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Greater Tulsa Reporter

Authenticity Reigns Supreme; Legendary Leon Delivers

Searching for the Sound by BRYAN CANTRELL

ON A DISTANT SHORE: The swan song album of Tulsa icon Leon Russell was released on Sept. 22.

Currently topping my list of favorite YouTube clips is a seldom viewed op-doc (opinionated documentary, I guess?) from the New York Times titled, “Why Didn’t J.J. Cale Become a Superstar?”

The three and a half minute, hand-drawn animated tale begins with the narrator recalling discovering J.J. Cale’s 1971 album, Naturally, in his parents’ record collection as a teenager.

He’d never heard of J.J. Cale and, like many, had always assumed that After Midnight was an Eric Clapton song and Call Me the Breeze was a Leonard Skynyrd song.
His familiarity with the music combined with his ignorance of the artist leads him on a search for an answer to the question, why isn’t J.J. Cale famous? Ultimately, the op-doc poses a theory based on a story told by luthier and friend of J.J. Cale, Danny Ferrington.

As Ferrington tells it, Cale had a hit with another track from Naturally, Crazy Mama, and the studio wanted him to play American Bandstand to promote it. As Cale and his band showed up and began setting up and plugging in their guitars, the director came over and told them not to bother, that they were just going to play the record and the band was to lipsync.

According to Ferrington, Cale flatly refused and began loading up his equipment to leave before a frantic Dick Clark ran down to the studio to persuade him to stay. Clark assured him he’d have a number one hit with Crazy Mama if he’d “play” it on Bandstand. “I don’t care,” replied Cale. “I’m a musician, I’m not going to act like I’m playing music.”

It’s possible that elements of Ferrington’s version were stretched a bit. There are a few other sources close to J.J. Cale who claim the whole thing happened over the phone and perhaps lacked the drama of one of TV’s most iconic figures running frantically down to the studio to beg some Oklahoma boys to not load up their pickup and leave, but the main gist of the story is corroborated and well documented. He did refuse to lipsync the song and never performed on Bandstand.

And, inconsistent details aside, the message is clear: J.J. Cale puts a heavy premium on authenticity.

That theme continues today in the Tulsa Sound. There is and always has been a high standard for real, authentic, original material. It’s a standard that I strive to uphold with this column.

Authenticity comes at the expense of expediency. I bring this up because, as I compile my list of possible topics for this, the third installment of SFTS, the list keeps growing with people and organizations that are absolutely essential to the evolution of the Tulsa Sound as well as its current vitality.

It kills me that I haven’t even mentioned Church Studios, essentially the epicenter of the Tulsa Sound which, on Sept. 8, officially earned its designation on the National Register of Historic Places. Or Horton Records which has been such an invaluable resource for supporting, promoting and helping area musicians realize their potential.

It seems almost criminal that I haven’t mentioned Tulsa Sound pioneers like David Teegarden, Rocky Frisco and Jamie Oldaker; Red Dirt legends like Bob Childers, Randy Crouch and Jimmy LaFave; and relative newcomers like Jacob Tovar, Levi Parham and Jesse Aycock. Especially since Aycock was jamming on stage with Tedeschi Trucks Band in Dallas a few nights ago. Way to go Jesse, keep livin’ the dream!

I admit, it’s tempting to list them all and give you the quick, Wikipedia bio/history of each and be done. But that would be like lip syncing.

I’m a writer, I’m not going to act like I’m writing.

The Tulsa Sound has a rich history and a vibrant present, which means there are many stories to tell. We’ll get to them but we’ll be unfolding this tapestry on Tulsa Time.

So, keeping that in mind, I’m choosing to devote the rest of this column to a topic which, sadly, will never be available to us again: the new Leon Russell Album.

The Tulsa icon finished recording On a Distant Shore a few months before his death last November, and it is a beautiful, and at times emotionally painful, farewell. It’s a mixture of emotions to hear his daughters Sugaree Noel Bridges and Coco Bridges singing backup vocals on the title track while Leon sings, “I hear the sound of violins /Is this how the story ends?”

Russell was not trying to reinvent himself at age 74. On a Distant Shore is the same blend of rock & roll, soul, country and jazz that he’s always been able to mix so perfectly. He gets some help on the horn and string arrangements on the orchestra-backed and brilliantly reimagined A Song for You, first recorded on his debut album 47 years ago. That song has been covered and recorded more than any other Leon Russell song. None of them are this good.

He revisits two more Leon classics: Hummingbird from the debut album as well and 1972’s This Masquerade.

Although he deals with some pretty dark subject matter (Sounds like a funeral for some person here/And I might be the one, he sings), there’s an up beat quality to many of the songs that keeps the album from becoming morose. Reportedly, this project was a labor of love for Russell in the final months of his life, and it’s clear he put his heart and soul into every track. I like to think of it as a victory lap rather than a sad farewell.

Rolling Stone gives it four stars. For me, it’s like the last day of vacation. As good as it is, it’s hard to really enjoy because it’s a sad reminder that there is no more to come. I still give it five stars, but I’m a little biased. I really miss that guy.

A few other local musicians released albums in September that were a little more under the radar. Check out Chris Blevins’ Better Than Alone, available at, and Randy Crouch’s Turn Off Tune Out Drop In, available at

There are so many more Tulsa Sound topics to cover that I can hardly wait until next month when the journey continues.

Until then, keep searching, keep listening.

Can’t wait for the weekend to get your live local music fix? I know the feeling. Check out some of these regular weeknight gigs:

Paul Benjaman’s Sunday Nite Thing, The Colony

Chris Blevins, Mercury Lounge

Tuesday: Dustin Pittsley, Soul City

Tom Skinner’s Science Project, The Colony

Grazz Duo, Soul City

Updated 10-04-2017

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