One of the benefits—or curses, depending on your viewpoint—of archiving is that, over the years, you accumulate a lot of collectibles. I possess untold boxes and file cabinets of memorabilia and research material, and thousands of vinyl 45s, LPs, and CDs. I’ve always tried to be on the cutting edge of technology, and several years ago I made the decision to digitize everything. I called this my “dust-to-digital” project. I originally decided to accomplish all of this under a non-profit corporation called the Tulsa Area Music Archives (TAMA for short), but I didn’t find the economic environment suitable for such an endeavor. I ultimately formed an LLC called the Steve Todoroff archives, and work on my Russell session book project when I can. I’ve also released a podcast series of Leon’s career on iTunes and my own website, preservemusic. I continue to add to the archives photo collection at every opportunity.
Authors spend a ridiculous amount of time researching and writing books, and I am certainly no exception. My interest in former Tulsan and rock ’n’ roll legend Leon Russell began in the mid-Sixties, when, as a pre-teen growing up in a small town just outside of Tulsa, I would hear stories about a talented musician from Tulsa who played on records for The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and many others. I heard these stories from the butcher at Jesse’s Grocery in downtown Bixby. The butcher with the soulful voice was Bill Davis, who moonlighted various Tulsa clubs and interacted with the best musicians in town.
Listen to Matt O’Meilia discuss being Leon Russell’s paperboy.
Davis would sing while he worked and also regale me with stories about this mysterious musician, who helped crank out the hits from the L.A. recording studios, and who also reportedly appeared as a band member on one of the hot new rock ’n’ roll shows on TV, ABC’s Shindig! I didn’t know the name of this mystery man until 1970, when, in the middle of my high school drafting class, a classmate handed me an album with an outrageous looking individual with long, grayish hair and a beard to match staring out from the cover. “His name is Leon Russell,” the classmate told me. “He’s from Tulsa. He plays piano and sings real cool!”
Soon after my discovery, I began to collect any memorabilia that I could find on Russell (who was beginning to gain recognition nationally as a solo artist), and commenced what has been an ongoing labor of love to research and document all of his session work. Beginning with what limited credits I could find on labels, album covers, and sparse liner notes, I eventually and logically ended up at the American Federation of Musicians Union Local 47 office in Hollywood, home to all of the detailed session contracts from decades of union sessions. The AFM only allowed employee access to the files, but I was able to hire two of the staff to research their voluminous archives, after-hours, for any of Russell’s sessions during the Sixties, when he all but lived in the recording studio.
Their year-long efforts yielded hundreds of sessions from 1961-1969, and revealed a virtual Who’s Who of the recording industry. During my 40-plus years of digging I have also attempted, sometimes in vain, to find the actual record album or 45 single that sprouted from the session, to have an image available should I ever decide to publish my findings.
My paying work—I’ve had various oil company gigs over the years—afforded me the opportunity to travel the country, especially to the west coast, where I was able to prowl a variety of old record shops when they were still plentiful. The session logs from the Local 47 contained a wealth of information—session date, studio, recording company, song title, and session leader—but lacked one key element: the artist’s name. I found that many times in a recording session basic tracks were recorded with no mention of an artist. For years, I would go into a used record store with lists of songs and a label and try to match this up to a record that was released 20 or 30 years earlier. I made some remarkable finds over the years doing this, and would fill a hole or two in my session listings every time I was able.
The Internet and the remastering of older recordings on CD have facilitated this task and, finally, I’m ready to publish the fruits of my labors. I’m calling it Longhair Music: The Songs and Sessions of Leon Russell.
One of the windfalls of my research has been meeting many of the singers, musicians, producers, family, friends, and characters from Russell’s storied career. Many have been by happenstance, including one from 1976 at the Tulsa International Airport. I was working for Skelly Oil, in their Automotive Division, and was responsible for purchasing all of the passenger cars and light trucks for the field operations in the states. One of my occasional duties was driving Skelly management to and from the airport. One Friday afternoon, I was sent to the airport to pick up our general counsel, who was returning from the Getty Oil offices in Los Angeles.
As I stood outside the gate for the plane to disembark, down the jetway came our counsel talking with Ricky Nelson, America’s first teen idol, in town to perform at the Copa Hilton Club. Our man must have seen the puzzled look on my face, for he immediately explained how he’d been seated next to Nelson in first class. He introduced me briefly before a crowd closed in around us. I knew Russell had worked for Nelson during his session days in LA, and rumor was that Nelson had him on retainer for special gigs and performances. So, while we were waiting in the baggage claim area, I told Nelson about my project and had heard he had used Leon and was curious if this was true. He looked at me with those blue, blue eyes and said, “Leon is my favorite piano player of all time. You know he sang backup on many of my records.”
