Long-overdue public recognition for a pair of Tulsa's greatest musical icons -- Leon Russell and the Church Studio -- is finally on the way.
With the assistance of the city of Tulsa, members of the Pearl District Association -- the neighborhood organization for the district bounded by U.S. 75, Interstate 244, Utica Ave. and 11th St. -- are planning an event at 7pm on Saturday, Nov. 6 to rename 3rd St. from Peoria Ave. to Utica Ave. Leon Russell Road. The ceremony will be held in front of the Church Studio, 304 S. Trenton Ave., home to Russell's Shelter Records label in the 1970s, where such artists as Phoebe Snow, Freddie King, Willis Alan Ramsey, the Gap Band, J.J. Cale, Dwight Twilley, Peter Tosh, Michael Bolton and even an early version of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded tracks or entire albums.
All that activity made the Church Studio the hub of the vaunted "Tulsa Sound," and Russell was its high priest, as he sold millions of records throughout the decade en route to becoming one of the most popular performers on the planet, collaborating or performing with everyone from John Lennon and George Harrison to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.
Even so, the Church Studio -- which Russell owned from 1972 to 1976 -- has remained largely out of the public eye, undergoing a number of ownership changes until Tulsa lawyer Randy Miller bought the property in 2006 from Oklahoma native Steve Ripley, whose platinum-selling group the Tractors recorded there. For the last year, Miller and his son Jacob have operated the Church as a concert venue, opening the doors of the musical landmark to the public for the first time.
So why has it taken so long for Tulsa to officially recognize two of its greatest assets?
"I really don't know," said Pearl District Association president Dave Strader, who noted the assistance of Mark Brown of the city's streets department and District 4 City Councilor Maria Barnes in getting the street renamed. "The Pearl District got the idea to do this about a year ago. We've run it by various people, and the response has been overwhelming. But I don't know why it's taken so long. Maybe it's just the times."
Strader said it's difficult to overstate the importance Russell and the Church Studio had on popular music in the 1970s.
"The impact goes way past the Pearl District, although we're very excited to have the Church Studio in our area," he said. "When Leon came to Tulsa, he put the spotlight on Tulsa ... We hoped that would make the Midwest the musical center of the United States, but it did not. But he left a big dent in Tulsa."
PDA officials will unveil at least four new signs designating that section of 3rd Street Leon Russell Road at the Nov. 6 ceremony. PDA board member Lindsay Neal led the fundraising effort for those signs.
Neal, who is a musician herself, said she has long been interested in the city's musical history and jumped at the chance to do something to commemorate it. She said her status as the PDA's youngest board member gave her a different approach to technology than other members of the board, leading her to believe raising the money for the signs was a task that would be best accomplished online.
She applied to have the project listed on kickstarter.com, a Web site that provides a fundraising platform for artistic, journalistic or other creative projects. Organizers describe their project and set a fundraising goal with a hard deadline, and a link allows readers to pledge money online. But none of the pledges become binding unless 100 percent of the money is raised by the deadline.
Neal said she began the effort by sharing the kickerstarer.com link with the few hundred friends she has on her Facebook page, and the effort spread like wildfire from that point.
"In only three days, we had met our initial goal of $1,500 with almost no promotion," she said.
Neal said the project's kickstarter.com page expires on Oct. 10, and the effort has netted $2,200 so far, enough to purchase four street signs and one 12-foot pole. The extra funds will be used to purchase more signs and poles designating the street Leon Russell Road.
The poles are longer than normal and the signs will feature special rounded bolts that will make it more difficult for anyone to steal one of the signs as a souvenir, she said.
After the Oct. 10 deadline, she said, anyone still interested in donating money to the effort can do so through the PDA Web site (tulsapearl.com), which has a PayPal link, and by designating the donation for Leon Russell Road.
"It's been a lot of fun," Neal said of her fundraising campaign. "It's such a cool little victory."
Another PDA board member, Jeff Olsen, owner of Tulsa's Omni Lighting, is planning a visual and audio presentation to go along with the event.
Strader said the Garden Deva Sculpture Company, located just east of the Church at 317 S. Trenton Ave., plays host to a yearly festival celebrating arts and culture in the district, and the street renaming ceremony is an extension of that this year.
Additionally, the Church's Randy and Jacob Miller are planning a series of events over the course of the weekend to coincide with the unveiling of the signs, Strader said.
Russell himself won't be in attendance at the Nov. 6 ceremony, as he is touring with Elton John. But Strader noted the tour comes to Tulsa's BOK Center on Nov. 12, and he hopes Russell can be lured to the neighborhood to take a look at the street named in his honor.
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