The first thing I notice upon entering the foyer of the century-old church at 3rd and Trenton is the luminous red and white Wurlitzer jukebox. Dozens of 7’’ records rest comfortably next to each other, edges out, creating two menacing, fragmented circles in a glass display. The vintage box is a treasure trove of classic hits–The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Carly Simon– and its mystique complements the history of such a legendary space.
The church is actually the Church Studio, and it was once the main point of operation for Shelter Records, the label, owned by Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, that became the torch-bearer of the Tulsa Sound in the 1970s. I half-expected to walk into an overstuffed museum full of plaques and pictures and awards that further canonize a movement seen by many as a high point in Tulsa history, but as I’m escorted from room to room by Jacob Miller (whose family now owns the building) and musicians Mark Kuykendall and Lindsey Neal, I’m relieved to find quite the opposite. The Church is a musty, old building housing a cavernous, elegant recording hall whose history is told through its worn walls and found artifacts, rather than by memorialized kitsch. I’m led into one spacious, decaying closet alleged to be the original isolation room where vocals were laid down. Later, I find myself in a room where the rumored “coke trough” used to rest. Just outside the basement, right off Third Street, Miller points out an aging hitching post, suspected to be from the church’s earliest days when it was a proper place of worship and the horse was still the main mode of transportation.
“The place is haunted,” Miller tells me. “Whenever we take a picture, you can see orbs all around us. Especially me, I have orbs all over me.”
“Seriously?” I ask. I’m surprised by how desperately I want this to be true.
Miller, an energetic 26 year-old with near shoulder-length bright red hair, pulls out his iPhone to prove his point. He summons a picture, turns the camera to me, and, incredibly, the image is peppered with perfect spheres of light, some bright white, others only faintly visible.
This bit of metaphysical spookiness further accentuates the confusing and elusive air of mystery surrounding the church. Over the course of my visit, I’m regaled with numerous tales and legends. (my favorite: the cornerstone of the church, found from the inside at the bottom of the stairs leading to the basement, covers a shallow tunnel that’s rumored to house treasure hidden by freemasons). These anecdotes convey a piecemeal history that sounds equal parts myth and fact. It’s safe to assume that the isolation room is likely where Tom Petty recorded some of his first songs, but buried freemason treasure is a tougher sell. Either way, the Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll Past permeates the church. If those glowing orbs could talk, they would probably tell me a story about Leon Russell.
The artist’s picaresque life certainly lends itself to endless storytelling. There’s the Lawton native who made Tulsa his home, performing in local bars before he’d graduated high school; the Okie session player who went to Hollywood to become a sought-after commodity, playing with everyone from The Beatles to The Beach Boys; the reluctant iconoclast who immortalized his hometown in songs like “Home Sweet Oklahoma”– the man is as important to our city’s pop culture history as the Fab Four are to Liverpool’s.
When Leon eventually returned from L.A. to resume his life in Tulsa, he brought with him the attention and respect of an adoring national music community. According to Tom Russell (no relation), who was the studio’s engineer throughout the Shelter days, behind the walls of that unassuming church, Leon used Shelter Records to help develop green local musicians into accomplished performers worthy of the world’s spotlight.
Russell says that, first and foremost, Leon wanted to give the local musicians a space to develop their craft.
“He was giving these guys a chance to have a place where they could bring their ideas together and just see what happened,” he says. “A lot of Tulsa musicians came in and played, and, little by little, over a period of time, the ones that really worked out well as studio musicians rose to the top.”
In researching this story, I made several attempts to reach the notoriously press-shy Leon. Via a social connection, I stumbled onto a promising lead that yielded a relayed message saying Leon was willing to participate in an e-mail interview. This was a coup; the reclusive musician rarely agrees to speak on the record, and the subject of this story– revisiting the Tulsa Sound’s past–is one that he seems especially reluctant to talk about. In the end, making the promised interview a reality proved to be futile. I followed up numerous times and was assured my e-mail address had been passed to his publicist. Did Russell even actually agree to it? We can add one more improvable myth to the Tulsa Sound legend.
Leon may have flaked, but another musician essential to the Church’s past existence agreed to speak.
“Leon was the curse to us,” says Dwight Twilley, a native Tulsan who, as a budding young artist in the ’70s, had no interest in being linked to the Tulsa Sound. “When you went down the street and walked from club to club, every band sounded like Leon Russell. And we didn’t want to sound like Leon Russell. It’s not that we didn’t respect him, it’s just not what we were looking for.”