And then he got into a limo.
A few years after that, I was in my office in downtown Tulsa—Getty Oil had become Texaco by this time—when I got a call out of the blue from the most prolific drummer in rock ’n’ roll history.
Hal Blaine and I had been corresponding for several years about Leon’s studio work. Now, he was coming through town and had a lengthy layover, and called to see if I wanted to get together for the day. I picked Hal up at the airport and brought him back to the office so I could tie up a few loose ends before leaving for the day. He was sporting shades and some type of gig jacket, and got more than a few glances from people around the office. Cutting to the chase, I told them he was Elvis’ drummer. Hal had played on the Elvis hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” and on Elvis’ film soundtracks in the ’60s. His best-known affiliation, though, was with Phil Spector and those lavish “Wall of Sound” productions that he and the so-called “Wrecking Crew” had churned out. By Hal’s own estimation, he played on over 35,000 sessions over the years. Colleagues I hadn’t seen for months were popping by to check out Elvis’ drummer, much to Hal’s amusement.
We left after a couple of hours and went to my home in Bixby, where he entertained my family with story after story of his illustrious career. One in particular involved Leon and Glen Campbell, who were running late for a session. Time is money at those sessions, especially when you have a large group of musicians sitting around on the clock. Glen finally arrived, apologetic and red as a beet due to his embarrassment as the producer dressed him down in front of the others. Eventually Leon arrived, about 15 minutes late, and as soon as he got to the piano the producer started in on him. Leon closed the lid of the piano, got up, and walked out of the session, leaving the producer to find another piano player on short notice.
Hal also recalled a gig he played in late 1962 that involved himself (drums), Leon (piano), Campbell (guitar), David Gates (bass), and Steve Douglas (saxophone) billed as the popular recording group The Champs for a performance in Pismo Beach.
“We were all together in the car heading to Pismo Beach when we saw a car hit a pedestrian and speed away. Leon saw a policeman and stopped the car to tell him about it, but the policeman chewed him out for stopping on a busy highway. So much for being a Good Samaritan!”
According to Hal, Leon’s piano work was right off the wall. “Every piano part was a winner—and they were totally his. No copycat stuff. He was strictly an original, and of course, still is.” I hooked up with Hal several more times over the years, including a few visits to the boat he used to keep at Marina del Rey. Hal was one of the first to furnish me with rare photos from those early sessions.
During the course of my research I was told by Tulsa percussionist Jimmy Karstein—who was in LA with Leon shortly after he first started doing studio work—that Russell would go for weeks at a time before dropping by the Local 47 office to pick up a stack of checks. Blessed with precision, consistency, perfect timing and a quiet demeanor, Russell was an immediate studio favorite, and studio work became plentiful, so much so that in the spring of 1964 he was able to buy a house in the Hollywood Hills, near Universal City studios.
Inspired by the home studios of Ernie Kovacs, Gary S. Paxton, and Les Paul, he built a recording studio in Skyhill in the summer of 1965 with state of the art recording equipment. Dubbed Leon Russell Recorders, many just referred to it as Skyhill Studio. Tulsa musician J.J. Cale was dubbed the studio’s unofficial chief engineer. I first visited Skyhill in the early ‘80s, long after Russell had sold it to a former employee and friend, Diane Sullivan. I became acquainted with Diane via a Leon Russell fan newsletter that she published called The Russell Rag. Her Leon memorabilia put my own collection at that time to shame.
Though the recording equipment had long since been removed from Skyhill, there was evidence that the residence had been a serious recording studio. Double-walls, sound-proofing, and elaborate electrical wiring, all from the Russell days. Skyhill was a big, split-level house, so different instruments were set up in various places, i.e., drums in the den, keyboards in the living room. The bathroom was the reverb chamber. One of the bedrooms served as the control room. Cale told me in a 1982 interview that the first legitimate union session at Skyhill was for Glen Campbell, and that the neighbors thought some Hell’s Angels lived at Skyhill because of all the cars, motorcycles, and loud music at all hours of the day and night.
The Electric Prunes, a California surf-garage band, recorded their famous reverse guitar intro to their big hit, “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night),” at a Skyhill session. Ultimately Russell recorded his Asylum Choir albums at Skyhill, along with portions of his first few solo albums before removing the equipment and shipping it to his Oklahoma studios when he relocated back to Tulsa in the early ’70s.