Famous Tulsan Leon Russell to be Celebrated

Editor at Large

EARLY SOUNDS: Russell Bridges, who would later become rock star Leon Russell, at the organ with two of his Will Rogers High Schools classmates in the late 1950s.

Courtesy photo

Russell Bridges will be remembered and celebrated on Feb. 9 with a concert at his high school alma mater.

In the years before he became a musical giant, before he was enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, before he became known to the world as Leon Russell, classmates at Will Rogers High School knew him by his birthname, Russell Bridges. He was in the 1959 graduating class at Will Rogers, and he dressed the part. Slick-backed dark hair. Horn-rimmed glasses. Button-down shirts. He blended in to the Will Rogers student body by day. By night, though, he was blending in with another crowd. The nightclub crowd. The juke joint crowd. As a teen-ager, too young to legally walk in the front door of such establishments, Russell Bridges, according to a classmate, borrowed an ID card showing the name of an older friend, Leon Russell, and made his way through the Tulsa honkytonks onto the stages where his piano licks were fitting in famously with the blues and rock musicians already hailed as headliners. When his keyboard talents had garnered enough attention, Russell Bridges lit out for the West Coast, and as Leon Russell, he quickly became a first-call studio musician. Before the decade of the ’60s had expired, Leon Russell was headed for stardom, on course to become known as The Master of Space and Time. Only those in Tulsa, those who had been in his circle during those formative years at Will Rogers, continued to embrace Russell Bridges. One of those who remembers Russell Bridges, and one who still refers to the musical legend by that name, is Dick Risk. Risk and Bridges attended Will Rogers from 1956 through 1959. They were there as Anita Bryant graduated in 1958. They were there as David Gates graduated in 1958. It was a magical time for Will Rogers students. A magical time for Tulsa entertainment. A magical time for the American music scene. Rock and roll was in its infancy and the big-band era was becoming a faded memory. Russell Bridges was bridging that musical gap. Risk was not one of the members of the school’s musical royalty. But he was a member of the school’s stagecraft crew. As stage superintendent during his senior year, 1958-59, Risk was on hand to witness moments of what he called Russell Bridges’ “magical prowess as a pianist.” The school possessed a 1938 Baldwin grand piano and the stage crew carefully managed its position just off stage in a closet, covered at all times. Risk, who now lives in Florida, was in the auditorium and around the stage daily, and watched with sheer enjoyment as Russell Bridges would spend much of his lunch time at the piano. “He would come in, roll back the cover and start playing,” Risk said recently. “The kids would gather around. He fascinated us. “What I recognized, perhaps in hindsight, was that he was honing his skills, converting his knowledge of classical music to fit rock and roll, which was developing in that period. “He was classically trained on the piano, but he took piano music to a new level,” Risk said. And what a level that would become. From Los Angeles session player to Grammy Award winner to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member, Russell Bridges/Leon Russell became one of the brightest lights in the musical galaxy. Risk, and others from Will Rogers, are celebrating that transition from Russell Bridges, student, to Leon Russell, superstar, with a concert at Will Rogers High School on Feb. 9. On the same stage where Risk once worked and Bridges once jammed, Will Rogers High School and the Will Rogers High School Community Foundation will dedicate that 1938 fully restored Baldwin piano in the name of Leon Russell. Local musical headliner Paul Benjamin will lead an ensemble of Tulsa notables for the 2 p.m. concert. It should not be much of a stretch to imagine that Leon Russell’s initial brush with fame evolved from his time on that Will Rogers stage, from his rollicking impromptu jams on that piano. It might be said that one of Russell’s earliest bands, the Starlighters, could be traced to the Will Rogers auditorium, a band that included classmate Johnny Williams, Jumpin’ Jack Dunham, Jimmy Markham, Chuck Blackwell and Leo Feathers. Risk has tracked and chronicled much of Leon Russell’s career, from his recordings with David Gates as a member of The Accents in 1957 through his death in 2016 and his burial in Tulsa’s Memorial Park Cemetery. Visiting with Russell in Houston several years ago, Risk asked him about the ID card borrowed from a friend. Russell acknowledged the story’s veracity. Russell told Risk that he was too young to perform in the Tulsa nightspots. Several teens with musical talents encountered the same roadblocks at that time. Like others, Russell came up with temporary identification (perhaps a driver’s license, in the days before photos were used) to skirt such issues. “Then he said he just kept the name.” A few years ago, Risk went looking for that Will Rogers student with the benevolent habit of lending out his ID card. The “real” Leon Russell had died, Risk discovered. Maybe that Leon Russell knew what became of his “namesake.” Maybe he didn’t. It had taken Risk, however, years to realize what had happened to his famous classmate. Upon graduation from Will Rogers, Risk enrolled at Oklahoma State University. From there, he immediately joined the Air Force, and was deployed to several destinations around the world. In the early 1970s, he said, he was visiting friends in Tulsa. They informed him, for the first time, that their classmates, David Gates and Russell Bridges, had become, in Risk’s words, “quite famous.” In the years to come, Leon Russell would be inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame (2006) and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (2011). Risk, and others, like to remember the foundation for that resounding career. It can be traced to that 1938 Baldwin on the stage of Will Rogers High School. On Feb. 9, the musical career of Russell Bridges will be celebrated along with the 81-year career of that grand piano with a new facelift.

Updated 01-17-2019

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