Leon Russell was always an influence in the background of my life, exactly how much I didn't put together until this week. His passing last Sunday November 13 brought me to reading up more details of his history, stories I had heard over the years but the details were fuzzy.
Daddy was hard working Montana stock with no tolerance for or understanding of hippie nonsense and silly kids that wanted to lay around and do drugs and protest. He served in Korea as a conscientious objector, not as a war protester, but on the grounds that killing is against the ten commandments. So in his eyes the war protestors were despicable as they shirked their duty in cowardice, where they could instead go, and refuse to kill if their conscience so led them but still put themselves in the line of fire, like he did. Dad's staunch following of right and wrong with no room for ambiguity shaped my early life.
See, I was born in Tulsa and lived next to Woodward Park during my preschool years. It's one thing to have the hippies in California and New York and grumble vaguely about their dirtiness and shirking of duty, well it's quite another when they come into the neighborhood. Leon Russell, Tulsa native turned rock star, bought a house just five blocks down the road from us in 1972.1 So! Our family left - it was time to move the vulnerable daughters out to the country before sex, drugs and rock-n-roll got their hooks in us.
So I didn't get offered brownies at the door of the Russell mansion, but the sweet strain of tinkling piano keys still reached me 40 miles away as I lay my head on my clock radio speaker with the volume turned down as low as it could go for fear of discovery.
(See when I was 13 rebellion was the first sign of me growing my wings, and my radio was taken away, punishment for listening to the Tulsa rock-n-roll station KMOD. I had forgotten to change the station back to news or gospel one day when I left for school, so my wicked wayward ways were found out. I did finally get the radio back three years later. After that I was much more careful to always set the station back to an approved channel before leaving my room.)
While Casey Kasem's American Top 40 show of the same era was entertaining in its happy and saccharine way, as I grew older the stronger appeal of deeper grittier stories led me to listen more to Rockin' John Henry instead, who educated me on music history and the role Tulsa played in shaping rock and roll. His "Saturday Bandstand" on Tulsa radio KELI played throughout my childhood and teen years, and then he expanded into the Sunday night Smokehouse Blues on KMOD right when I was at college age.2
Listening to his smooth deep voice expounding on the finer points of the origins of a song, playing two or three historical versions, and gently laughing at some silly coming of age story, oh that was magic to the soul and candy for the brain, and his lessons sunk in deep.
So over the years Rockin' John told us all the fun stories of Leon, how he rankled the Maple Ridge neighbors and built a wall around his mansion, how stars orbited Leon and of his song writing and piano playing mastery, his start as a 14 year old playing in Tulsa clubs. All these stories wove a grand picture around an already impressive persona with god-like white flowing hair and beard.
And it felt like he belonged to us, to Tulsa, like an imposing grand wild uncle of the city. Leon elevated Tulsa to a higher stature in the rock and roll culture, and we were thrilled to say we were part of Tulsa too, riding on his coattails. Us teenagers of his era were influenced, whether our parents willed it or no.
While he undoubtedly left his mark on rock-n-roll at large3, we of Tulsa still cling to him as our example of what amazing stuff can come out of our little home here on the prairie. This is what we're made of. Star stuff.