Jimmy Markham died at age 77, just a few days after I sat with him in his hospital room for this interview. A sweet man and a Tulsa legend, Markham and a group of local musicians are responsible for creating what we know today as the iconic Tulsa Sound: a style of music that blends rock, country, blues, jazz and rockabilly in a way that distinctly reflects decades of the
Tulsa music scene.
Markham played in several different bands during high school in the late 1950s and frequently performed alongside fellow Tulsa musicians and friends J.J. Cale, Leon Russell and many others. His career included stints in Los Angeles and Nashville, but Tulsa was always home base, where he made a name for himself as a music promoter and nightclub owner in the 1970s.
A music mentor to many with his trademark spirited vocals and salty harmonica style, Markham was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2017.
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I was born in Pryor and went to my first six years of school in Chouteau. Then, I moved to Tulsa where I went to Wilson Middle School, Horace Mann Junior High and Central High School.
What age do you feel right now and why?
My actual age is 77. I feel like I’m 177.
How would your friends describe you?
I’m ornery, but I hope my friends think of me as a gentle soul.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’m an open book at this day and age, and I like talking about music and my life.
If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?
It was my night with Jimmy Reed. He’s a blues guy (one of the most popular and significant of the postwar era). That was in the ’60s in Los Angeles in a show and an after-hours jam.
What was a "worst time" and how did you pull through it?
I’ve had a number of tough times, but I’m still here. That’s a great song title incidentally. I’m going to have to use that — tough times.
What concerns you today?
The entire world and what’s happening to our population.
How do you measure success?
By keeping your mouth shut. People measure success sometimes a little too much, maybe. You don’t have to measure success by what you’ve done. It’s there, just look at it.
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
My life-changing event was talking to Elvis Presley at the Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion. I was in high school when I met him. That may be the first chapter in my book. I was hooked when I went there to hear him play.
What’s your favorite type of music?
All of the above.
Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.
Writing a hit song wherever it might be. It might be outside.
What place in Tulsa do you miss most?
The Paradise Club, of course. (A nightclub located near East 61st Street and South Lewis Avenue that Markham owned and operated in the 1970s.) It opened in 1972. I ran it and managed it — the whole ball of wax. Everyone that played there was legendary.
What have been the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?
I’ve seen and experienced six decades of change, so it’s hard to pinpoint one for you. I’ve seen a lot of stuff … a lot.
What instruments do you play?
I guess it would be harmonica nowadays. I grew up from the sixth grade on playing trumpet. I don’t play it much anymore. I beat around on the guitar.
What’s your definition of the Tulsa Sound?
That’s a tough question. My definition is a number of us that grew up together, playing together without saying too much about it. There were probably 15 of us. It was a natural thing, and we just locked into it. By that I mean, we grew the beat, and we could pretty much play with anybody that stepped on stage. Whatever it was, boom, we just played it.
Did you have any idea of the significance of the Tulsa Sound when you were jamming with your buddies in high school and afterward?
No, not at all, it’s amazing those things — you just don’t realize it when you’re in the moment.
How does Tulsa stack up to all of those other music cities like Nashville and Los Angeles?
You have population differences, but aside from that everybody that’s here is just a hell of a player. They all play extremely well. I don’t know anywhere else where you can go and sit down and listen to some music and see that even the musicians who come in just to jam all play great.
Today, the Tulsa Sound is still such a huge influence on all kinds of music. Does that make you feel good to know it lives on in younger generations of bands?
Yeah, it sure does, and they’re doing it well, incidentally. They have my approval.
Are there some of those younger singers or generations of bands that you’ve heard in Tulsa and thought they must have been inspired by the original Tulsa Sound?
I have my favorites and everybody knows them. Seth Lee Jones, Jesse Aycock, Dustin Pittsley, Wink Burcham. I can go on all night long. I could fill up a whole book. Just keep carrying the torch.