Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Legacy of Leon Russell and J.J. Cale

Road Music, Chapter Six

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Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Legacy of Leon Russell and J.J. Cale

Three of the most prominent shapers of the Tulsa Sound have died over the past six years: J.J. Cale in 2013, Leon Russell in 2016 and the Tractors’ Steve Ripley just this past January. And yet, when I visited Oklahoma in March, the Tulsa Sound was still thriving, buried beneath national attention in the town’s barrooms and dancehalls.

And that’s good news, for the city’s laid-back brand of rock ’n’ roll, boasting equal measures of hillbilly twang and gospel soul, has been one of the most fertile and enjoyable regional sounds of the past half century. One can make a convincing case that British guitarists Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler built much of their careers on the Tulsa Sound. Just compare Clapton’s solo work and Dire Straits’ hit singles with Cale’s 1971 debut Naturally and see if the resemblance doesn’t jump out at you.

Clapton, at least, has gone out of his way to acknowledge the debt, declaring in his autobiography the Cale is “one of the most important artists in the history of rock, quietly representing the greatest asset his country has ever had.” Clapton and Cale shared a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for their 2006 duo album, Road to Escondido.

Paul Benjaman and Paddy Ryan (courtesy of Paul Benjaman)

At the Colony, a small bar on a run-down strip of Tulsa’s East Side, Paul Benjaman was playing his every-Sunday-night gig. When he sang, “I’ve got your music singing in my bones” from his original song “Your Music,” the burly, 45-year-old rocker was also acknowledging a debt to Cale. In the same set, he even sang the Cale rarity, “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime.”

But Benjaman was adding to the tradition as much as he was borrowing from it, lending it a more muscular Southern-rock flavor and writing songs as impressive as the deep-groove “Detroit Train” and the pleading ballad “How Bad I Want You.” He would quickly lift his left hand off the fretboard after each chord to give his guitar a pulsing sound. And in drummer Paddy Ryan, Benjaman had a master of the push-and-pull rhythm that undergirds most Tulsa music.

“I got it first hand,” Benjaman said between sets. “I’d sit down and see how the older guys were playing that rhythm that’s the essence of the Tulsa sound. When you hang out with them, they’ll tell you: They would listen to those old blues records where one musician would play a straight beat, and another would play a shuffle. In between those is the Tulsa sound.”

Some of those old-timers are still around: singer Randy Brumley, Cale guitarist Don White, Russell guitarist Chris Simmons, and Clapton/Russell drummer Jamie Oldaker. And they’ve passed on their knowledge to a younger generation that includes Benjaman, Cody Clinton, Seth Lee Austin, Wink Burcham and Dustin Pittsley.

Perhaps Cale said it best when he declared, “We were just trying to play the blues and didn’t know how, so that’s what we came up with.” Just as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds were trying to copy American blues records and got it just wrong enough to come up with something new, so did these kids raised amid the empty ranch lands and oil wells of Oklahoma. But instead of filtering the blues through skiffle and music-hall songs, as the Brits did, these cowboys filtered it through country music and gospel—and that made all the difference.

“Tulsa is such a crossroads between east and west,” Benjaman points out. “The accents here go from the deep South to the Midwest. All the white guys were learning the blues from the race records on the radio and from black musicians like Jimmy Markham and Flash Terry on the north side of town. All these very economical players were mixing swing with a straight beat, and that tension was very interesting.”

Under his own name, Cale never had a top-20 single nor a top-40 solo album; his label owner and hometown pal, Leon Russell, had the hits: a pair of top-20 singles and nine top-40 albums. Cale and Russell had slightly different takes on the Tulsa Sound, as did Ripley, Elvin Bishop, Carl Radle, Jim Keltner, Bread’s David Gates, Roger Tillison and drummers Jim Keltner and David Teegarden. Radle and the aforementioned Oldaker both graduated from Tulsa’s Edison High School in the late 1950s, and they were all united by the same mix of ingredients and the same underlying pulse.

Russell left Tulsa at 17 to tour with Jerry Lee Lewis and landed in L.A., where he got his start playing piano on sessions for the Beach Boys, Byrds and Phil Spector. Russell was music director for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and played bass for Bob Dylan and George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh. A case at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa celebrates that career with some instruments and a gold stage costume embroidered with black palm trees.

Russell came back home to Tulsa in 1972 at age 20, back to the source of that churchy shuffle, that twangy blues, that thing that everyone from Spector to Dylan wanted from him. He founded three different studios when he returned. The bacchanalia of the Lakefront Studio is documented in the Les Blank documentary, A Poem Is a Naked Person, but the Church studio on the East Side was the nerve center.

The former Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1915, half-covered in Formstone and half-exposed brick, is still standing, but local entrepreneur Theresa Knox is determined to restore it as a working studio. She gave me a tour while I was in town. The exterior is intact enough to contend for a place on the National Register of Historic Places, but the interior has been gutted with a thin layer of gray construction dust over everything. You can still see the tilted windows where the engineers in the control room and the singers in the isolation booths could look in on the band in the main room.

Knox pointed at one room where the offices for Shelter Records were housed. That was the company formed by Russell and England Denny Cordell. They recorded many sessions at the Church studio with such fellow Tulsans as Dwight Twilley and the Gap Band. Also on the label were Willis Alan Ramsey, Freddie King and a young, unknown Florida band called Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

The Tulsa sound gets a shot in the arm this spring when Stay Around, the first album of new Cale songs since 2009, will be released at the end of April. This posthumous package of 15 tracks that Cale had written (with one exception), recorded and finished mixing before he died was assembled by his widow and former guitarist Christine Lakeland and his manager Mike Kappus. I listened to an advance copy of the disc as I drove around Oklahoma and quickly realized that it was far better than the leftovers collection its origins might suggest.

Cale had a tendency to value groove over melody, especially later in his career, but if you think of the most famous versions of his songs—Clapton’s “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze,” Waylon Jennings’ “Clyde,” Poco’s “Magnolia,” Santana’s “The Sensitive Kind” and Johnny Rivers’ “Crazy Mama”—they all marry Tulsa’s slippery, snaky rhythm to tunes that you can hum after the record stops playing. And the same is true of at least half the songs on Stay Around, a new repository of terrific rock ’n’ roll numbers for better singers to cover.

The whispery title track is one of Cale’s most convincing love songs, thanks to its disarming melody. “Winter Snow” is an evocative description of trying to drive out of a blizzard without enough money to stop in a motel; the gentle, descending vocal line suggests the falling flakes, while the clipped guitar riff suggests the car’s onward progress. “Chasing You” is a road song with a singalong refrain that an audience of truck drivers might sing along with. “Go Downtown” is a nifty theme song for a noir story that was never filmed.

“When I listened to the radio growing up,” Benjaman said at the Colony, “I knew I couldn’t hit those high notes. But when I heard J.J., I said, ‘I can do that.’ Popular music has gotten away from regional sounds; modern radio plays all the same song by bands that all sound the same. There was a time that when you said, ‘Chicago blues,’ ‘Haight-Ashbury rock,’ ‘Texas honky tonk’ or the ‘Tulsa Sound,’ people knew what you meant, but that’s not true anymore. I’d like to bring that back.”

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