Music artists from everywhere were drawn to Tulsa in the 1970s. For that, you can thank Leon Russell.
Russell teamed with English producer Denny Cordell to launch Shelter Records at the dawn of the decade. The label established offices in Los Angeles and Tulsa.
It was during this era that Russell, a Will Rogers High School alum, relocated from Los Angeles back to his hometown of Tulsa. Russell bought a church (originally the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church) at 304 S. Trenton Ave., and turned it into Church Studio, a recording studio that had a moth-flame effect for others in the music world.
It would have been great to be a fly on the wall during this era, per information from thechurchstudio.com: “The mysterious-looking stone structure served as a creative workshop for songwriters, musicians, engineers and singers. Successful and award-winning talent such as Leon Russell, Tom Petty, JJ Cale, Jimmy Buffett, Georgie Fame, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Asleep at the Wheel, Michael Bolton, The GAP Band, Kansas, Mary McCreary, Freddie King, Jimmy Markham, Dwight Twilley, Phoebe Snow, Peter Tosh, Jamie Oldaker, Walt Richmond, David Teegarden, Wolfman Jack and many more hung out or recorded in the studio.”
Current owner Teresa Knox is renovating Church Studio to its former glory, complete with a statue of Russell, who died in 2016, at the south entrance. The studio is expected to open in the fall.
Knox, delving into Church Studio lore, has interviewed more than 200 people about the studio and Russell, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. Videos of the interviews are available on The Church Studio YouTube page.
Three Church Studio staffers from the “Leon years” agreed to recall their experiences for this Tulsa World Magazine story.
The Wailers, minus Bob Marley, showed up at Church Studio during the Shelter Records era. You can say the session was smoking.
“They made these big old cigarettes,” Kirk Bressler recalled. “They were kind of funnel-shaped. They were huge on one end and, kudos to them, they didn’t share. They all had their own. You didn’t even have to smoke to get high in the computer room. It was a trip. I just remember them saying ‘More bass, mon. More bass, mon.’”
Bressler has been referred to as an assistant engineer for the Church, but he says he was really a project manager. He made sure everyone had everything they required, and he handled wiring work for audio and other purposes. He said his background in avionics helped a lot. He was an aircraft electrician while in the Marine Corps and, after returning stateside from Vietnam, he began studying at Tulsa’s Spartan School of Aeronautics.
“The GI Bill was paying for it,” he said. “I had to get me some part-time jobs for beer money and stuff.”
Bressler said he began doing maintenance work for Buddy Jones, who had real estate holdings and apartments in the area.
“I didn’t know at the time he also managed a bunch of properties for Leon,” Bressler said.
Jones asked Bressler if he wanted to get involved in transforming a church into Church Studio.
“From day one at Church, I was there,” Bressler said.
Step one was removing the pews, which were repurposed by an English carpenter. The face-lift also included “flattening” the floor.
“Afterward we heard that Leon didn’t really want that,” Bressler said. “He wanted a theater-like floor like it was, but you wouldn’t have been able to use it because everybody would have been on a slant.”
Bressler was asked about music artists he encountered during his Leon-affiliated years. Names that came up in conversation included Phoebe Snow (“We got along well.”), JJ Cale (“He was kind of a secretive guy.”), Willis Alan Ramsey (preferred to do his own recording), B.W. Stevenson (Brooks & Dunn covered his “My Maria” in 1997), Willie Nelson and his sister (“They wanted me to mic a grand piano for them and record something, and we did that.”) and Dr. John.
“Dr. John, he didn’t like the spirit of the church,” Bressler said. “There’s a Cajun word called gris-gris or something like that. It just didn’t have the right feeling for him. That was an interesting night. There was a lot of chaos involved, especially in the bigger sessions that we did there. It was always kind of a controlled chaos.”
Bressler said he engineered the GAP Band’s first album, spending a year with the homegrown group in the studio. It was the first and last album ever engineered by Bressler, who said he got crosswise with one of the band members.
When Bressler was asked if he was a Russell fan, he said he played guitar in a high school band that majored in rhythm and blues. “I liked Leon’s mix of that. One album I really liked before I met him was one he and Marc Benno did together. I just liked his blend of rhythm and blues and rock and roll and gospel. It just made you want to get up and jump around.”
Bressler said Russell was approachable but that there was always something about him that was different.
“I didn’t talk to him that much, but he knew who I was,” he said. “I recorded an overdub for him on one of his tracks, and he gave me attribution on one of his albums. But I didn’t hang with that crowd.”
Although Russell attracted other music artists to Tulsa, not all of them recorded at the Church. Bressler reminded that Russell built a studio in the basement of his home and had a studio at Grand Lake.
He described the atmosphere at Church as good and congenial, which allowed everyone to do their own thing collectively.
“It was an interesting time,” he said. “It was good for everybody involved. It was kind of a closed society there. If you weren’t invited, you didn’t get in, which made sense because these musicians were paying money to be recorded. They weren’t there to perform. They were there to work, and that’s the way it was.”
