I thought my childhood was pretty normal until I started telling people about it. I thought, for instance, it was normal for every kid in the neighborhood to be Catholic and for every family to have a minimum of five kids. Imagine my surprise when I learned in school—Catholic school, of course—that Oklahoma is only seven percent Catholic. I thought, How can this be? It was also normal to have a house in the neighborhood you could go to anytime you felt like it and get candy from a woman you really didn’t know, but it was OK with all your friends and all the parents because she was The Candy Lady.
And it was normal to have a father who made his living in the backyard, in a three-car garage he converted into a studio, where he painted pictures all day and people came over to buy them. One day I was mowing the backyard when a car pulled up and out stepped a mountain of a man. I stopped the mower and the man asked where my father was. When I said he wasn’t home, the mountain thundered, “Tell him Sampson came by. Will Sampson.” Of course you can sell artwork from your backyard to people, including famous actors, and make enough to send five kids through private schools and college. This didn’t seem strange. I mean, no stranger than a rock star moving onto my block.
Listen to Matt O’Meilia talk about his next-door neighbor, Leon Russell.
I grew up in Tulsa, in Sunset Park, which is somehow located within Maple Ridge South. Neighborhood divisions barely make sense to me now, and definitely didn’t when I was a kid. Growing up I had no idea that my neighborhood had an official name. I simply lived on Sunset Drive, a street that is only four blocks long and travels parallel to numbered streets, which I now realize is not normal for Tulsa. People asked where I lived and I said, “Sunset Drive.” No one knew where that was, so I clarified: “It’s by Woodward Park.” Everyone knew where Woodward Park was.
In the early ’70s the predominant neighborhood topic was Dutch elm disease, which was destroying our elms—at the time the overwhelming majority of our mature trees—at an alarming rate. We lost seven trees on our property alone, and the introduction of sunlight where there had once been unrelenting shade transformed the whole look and feel of the neighborhood. Then something else quickly changed the topic of conversation and psychologically altered the neighborhood: a rock ’n’ roll legend at the apex of his fame had decided to move into the old Aaronson mansion at 24th Place and Woodward Boulevard, a monstrous Georgian-style home on two acres, built around 1920 by oilman Lionel Aaronson.
Leon Russell was coming back to Tulsa one more time.
The teenagers in the neighborhood were flipping out. The parents, even if they didn’t know who Leon was, heard “rock star” and saw the writing on the wall: every kid in the neighborhood was about to get hooked on heroin.
I was 10 in 1972, so the name Leon Russell didn’t ring a bell. I was into rock music as much as a 10-year-old could be. I had started playing the drums around that time, was already listening to the records my older siblings played— Beatles, Stones, Doors—but Leon’s music had yet to trickle down to my ears. It was about to.
My brother, my friends, and I used to roam freely together throughout the neighborhood, and one of our favorite hangouts was the backyard of the Aaronson mansion, although we didn’t call it that. It was simply the big house with the empty swimming pool and the beat-up tennis court. Next door to the west was my friend Jeff Heckenkemper’s house, and next door to the east of Leon’s future home lived the Shackelford family, where Ted Shackelford of Knots Landing fame grew up. My house was around the corner from Jeff’s, two doors away.
Jeff’s side yard offered easy access to the Aaronson property, via the vine- and weed-covered tennis court. There wasn’t a fence, so in our minds that was permission to trespass. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone in the house or on the property before Leon moved in. If it was occupied, the owners (the Mathews family last lived in the home before Leon) couldn’t have easily spotted us in one of our favorite hideouts—a bushy area at the corner of the property by Jeff’s front yard, hidden from the street by a brick wall, where we liked to hide and lob snowballs at cars going up and down Woodward Boulevard. During the summer it was our station for shining flashlights in the eyes of the drivers. Anything to make a car stop and chase us. But that little hideaway was no more after Leon moved in.
