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Dwight Twilley at 70: Tulsa music artist has lived his dream
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Dwight Twilley at 70: Tulsa music artist has lived his dream

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Sometimes it takes someone from the outside world to remind you how cool the treasure is in your backyard.

Blondie visited Tulsa in 2018 to perform at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. In an interview prior to the show, drummer Clem Burke — without being prompted — said, “When I think of Tulsa, I think of one of my favorite bands, the Dwight Twilley Band.”

Let’s recap: Blondie is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And when Blondie’s drummer thinks of Tulsa, the nugget that springs to mind is the music the Dwight Twilley Band exported to the world.

“They were a great band,” Burke said.

Burke invited Twilley and his wife, Jan, to Blondie’s Hard Rock show.

Then: Hard Rock.

Now: Milestone.

Twilley is celebrating a 70th birthday. He was born June 6, 1951, in Tulsa. In lieu of gifts, he is urging people to donate to MusicCares, a non-profit organization that safeguards the health and well-being of music people.

As Twilley looks back at 70 years of life so far, he’s glad he was able to dream and make some of his dreams become real and convince other people to go along. But he also said this: “As I age, it’s strange that so many of those people that were around in the beginning are no longer with us anymore.”

Twilley said original Twilley Band people “are all gone,” himself excluded, of course. During an hour-plus phone interview, he complimented the abilities of bandmates like Phil Seymour, who died in 1993 at age 41, and Bill Pitcock IV, who died 10 years ago at age 58.

When they were pups, the guys in the Dwight Twilley Band felt invincible and they created fire, sort of. The Dwight Twilley band’s first single, “I’m on Fire,” never mind lack of promotion, rose to No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.

The song was recorded at Tulsa’s Church Studio, which is getting a makeover for a planned reopening in the fall.

Church Studio was the Tulsa HQ of Shelter Records, a Leon Russell and Denny Cordell label with offices in L.A. and T-Town. When Twilley and his mates, freshly signed to Shelter Records, were handed the keys to Church Studio, they were told NOT to make a record. They were supposed to only familiarize themselves with recording equipment. Instead, they made a record. Or, as Seymour told Twilley: “Let’s make a hit.”

Twilley revisited the launch of his still-active career in advance of birthday No. 70. He returned to his hometown of Tulsa after a 1994 earthquake destroyed his residence in California. He records at his home studio, Big Oak Records.

Party on? A Twilley song, “Why You Wanna Break My Heart,” was covered by Tia Carrere (she can wail) on the multi-platinum “Wayne’s World” soundtrack in 1992. Royalties provided the funding for Big Oak Studio. Excellent.

Born in Tulsa, Twilley is one of those folks who has art churning inside him and, one way or another, it has to get out. He was always drawing or painting in grade school. He used to ride his bike to a drug store to pick up the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, in part because he loved the eye candy cover illustrations.

Twilley never had a fall-back plan in case his music dreams fizzled (“just too young and crazy to think about it”), but, to barter his father’s support for the pursuit of a music career, the Edison High School grad agreed to attend Northeastern Oklahoma A&M for a semester. He said he made straight A’s.

You can assume Twilley would have earned a degree in art if he and higher education had engaged in a long-lasting relationship. Twilley, asked which artists he admires, said there are lots of them — from Vincent Van Gogh to Norman Rockwell.

Twilley hosted art shows showcasing his works once he was a “name” in the music industry. Just for grins, Twilley’s team once sent an art show invitation to Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Forrest J. Ackerman and — surprise! — Ackerman showed up. In return, Ackerman put Twilley’s photo in an issue of the magazine (“Wanted! More readers like Dwight Twilley!”) and invited the rocker to visit his memorabilia-laden “Ackermansion.” Of course Twilley went. He geeks out about stuff, including “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the Beatles.

Asked what buttons the Beatles pushed, Twilley said, “They were magic.”

Little Dwight was among millions who watched when the Beatles made an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Seeing the Beatles on TV was inspiring. Twilley, whose dad always had musical instruments lying about the house, played in junior high and high school bands. One of his first groups was the Intruders, who made a visual splash because guys in the band wore pink striped shirts. Asked about the shirts, Twilley said they were so good they got the Intruders a gig playing an assembly at a junior high school. Twilley was the lead singer and drummer.

It was love of the Beatles that led to one of the most serendipitous encounters of Twilley’s life. He went to the Boman Twin to see a double feature that included a Beatles film and a forgettable surfer movie. While at the theater, he began talking about the Beatles with Seymour. They became bandmates in Oister, later to be named the Dwight Twilley Band at Cordell’s request.

The Boman Twin wasn’t the site of the first Twilley-Seymour meeting. They lived one block apart. Explained Twilley: “You know how you just casually meet somebody and then you actually really meet them later?”

Seymour and Twilley hit it off so well at the Boman Twin that, after the double feature, they immediately went to Twilley’s house and started recording. They got good enough at it to wonder if anyone in the record business would give their demos a listen.

“We knew we couldn’t afford to go to L.A. or New York,” Twilley said. “We packed up my little ‘58 Chevy station wagon and Memphis was the first place we went.”

They pulled up to historic Sun Records, launching pad for Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

“We knew something about it was known,” Twilley said. “But that’s about it.”

