Leon: A triumphant return
In 1972, at the peak of his historic music career, Leon Russell surprised the country by moving back to the stomping grounds of his youth: Tulsa. In an exclusive interview, Russell shares his remembrances of that storied time, which locals hoped would make T-Town a rock ’n’ roll haven.
In summer 1972, Leon Russell returned to Tulsa, where he had lived in his teen years, buying a home in the Maple Ridge neighborhood, operating various recording studios and signing acts to his and Denny Cordell’s Shelter Records. Here, Russell is shown in a Shelter Records publicity photo taken in the early 1970s.
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It was a glorious return of epic proportions: In summer 1972, at the height of a rock career that is the stuff of legend, Leon Russell moved back to Tulsa.
He bought a place at Grand Lake, took up residence in a mansion in Maple Ridge and set up shop for his newly christened Shelter Records in the soon-to-be-famous Church Studio at East Third Street and South Trenton Avenue.
For a certain generation of Tulsans, the expectation was for a New Jerusalem, a rock ’n’ roll heaven on earth.
Tulsa was to be a land flowing with milk and honey for musicians great and small, a populist arts utopia where no genius was left undiscovered by the big, bad record companies on both coasts. And, surprisingly — if only for a few magical years — things seemed to be heading in that direction.
Confirmed guests at one or more of Russell’s digs included Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Elton John and a young upstart named Tom Petty.
Russell and British rock impresario Denny Cordell signed a slate of promising acts to their Shelter Records label. As the albums of Russell’s young protégés began rolling out, his own tours were among the largest-grossing events of the early ’70s.
Seemingly overnight, the entire city was energized by this notion that Tulsa would quickly overtake stuffy old Nashville as the fabled “Middle Coast” of the American music scene.
The extent of Russell’s influence on American and European culture by the early ’70s is difficult to overstate.
At a time when an entire generation was looking to music for political, philosophical and spiritual leaders, Russell was first a faithful lieutenant to many of the most influential figures of the day and then a powerful voice in his own right.
After providing some of the bright musical genius for a golden era that spanned from Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand to The Beach Boys, The Byrds and Bob Dylan, Russell’s solo career as one of rock’s great troubadours emerged at a time of tumultuous change and earnest hope. With only the slightest hint of a humble sense of irony, he was known as the Master of Space and Time.
Meanwhile, back in Maple Ridge, Russell erected an 8-foot-tall brick wall around the McClintock Mansion on the hill at East 24th Place and Woodward Boulevard — once home to one of Tulsa’s first Jewish synagogues — and made a habit of cruising around town in one of two Rolls-Royce sedans. In a quaint show of civic-mindedness, he paid a $10 fee to join the Maple Ridge Neighborhood Association and even offered up the mansion for a fundraising event to help stop the ill-conceived expressway that would have doomed one of Tulsa’s most cherished residential districts, then Russell’s neighborhood.
Recording studios were added to the basement of the mansion and to the Grand Lake house. There were constant rumors of late-night performances in Tulsa clubs and weeklong recording sessions at Russell’s Grand Lake and Church studios.
With kids in blue jeans and flowered skirts humming the signature line of Russell’s “Home Sweet Oklahoma” — “Well, I’m going back to Tulsa one more time” — the boundaries between myth and reality became blurred and the legend of the “Shelter Era” during Russell’s Second Coming was born.
Says Emily Smith, Russell’s lifelong friend, muse and witness to the musical history being made, “Those were real prophetic years. … It was the best of times … the best we ever had.”
Here, Russell describes aspects of his time in Tulsa, as well as his continuing musical pursuits ...