Bressler said he had a good time but, when his time at Church came to an end, he decided he didn’t want anything to do with the music business anymore. He is retired from IBM and lives in Harrison, Arkansas.
The band was Mudcrutch. Simon Miller-Mundy was Shelter Records’ A&R (artists and repertoire) man, and he brought the Florida-based band to Tulsa, according to Julie Chapman.
You should recognize Mudcrutch by a name the band later adopted: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
“The band were all really nice guys,” Chapman said. “I had some of the guys over for dinner, actually. Of course, Mr. Petty didn’t come, but that’s how that goes.”
Chapman was at Church Studio from the beginning as an office manager, arriving shortly after Bressler. She was asked, “What do you most want people to know about that time in history?”
“It was the beginning of something really good,” she said. “Musically, it allowed every local musician in Oklahoma to think that they had an opportunity. They would come to the studio — not that it was a holy grail or anything — but a lot of people would come there to bring their music to Simon to see if they would play it and give them an opportunity because they wanted to sign with Shelter Records.”
Music hopefuls in middle America found themselves in close proximity of a dream. Jamie Oldaker, a late, great Tulsa drummer who shared stages with Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton and others, said in an interview with Knox that he used to drive by Church Studio and wish he could get inside. Eventually, he did.
Oldaker is a Tulsa Sound music figure. The Tulsa Sound “absolutely” sprang out of Church Studio, said Chapman, citing the rhythmic sounds of JJ Cale (who significantly impacted Clapton’s career) and others.
Clapton and Tulsa’s Carl Radle were bandmates in the short-lived group Derek and the Dominos. When Clapton was struggling with life, Radle tried to energize him and sent Clapton live recordings of Oldaker and others. A year passed before Clapton summoned “Jamie and the other kids from Tulsa.” Oldaker was preparing to go on the road with Russell and the GAP Band before getting a call to record “461 Ocean Boulevard,” a Clapton album that spawned the single “I Shot the Sheriff.”
“My life had been in serious decline when I was introduced to Jamie. The hard drug (heroin) had taken its toll, and I had lost interest in pretty much everything,” Clapton said in a statement following Oldaker’s death in 2020.
“Carl Radle, the wonderful man who played with me in the Dominos and knew about my predicament, sent me a message along with a cassette, saying, ‘You have to hear these kids.’
“I listened, and something woke up in me. I wanted to play again. ‘The kids’ of course were Jamie Oldaker and Dickie Sims, who, along with Carl, were in Tulsa making incredible, sophisticated music. It had everything.
“I jumped at the proposition, and we began our momentous journey. We went as far as we could go (with me as the annoying burden most of the time), but on the way we made incredible music — sometimes cool, sometimes crazy, but always with a supreme pocket thanks to those guys. All I had to do was float along on top and sometimes just try to stay conscious.“
Mother Nature played a role in all of this. An earthquake in Los Angeles led to Russell’s move back to his hometown, according to Chapman.
Tulsans were glad to see the return of a jukebox hero, but some weren’t quite sure what to make of the characters (some of them long-haired) flitting in and around Church Studio.
“(People) were very suspicious,” Chapman said. “They wouldn’t cash our checks at the local Safeway.”
Russell was a superstar (in 1973, Billboard named him the world’s top touring artist), but Chapman said he was very quiet.
“I thought he was rather shy, actually,” she said, indicating that most of her communications with Russell were relayed by way of those who worked for him.
Russell’s presence attracted music artists to Church Studio and his home (where he also had a studio) and to his studio at Grand Lake. You never knew who might show up. The book “Leon Russell: In His Own Words” said Russell and Bob Dylan were once relaxing at Grand Lake when a local resident pointed at Russell and told Dylan, “You know, this guy here is famous all over the world.” Dylan smiled.
Chapman said Nashville (once a destination only for those in the country genre) eventually became what Tulsa was in the 1970s. Music artists from many genres now call Nashville home.
“They sort of gravitated there,” she said. “I don’t think Tulsa had the gravitation of musicians moving here and living, but they did come here.”
Chapman recalled the Russell/Church Studio years as a fun, wonderful time. It was the 1970s, after all. Elton John was scheduled to play at the Civic Center during that era, and he let it be known he wanted his idol to attend the show.
“He sent his roadies to the office with free passes and everything because he wanted Leon to come. I don’t think Leon went, but we all did,” Chapman said, supposing that Russell could have met with Elton John somewhere after the show.
“It would be unfair to speculate, but I know he didn’t go with us.”
Chapman moved from London to Los Angeles to Tulsa at age 24 to be a part of Church Studio history. She was taken aback by the heat when she arrived, but high temps apparently were not a deal-breaker. After spending three years here, she returned to the West Coast, then came back to make Tulsa her home.