Twilley said they played their tapes for people in Memphis and Nashville. They got to do a little recording and were matched with Ray Harris, an early Sun Records rockabilly artist who had a studio in Tupelo, Mississippi. In a less polite way, Harris told the Tulsa boys they sang like sissies. Message received: Upon returning from Tupelo, they no longer sang like sissies.

The next big trip was in the opposite direction. The Tulsans had recorded a full album and half of another at a little studio they built. They took their creations and headed to Los Angeles. They got sent back to Tulsa, which sounds like bad news, but was, instead, a positive development.

Remember, Shelter Records had offices in California and Tulsa. At the far west Shelter Records location, Cordell handed over a contract and said “Get a lawyer. You’ve got a record deal.”

The weird thing, said Twilley, was everybody in Tulsa was trying to get into Shelter. He and Seymour weren’t really trying to do that. Boom. All of a sudden, they were bound for Church Studio, a workshop for Shelter artists, and they were granted free rein, even if it meant running people off the premises.

“There were kind of weird vibes from the older Tulsa soldiers that had the Church and the Leon scene under their belts for years, or it seemed like it,” Twilley said. “They weren’t real pleased about getting out of their clubhouse.”

After “I’m on Fire” was recorded at Church, Cordell suggested the Dwight Twilley band go to England and record at Trident Studios, where the Beatles’ recorded “Hey Jude.” It was a big deal for a Beatles fan from Tulsa to play the “Hey Jude” piano there.

Meanwhile, “I’m on Fire” was released as a single and became a hit. Life was different when Twilley got back to the U.S. How so?

“For one thing, everybody knew who you were,” he said. “You used to have to try to make people notice who you were. After having a record that size, everybody already knew who you were.”

Cordell wanted the freshly minted hitmakers to show up in rock star fashion at a record store event on Hollywood Boulevard, so Seymour got a quick lesson on how to drive a Ferrari. You can imagine the scene, girls and all.

Twilley’s reaction to success? “We kind of always expected it.”

At one point, Twilley said they were so cocky they believed they could go any place, any time, and make a hit record. Seymour, after all, had told Twilley “let’s make a hit” and they knocked out “I’m on Fire” at the Church.

Ideally, an album would have followed the release of “I’m on Fire” to capitalize on the single’s momentum. The Dwight Twilley Band’s debut album (“Sincerely”) wasn’t unleashed until more than a year later. Big factor: Cordell and Russell parted ways and Shelter Records lost its distribution deal.

“Sincerely” has been called one of the best power pop records ever made, but (go ahead and blame the delayed release) it did not crack the Billboard top 100. Fellow Shelter Records artist Tom Petty was more fortunate. Savvy business people helped steer him out of the quagmire.

The Dwight Twilley Band tried to make the best of a bad (timing) situation. Television exposure included an appearance on “American Bandstand” and a performance (joined by Petty) on a short-lived CBS Saturday morning show, “Wacko.”

“We liked Dick Clark a lot and he turned out to be really kind to us and did lots of favors for me,” Twilley said, who couldn’t believe his ears when he heard the longtime “American Bandstand” host cuss.

Twilley was an MTV darling (one of the channel’s first concerts was a Twilley show) and he was flying solo by the time he made his second “American Bandstand” appearance in 1984. Seymour decided to strike out on his own after the second Dwight Twilley Band album.

Twilley’s return to “American Bandstand” coincided with the release of his highest-charting album (“Jungle”) and “Girls,” a top-40 single with many nuances (including a Maurice Chevalier intro that wasn’t included on the single version of the song) and backing vocals by Petty. Clark welcomed Twilley back to the show after nine years and they talked on-air about music industry affairs that were out of Twilley’s control. Giving an example, Twilley said he called his record company after the release of the Dwight Twilley Band’s second single to see how the song was doing. The person who answered the phone said, “The record company is not here anymore.”

Twilley, who experienced other industry snarls, says now that the music business is crazy in many ways. Part of success is just surviving. Sadly, Petty is not among the survivors. He died in 2017 at age 66. The Shelter-mates helped each other at the dawn of their careers. Twilley and Seymour sang backing vocals on a track on Petty’s debut album, released via Shelter. Seymour also contributed backup vocals on “American Girl” and “Breakdown.” Petty re-recorded “Breakdown” after Twilley identified the song’s hook. Petty played guitar on “Looking For the Magic,” which was on the Dwight Twilley Band’s second album.

Twilley has charted his own course since returning to his hometown, releasing multiple albums via Big Oak (dwighttwilley.com) for his fan base, and he occasionally gets notice that one of his songs is coveted for use in a television series or movie.

In 2018, Twilley was invited to join Robert Plant, Neil Young, Jack White, Kings of Leon, Alanis Morissette, The Pretenders, The Bangles and others as performers at the Arroyo Seco Weekend Festival in Pasadena, California.

Twilley was asked if there is something about performing that provides a rush unlike anything else. This was his response: “Performing isn’t quite like finishing a song, because a song comes from absolutely nowhere. It’s invisible. It’s very magic.”

It’s art trying to get out.

The Men Who Would Be Scene: Episode 14

Eating goat (it's good), Dwight Twilley turns 70 and his Tom Petty connection, ZZ Top and Cody Jinks headline inaugural Born & Raised Music Festival and Tulsa Symphony Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis at BOK on Sunday.

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Scene Writer

I cover pop culture and work as a feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, I have written books about former OU coach Barry Switzer and former OSU coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389

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