As Twilley puts it, his band was making pop music with rockabilly roots, and the country and blues influence that permeated the Tulsa scene at the time offered little for the artist to connect with.
“Everybody was dying to be on Shelter Records, and we thought that was uncool,” says Twilley.
Instead of knocking on the door at Shelter like many other musicians, Twilley and his band went to L.A. to search for a record deal of their own. Ironically, one of their songs inadvertently wound up in the hands of executives at the Hollywood branch of Shelter, and they demanded to meet the band.
“As fate would have it, we drove all the way out to Los Angeles to get away from Shelter Records,
and ended up getting signed by Shelter Records.”
Try as he might to escape the specter of Leon, Twilley was no match for the hirsute master of space and time. The label sent him and his bandmates right back to Tulsa to learn how to record in a fully-stocked 16 track studio. That studio, of course, was the Church. “We were instructed to not make records, but to try to just become familiar with recording. Of course, being the little kids we were, the very first night in the studio, my late ex-partner, Phil Seymour, takes me aside and says ‘Dwight, let’s cut a hit tonight.’”
And they did. “I’m on Fire” reached #16 on the Billboard charts in 1975, and catapulted the Dwight Twilley Band into sudden stardom.
Now, as a 50-something veteran musician still residing in Tulsa, Twilley views his hometown with a mixture of warmth and frustration. He says it’s an established fact that there’s always been an uncommon number of extremely talented musicians to come out of Tulsa, and that the reason for this can be found in the fact that “the city’s always treated its musicians pretty badly.”
He cites poor playing conditions, bad sound and meager pay at venues as examples of what’s always troubled local performers. The upside, Twilley says, is that, in order to survive as a musician in Tulsa, you have to either be exceptionally good or just very, very committed.
One of the local venues that Twilley performed at more than once was the Colony (known at one point as IV Play) at 26th and Harvard, a club that was actually owned by Leon Russell during the Tulsa Sound heyday.
“When I was an upstart musician in Tulsa, my little group was called Oister,” Twilley spells out O-I-S-T-E-R and laughs. “I still have a poster that says ‘Oister at the Colony.’”
At the time, the more established elite of Tulsa’s music scene had all the cozy, high-paying shows, but the Colony left its doors open to unknown acts aching for a gig.
The modest venue is at the center of some of the most interesting and entertaining myths surrounding the era—stories that are impossible to confirm or debunk in any definitive way, because, like those Church legends, it’s mostly hearsay. The most ubiquitous and believable tales have Tulsa staples like J.J. Cale and Leon, among others, showing up to play impromptu gigs for blindsided patrons.
According to the Colony’s present owner, Brian Fontaine, many of those patrons frequent the bar to this day. “When we first opened, everyone had a story about it because they all knew we were new to the spot and they all wanted to tell us their favorite experience from back in the day,” says Fontaine. “Whether it was the period when Leon Russell owned it and they claimed that Clapton walked in and played some songs in the corner, or George Harrison pulled up and played, everyone has a story.”
Beau Roberson, a musician who doubles as The Colony’s bartender and performer, has also heard many of the same stories Fontaine referred to, but his favorite involves an intoxicated Clapton.
“They found him out back passed out in the dumpster,” Roberson chuckles.
Like the Church, appreciation from a new generation of musicians has helped to transform the once-ailing business into a favorite haunt of local artists. As recently as four years ago, live music at the Colony was forbidden by the landlord. When Fontaine took over the location with the help of business partner Elliot Nelson, he slowly re-introduced live performances, and the space eventually evolved into
an unlikely seven-nights-a-week venue.
“We loved all the musicians that played here,” Fontaine explained. “They were our friends and we wanted them to be in here every night, because it changed the whole scene of this place.”
Sitting at the sparsely populated bar early on a Saturday night, I look out across the pub and hone in on the worn, wooden booths, scratched to death from decades of carved graffiti. The location is buzzing with the white noise its history. My eyes drink in the spacious room, pausing for a moment on the modest stage against the north wall. I see the ghosts of these musicians–some still living, others gone– performing for each other, drinking, laughing, living in moments that would ultimately comprise the unreliable oral history of a bygone era.
Photo: The Colony, by Dennis Leech