Commuting to work at Church Studio from his residence at Seventh and Harvard, Rick Holmes turned the corner at Third Street one day and saw a couple of parka-clad folks carrying backpacks and guitar cases. They put their thumbs out because they wanted to thumb a ride. Hmmmm.
Holmes pulled over near them and heard this:
“We’re going to the Church Studio. You know where that is? We’re recording at the Church Studio, and we don’t know how to get there.”
The pair had hitchhiked from New York to Tulsa. They told Holmes they had plane tickets, but they cashed them in.
Holmes agreed to help them finish their journey. They tossed their gear in his car and climbed in for a short drive to Church Studio.
Holmes didn’t let on that he worked at Church Studio until they arrived. He accompanied them inside and introduced the hitchhikers to Chapman, who was the office manager.
The hitchhikers? Phoebe Snow and her guitar player.
Snow’s self-titled debut album at Shelter Records went gold and included the track “Poetry Man,” which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Holmes, now the owner of Jenks Nutrition, reminded that Tulsa, thanks to Cain’s Ballroom, has a long history of luring music artists to town. Leon Russell’s Church Studio years are an important part of that history.
“A lot of good musicians came through. A lot of them got started there,” he said, mentioning, for instance, Dwight Twilley and the GAP Band.
The neighborhood surrounding Church Studio has experienced a resurgence, but, during the Leon years, it was located in a blighted, industrial area, according to Holmes.
“Things were dying over there, and there wasn’t much going on,” he said.
Russell acquired houses (and a former senior group home) near Church Studio so music artists could crash there instead of staying at a hotel. JJ Cale bunked in the former senior home and set up recording equipment there. Ambrose Campbell, a Nigerian credited with forming Britain’s first Black band, also took up residence near Church Studio.
Roadies wound up living in the housing, according to Holmes, who said he shared a duplex with two of them. He lived downstairs, and they lived upstairs.
Those houses are the reason he became part of the Church Studio crew.
After being discharged from the military, Holmes returned to his pre-service employer, Amoco Oil Co. Said Holmes: “I did not like corporate life. I had just spent a whole year over in southeast Asia, and I went right straight back to my old job. I really didn’t care for them telling me that I had to cut my hair and I had to wear coats and ties.”
Bressler told Holmes that Church Studio needed help getting duplexes ready for use. That sounded more appealing to Holmes than what he was doing, so he ditched the coat and tie.
One day he was working on one of the houses when Bressler told him they should go have lunch at the Ranch House. Leon Russell and business manager Buddy Jones were eating there. Maybe they would pick up the tab for lunch. Lunch conversation led to Holmes being asked to work at Church Studio because it was a bigger priority than the housing. He said he did a little bit of anything and everything at Church Studio. He also worked at Russell’s home when Russell decided he needed a studio there.
“Leon would come in late at night (at Church Studio) sometimes and want to sit down and work through things in the studio, but people were in it. They were working,” Holmes said. “He said, ‘Damn, I can’t even get in my own studio.’ That’s why he wanted to build a studio at his house he could work out of in the basement, which meant really enlarging the tiny basement there at the house.”
Sometimes Holmes would be deep in concentration on whatever he was working on at Church Studio and he would get the feeling that someone was watching.
“It might be 3 o’clock in the morning, and I would turn around and look and Leon would be sitting in a chair on the other side of the board sitting there watching me,” he said. Holmes to Russell: “Dang, man. Don’t do that. Let me know you’re here.”
It was all part of an adventure, really. Holmes was part of the story when Eric Clapton got arrested at Tulsa International Airport.
Ricky Hill, a gopher for Russell, was asked by Radle to pick up Clapton at the airport. Hill asked Holmes to come along. They arrived at the lower level of the airport and heard hollering from the second level. It was Clapton, leaning over the railing and holding his backpack and guitar.
Clapton had a few too many drinks during the flight to Tulsa and caused enough of a commotion to attract the attention of security.
“What are you guys doing down there? How do I get down there?” Clapton yelled at the men charged with picking him up.
They responded that they would come up to the second level and get him. Clapton had a different idea.
“He threw his bag over the railing to me,” Holmes said. “About that time they grabbed him. We ran upstairs to intervene, but it didn’t help. He got arrested for intox.”
Clapton got bailed out by attorney Jeff Nix and wound up — surprise — performing at Cain’s Ballroom. The turnout was such that it helped keep the historic venue afloat financially.
Fun was guaranteed at Church Studio when Gary Busey and Gailard Sartain popped in for visits. Holmes said they would sometimes come to the studio after filming “Mazeppa,” a late-night local TV show that still has a cult following. All work stopped and all seriousness ended when they showed up, according to Holmes.
“We were just young kids then,” he said of his Church Studio experiences. “We didn’t know that it was anything special at all. It was just stuff that we did. We had to work. We were working. People ask us, ‘Why didn’t you take more pictures?’ We were working.”
In hindsight, Holmes knows those years were special to him. And they were special to Tulsa.