The first sign of a rock star in our midst was the massive brick wall being built around the property. One day we were outside playing football in Jeff’s front yard when we saw the new owner walking the perimeter, inspecting the wall’s progress. The image of God in our young minds was like that of most people: an old man with long white hair and a beard. Suddenly there was a slightly younger version of God walking among us, only he wore teardrop mirrored sunglasses. Mrs. Heckenkemper was outside and went over to Leon to introduce herself. We interrupted our game and followed her. Leon was friendly, right neighborly, and shook all of our hands. He had a very weak grip and a puffy, ashen hand.
“Any of you guys play music?” he casually asked.
“I play the drums,” I squeaked. The other guys giggled. Leon then said one of two things to me: either “All right” or “Right on.” I can’t be sure; all I knew is he was saying something directly to me, in reply to something I had said to Him, I mean, him. And he said it with a hint of encouragement, of mild enthusiasm, which led me to believe that Leon would be asking me to come over and jam with him sometime. Sure, the guy who had recently stolen the show in a concert with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr would simply die to have a 10-year-old kid lay down the beat for him. This would have made perfect sense in my perfectly normal childhood. But, inexplicably, Leon never called.
I saw Leon again a few months later when I went with my mother to buy tennis shoes. Leon was there, shopping where all the great rock stars shop for shoes: Kinney Shoes at 51st & Peoria. He was by himself, and my mother approached him to introduce herself and then me, which made me roll my eyes and shake my head because Leon and I were already well acquainted, had musical kinship. But Leon acted like he’d never met me! Man, these bigshot rock stars.
During the legendary Tulsa residency of Leon Russell, everyone who was anyone stopped in to visit the Master of Space and Time. Joe Cocker graced the ’hood, J.J. Cale paid visits, Clapton and his bandmates dropped by—sightings reported by every kid in the neighborhood. From his attic window, Jeff Heckenkemper spied on Leon, and one day he’s pretty sure he saw Leon and George Harrison ambling through the backyard. It’s highly plausible, since George played his first and only concert in Tulsa in 1974, and would have surely looked up his old bandmate from The Concert for Bangladesh while in town. Other sightings strain credibility, like the time we were sitting on Jeff’s front steps when we think we saw Paul and Linda McCartney drive up in an old white Cadillac. Whether my imagination was working overtime or not, this was the day it really hit me that our new neighbor might be somebody pretty important.
In the summer of 1973 an invitation came in the mail to all of the neighbors: Leon was having a party to meet everyone—or so my parents interpreted the invitation. The catch was it would cost $7 per person to attend. “What kind of crazy thing is this, charging neighbors to come over to your house?” exclaimed my parents in words to that effect. So, my family didn’t go, and for years I was under the impression that you had to pay to not only see rock stars perform, but also to visit with them in their homes. In reality, the event was a fundraiser by the Maple Ridge Association to help pay for legal action against the building of the Riverside Expressway (successfully opposed, thank goodness), and Leon had graciously allowed the Association to use his house as a meeting place. He was on tour at the time so he didn’t attend, which further rankled my parents.
My chance to establish a long-lasting friendship and working relationship with Leon finally came, I thought, when I inherited my friend Bobby Alexander’s paper route in the fall of 1973, when I was in sixth grade. Bobby was starting high school and wouldn’t have time for his afternoon delivery of the Tulsa Tribune anymore, so he bequeathed to me the route that included my friend Leon’s house. Because the house sat way back from the street and was hidden from view by brick, the routine was to simply heave the paper over the wall in the direction of his front door. Every day the routine included hearing the paper land on the ground with a thwap, followed immediately by the sound of guard dogs barking and ripping the paper to shreds. Every day I wondered why Leon took a paper.
Because my route had only 54 houses, I collected the $1.95 monthly subscription from each customer in person. Tips were better that way. But collecting from Leon always required at least two or three attempts. Sometimes the doorbell went unanswered. Sometimes a voice came over the intercom saying to come back because nobody had any money, which even a naïve 10-year-old didn’t buy. Then, just before the 15th of each month, the mandatory deadline before paper service was suspended, somebody finally came to the door and coughed up the dough.
