Two important elements in Tulsa's rich musical history will be reunited later this month when Willis Alan Ramsey--whose 1972 self-titled debut album is widely regarded as one of the finest works ever produced in the singer/songwriter genre--performs songs from his long-awaited second disc on Friday, Sept. 18 at the newly reopened Church Studio, onetime home to Leon Russell's Shelter Records.
The concert, the conclusion of a two-night series of events intended to help raise the final funding for Ramsey's new independent release, will feature songs from his latest recording and serve as a bit of a coming-home party for Ramsey, who was perhaps Shelter's brightest young star in the early 1970s.
The event also will provide the public with a chance to get an inside look at a venue that represents an important part of rock 'n' roll history. During the years, artists and groups such as Russell, Eric Clapton, members of the Beatles, Tom Petty, J.J. Cale, Bo Diddley and the Tractors have recorded there, helping the building achieve the designation as the epicenter of the acclaimed Tulsa Sound.
"It's going through a revivalist period now," owner Randy Miller said of the building, a renovated First Church of God, at 304 S. Trenton. "It's going to become very important to the music industry again."
Ramsey's two-night stand signals the beginning of that revival. Bill Keffer, Ramsey's Dallas-based attorney and Miller's law partner, said the events are modeled after a political fund-raiser, although the atmosphere will be decidedly less stuffy.
"Randy and I decided to try to do something with Willis on the eve of him getting the album completed and going on tour," he said.
Things get started with a private dinner on Thursday, Sept. 17 at which guests will have the chance to meet Ramsey and listen to him relate a few anecdotes before he performs a handful of new songs. A film crew from the state Historical Society will be on hand to film that event and conduct interviews for inclusion in a documentary on Oklahoma's musical heritage that is intended as a side project for "Another Hot Oklahoma Night: A Rock & Roll Exhibit," currently showing at the state History Center in Oklahoma City.
On Friday, Sept. 18, a full concert will take place in the sanctuary at the Church, a venue that Keffer said could comfortably seat 175 to 200 people. That performance is envisioned as an "Austin City Limits"-type atmosphere, with a professional film crew on hand to record it. Miller said a light buffet and cash bar would be available for guests.
Keffer described the two events as a bit of an exclusive, under-the-radar opportunity to mingle with an acclaimed artist whose long-awaited second album has taken on nearly mythical status as the years have flown by.
"If you're in the know, this is a chance to be part of an elite crowd," he said.
Ramsey has been working on his second disc since 2003 and finally appears poised to release it. For those who have waited nearly four decades for another Willis Alan Ramsey record, it's not a moment too soon.
"I think in a lot of ways, it's one of those stories you can't help but be intrigued by," Miller said. "In 1972, at a very young age, he put out his one and only album, and it's been very influential in this particular genre of music. Over the years, people like Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffett, Shawn Colvin and Eric Clapton have recorded or performed his songs, and they all agree this guy's special.
"So, here we are, 37 years later, on the verge of being ready to release his second album."
The story behind the recording of that project is almost as intriguing as the music itself. Ramsey's discerning ear--the words eccentric and obsessive come up time and again in descriptions of his approach in the studio--has restricted progress to a glacial pace. The recording is said to be perhaps the most costly independent release in history, and its torturous road to completion has already drawn comparisons to Lucinda Williams' seminal 1998 disc, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, another project that lingered in the production stage for what seemed an eternity.
Miller said the new disc is essentially done, but "Willis being Willis, he still thinks he has to tweak a couple more songs."
The two events do not exactly fall into the affordable range, as they are intended to help offset those aforementioned production costs. Attendance for both nights is $1,000 per couple or $500 a couple for the Friday concert. A single admission for Friday's show is $250. Anyone interested in attending should call 747-3360.
Miller intends for the concert to signal the start of a new era in the Church's storied history. He bought the building from Tractors' front man and ex-Bob Dylan lead guitarist Steve Ripley in 2006 and has overseen a renovation during the ensuing years.
Now he plans to make it a place where major artists can play in an intimate and historic atmosphere before relatively small crowds while their performances are filmed and recorded in high-quality sound. Miller describes it as "Soundstage meets a baby Austin City Limits" approach, and he said the idea will be honed over the next several weeks after he returns from a visit to the annual ACL Festival taking place in Austin.
Miller already has been approached by a number of music industry heavy hitters from both coasts--including officials from iTunes--who have proposed several projects based at the Church. But his reverence for the building has led him to proceed cautiously before saying yes to any of those offers.
For now, he seems very pleased just to have Ramsey renewing his ties to a building that helped launch his career.
"For this building to host him is an intersection of important events," Miller said. "I keep thinking, how in the world could this be happening again? After all these years, all this waiting? It couldn't be more perfect."
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