “He’s a very smart cat,” Holder said. “He tells you little tidbits every once in a while. He hears those little intricacies in music that a lot of people don’t hear.”
“There’s a soul to his music, his style, his timing, his phrasing, singing and playing and arranging, and it’s always appealed to me,” Charron said. “Every time I heard his music, I was just like ‘yeah, that feels good, that feels right.’ So that’s definitely been a big influence on me. I don’t have it, but I’m always chasing it, so it’s nice to have it constantly around. I just try to soak it up as much as I can.”
Their work with Russell has taken Holder and Charron around the world. Often they’ve found themselves sharing the stage or swapping stories with some of the very same musicians they idolized as young kids growing up in Tulsa. “I was thinking about it the other day,” Charron commented. “Really, I’ve been on a five year adventure with Leon and my best friend Brandon. Things like that don’t happen to everybody, everyday. I’ve really been very, very lucky with all of that.”
Russell and other special guests will attend the Oklahoma premier of A Poem is a Naked Person the night before the concert at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema. This previously unreleased movie was the project of renowned independent filmmaker Les Blank who recorded it in the early 70s at the Russell/Shelter Records compound on Grand Lake.
–With permission from Currentland.