But it was never Leon. Every month during my two and a half years on the route—or several times a month, in this case—I would ring the doorbell and hope Leon would be there and have a free minute to pay his paperboy and maybe give me some insight into life, wax nostalgic about his days as a lad in Lawton and an adolescent in Tulsa, those carefree times when the world wasn’t so demanding of his talents and forcing him to live in a fortress. Maybe some tips for an aspiring drummer. But no. Every month it was someone different who finally came to the door, more often a young woman than a man—groupies, perhaps, or relatives, or backup singers. The one I vividly remember was a tall, skinny woman with long, straight hair who sniffled a lot and asked me if I would like a brownie. “They’re freshly baked,” she added. I considered it for a second, but then imagined my mother’s reaction if I told her I had eaten a brownie from Leon Russell’s house. “No, thank you,” I said, feeling suddenly, intensely nervous. But it was nice of the girl to offer.
When I started high school, I turned the route over to the next kid, and a year later, in 1977, Leon sold his place and moved to California. Tulsa was great for Leon when he was an anonymous high school kid at Rogers, but being a celebrity here proved to be a burden. The police suspected Leon of being connected to “local drug activity” and questioned (some would say “hassled”) him about it. He was sued for allegedly backing out of some investment deals. Then he almost burned his house down.
I remember the night the fire trucks came screaming down Woodward Boulevard to Leon’s house. A blaze had damaged part of the second and third floors, and opened a hole in the roof. The neighborhood assumption was that Leon and his friends were having a pot party and caught the house on fire. Pot was the only drug my friends and I had any concept of at the time, and a vague understanding at that, so our logical minds concluded that pot was to blame, what with all that lighting of the reefers and the bongs that those pyromaniac potheads are always doing. But I don’t know what really happened. Probably not that.
Charlie Holmes, a local attorney, bought the house from Leon and owned it for about ten years. It was acquired by a real estate developer who tore it down one early morning in November 1987 to the unhappy surprise of the neighborhood. According to John Brooks Walton, resident authority on Tulsa’s historic homes, among Leon’s many modifications to the house was the installation of a recording studio in the basement that caused some structural damage to the home. Some say the damage was irreparable and razing the mansion was the only solution, but others disagree.
Either way, it’s gone now, and four large homes occupy the property that was the focus of the neighborhood’s attention for many years.
In all of our discussions about Leon while he lived in the neighborhood, the subject of why he moved there never came up, at least that I can remember. I mean, of all the mansions in Tulsa, why that one? My crazy artist father, at age 84 still working every day in the backyard, indirectly provided the answer years later, when I was in my 20s, by taking me to the Celebrity Club at 31st & Yale to see Tommy Crook play. Dad said, “You’re not going to believe this guy.” And for once the old man was right: I didn’t believe it when I saw Tommy then, and I still don’t believe it now. The Buddy Rich of the guitar—that’s the best way I can describe him. It was during one of the many evenings I returned to marvel at Tommy and his magic fingers that he, in between sets, told me this story:
In the late 1950s, Tommy was in a band with Leon, then known by his real name, Russell Bridges. In 1958, Russell Bridges and the Starlighters were booked to play a private party at the McClintock home, 1151 E. 24th Place in Tulsa—also known as the future home of Leon Russell. The band’s lineup rotated on occasion, sometimes including guitarist J.J. Cale and/or bassist Carl Radle. For this gig, the band’s namesake was accompanied by Tommy, drummer Chuck Blackwell, saxophonist Johnny Williams, and bassist George Metzel.
They were teenagers, fresh off of a tour with Jerry Lee Lewis, so they had reason to be full of confidence when they rolled in the driveway right up to the front door in their big, black, ’53 Chrysler “funeral car,” as Tommy put it, with the band name emblazoned on the side in big white letters—you know, like they owned the place. The party’s host was aghast that the group had the nerve to arrive at the front door, being hired help and all, and directed the boys with a few harsh words to go around to the back. This didn’t sit well with any of them, particularly Leon, who vowed aloud to show those rich bastards someday by coming back and buying the place.
Thanks for taking revenge on the establishment, Leon. It made my childhood pretty special.