A sanctuary of sound
Church Studio is a hallowed site for the Tulsa music scene.
Take a drive through downtown Tulsa late on a Saturday night and you’ll immediately notice the majestic steeples of its landmark churches. Tomorrow they’ll be beckoning believers with spiritual enlightenment and parables of the past. Tonight, however, the sanctuaries are dim — except for one.
Head north to Third Street and Trenton Avenue, and the invocation is just beginning. That’s because the Church Studio attracts a different congregation entirely. Built in 1913 for The Church of the United Brethren in Christ, this structure has one of the most historically significant lineages of any building in Tulsa.
In 1972, hometown hero and internationally acclaimed musician Leon Russell purchased the church and turned it in to a world-class recording studio for his label, Shelter Records.
If ever there was a structure that embodied the self-proclaimed Master of Space and Time, it’s the Church Studio. Enigmatic and impenetrable, the stone façade is as intimidating as it is mysterious. And yet, if you were among the chosen ones to witness Russell’s legendary jam sessions, you were baptized in the waters of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest eras.
One such musician anointed into musical immortality was drummer Jamie Oldaker. His distinguished resumé includes four decades of touring with artists such as Eric Clapton, Bob Seger and Ace Frehley, to name a few. But it was Russell who first plucked him from a local jazz band.
“He used to come see me play at The Colony. His manager came one night and said ‘Leon wants you to come over to the house.’ That’s how it all started,” Oldaker says.
Most of those who were a part of the inner sanctum are reticent to reveal much about what went on behind those immense front doors. However, it was not unusual to see George Harrison smoking a cigarette on the front steps or Tom Petty grabbing a bite across the street at The Ranch House. In fact, Petty signed his first record deal there.
And though documentation is sparse, it’s certain there was no shortage of musical luminaries visiting Russell during this time, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, J.J. Cale, Freddie King, Phoebe Snow, The Gap Band, and many others.
Russell and his partner, Denny Cordell, set out to create an artistic haven for musicians and songwriters when they opened the studio. They purchased several adjacent houses, and encouraged creativity and collaboration — a strategy that galvanized the musical fusion unique to Tulsa.
During Shelter Records’ tenure at the Church Studio, from 1972 to 1976, it was the epicenter of the legendary Tulsa Sound.
In the years to follow, the Church Studio changed hands a number of times. Most notably, it was home base to Steve Ripley and The Tractors.
“I think some people think Leon had the studio in the 1970s and then it sat dormant until recently. Many people aren’t aware of all the music history at that place when Steve Ripley was there,” says Brian Horton of Horton Records, which released “The New Tulsa Sound Vol.2: The Church Studio Sessions” in February 2012. It’s an album chock full of local talent, including Dustin Pittsley, Wink Burcham, Paul Benjaman Band, Dead Sea Choir, Jesse Aycock and many others.
Aycock, a venerable staple in the Tulsa music scene, also recorded his solo album “Flowers & Wounds” at the Church Studio last year.
“The Church is totally unique and I think even the fact that it is an actual church and functioned as a church, there’s holiness to it. There’s been a lot of spirits in that place,” Aycock says.
Much like the Tulsa music scene itself, the studio has been infused with a new energy since being taken over by father and son team, Randy and Jacob Miller, in 2005.
When speaking to Jacob, a passionate, twenty-something music lover with flame red hair and an infectious enthusiasm, he wants to return it to the pith of its origin, without the exclusivity.
“I hope the studio enhances our great music community by providing a special place for people to express themselves any way they see fit,” Jacob says.
And it’s paid off; the artists have been coming in droves. However, Miller is quick to give credit to his talented team, which includes Costa Stasinopoulos, Malachi Burgess and Michael Block, for the studio’s success.
“This is definitely a team effort,” Miller says.
Though there hasn’t been a sermon preached in the building for more than 40 years, there is no shortage of spirituality and reverence.
“I don’t see us as owning the Church Studio,” Miller says. “I see us as stewards and caretakers of something amazing. The church owns itself. It was there before I was born and it will be there after my time is up.”