POSTED ON NOVEMBER 11, 2009:
Feels Like Religion
Jesus and Leon might have left the building, but almost 30 years later, the Church Studio resurrects its legendary music and religious past
Bob Wiles, Brad Piccolo and John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers are pictured during a recording session for the band’s 2002 disc “Starin’ Down the Sun” at the Church Studio.
On the surface, there was little reason for anyone to recognize the night of Sept. 17 as a significant footnote in Tulsa's popular music history. Only a month before, Paul McCartney had graced the stage at downtown's glittering BOK Center, and two nights earlier, pop diva Britney Spears had jiggled her way through a sold-out show there.
But this particular Thursday night--overcast, muggy and somewhat gloomy--seemed better suited as an evening to take in a high school football game under the lights than an opportunity to experience a music event with historic resonance.
To be sure, there were few people who took advantage of what the evening had to offer. At an unusual-looking structure at 304 S. Trenton--across the street from the better-known Ranch House Café, a Tulsa institution--a couple of dozen visitors were getting their first look inside a building that for decades has epitomized music industry mystique in T-Town: the Church Studio.
A meet-and-greet session with singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey was taking place. Ramsey--who achieved fame in 1972 with his seminal, self-titled debut album on Shelter Records--was chatting up visitors, telling stories and even performing a handful of new songs as part of an effort to raise money to finish his long-awaited second disc. The next night, before a much larger audience in the same venue, he would perform a full concert.
To the best of anyone's recollection, it was the only instance since the building's metamorphosis from a church to a recording studio in the early 1970s that a public event had been held there. For the first time, any visitor willing to pony up the admission charge was welcome to step inside a building that has seen some of the biggest names in popular music stride across its threshold.
As home to Tulsa native Leon Russell's Shelter Records from 1972 to 1976, the "Church" was a rock 'n' roll landmark, home to a dizzying array of talent and source of much of that era's greatest music, as well as serving as the epicenter for what would come to be known as "The Tulsa Sound." It reclaimed that mantle from 1987 to 2006 when longtime Tulsan Steve Ripley bought it and made it the base of operations for his platinum-selling band the Tractors.
Now, as it approaches its centennial, the building--believed to have been constructed in 1913, spending the first 59 years of its existence as an actual church--appears primed to resume its status as a place where world-class music is made and, perhaps more important, heard.
Randy Miller--a local lawyer who bought the Church from Ripley and his partners in 2006--and his son Jacob hope to turn it into an unparalleled performance space, one that features the brightest emerging contemporary talent, much as the Church served as a launching pad for so many notable careers almost four decades ago.
"It's going through a revivalist period now," Randy Miller said last month before Ramsey's concert. "It's going to become very important to the music industry again."
The funny thing about the Church Studio is that, despite the fact so much history was made there, it has always been and remains largely unknown in local circles. That's because there was essentially no public access to it, once it was converted from a house of worship to a haven for the devil's music.
"It was very difficult to get into if you weren't in the club," said Tulsa native Jamie Oldaker, a Tulsa native and drummer who went on to play with Bob Seger, Eric Clapton, the Bee Gees, the Tractors and others. Oldaker was in his early 20s when Russell brought him into the fold at the Church Studio, where he quickly became a fixture. "They were pretty selective who they let hang around," he said. "It was cool. I was grateful to be a part of it."
Inaccessible as it was to the public, there's no denying the Church's importance to the local music landscape.
"It's highly significant," Ripley said. "This was not some tiny, artist-run label. It was a real label, and it produced some of the best records in rock 'n' roll."
John Wooley, longtime popular music writer for the Tulsa World and author of "From the Blue Devils to Red Dirt: The Colors of Oklahoma Music," echoed that assessment.
"In Tulsa rock history, it's a very big deal, simply because it was the nexus of the whole Leon Russell-Shelter Records deal in the '70s," he said. "It was a crossroads for everything."
And everyone. Russell, already well on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the industry, left Hollywood behind in 1972 and headed back to Tulsa one more time.
It was here that he and partner Denny Cordell--an Englishman who had produced "Go Now" for the Moody Blues, "Whiter Shade of Pale" for Procul Harum and "With a Little Help From My Friends" for Joe Cocker--set up headquarters for their new label, Shelter Records, in the Church and in a handful of adjacent houses on Trenton.
Tom Russell, no relation to Leon, was the Church Studios engineer recruited by Leon Russell from the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama. He said work began in November that year on the Church's studio and control room. He arrived in town in the midst of a horrible ice storm.
"Being from Alabama, I'd never seen anything like that," he said. "The Church steps were covered in ice for a week and a half. We had some busted butts, let me tell you."
That didn't stop the work going on inside. Leon Russell seemed intent on creating an environment in which young talent was nurtured and allowed to experiment.
"(Leon's) idea was to give the musicians and friends of his the opportunity to come in, do what they wanted to do and see what came of it," Tom Russell said. That included a lot of local talent (people like Oldaker, as well as the Gap Band, Walt Richmond, Jim Byfield and Rick Durbin) Russell spotted during his nightly trawling excursions through Tulsa's vibrant live music scene. Meanwhile, Cordell was bringing in other artists. "Anybody he found on the coast, they would bring them in, put them in the studio and groom them there, getting them ready to record."
The result was an interesting and intriguing mix of people. Tom Russell said Shelter Records staff members lived in the bungalows that lined the west side of Trenton, many of which survive to this day. Those living arrangements created a close-knit community of people--"like one big happy family," he said, who would often gather around a picnic table in the back yard and eat whatever the musicians' wives and girlfriends cooked.
One of the more notable members of that group was Ambrose Campbell, a percussionist in Leon Russell's band who was rumored to be a Nigerian prince. In his 50s then, Campbell lived in one of the bungalows on Trenton and quickly became a favorite of the neighborhood's younger residents.
"Ambrose had a little bit of witch doctor in him," Tom Russell said, laughing. "He had a cult following of teenagers going on down there. It was something to see, the way they followed him around like a guru."
Tom Russell said there was a lot of fun to be had in those days, when recording sessions typically were all-night affairs. Around daybreak, he said, Leon Russell would halt the proceedings and announce it was time for one of his famed "man-on-the-street" interviews.
Tom Russell would be charged with dragging a long microphone cable out the studio's front door, and setting up a microphone and stand on the corner of 3rd Street and Trenton. There, Leon Russell would flag down groggy motorists on their way to work, or on their way home from a night of carousing, get them to roll down their window and stick the mic in their face.
"Can you tell me what you think of Spiro Agnew?" he'd ask.
"He always took them by surprise," Tom Russell said. "We got a lot of funny stuff."
Sometimes it was the Shelter regulars themselves who were in for a surprise. Oldaker said one of the best things about being part of the Church scene was you never knew who was going to show up. The building was a magnet for wing nuts and geniuses alike, sometimes all at once.
Oldaker recalled one time in particular when he and several other session players were in the studio working on some new material when there came a knock at the front door. Outside was a crazy-looking guy carrying a guitar, a black limo idling behind him at the curb.
"He said, 'I'm Jerry Williams, and I just rode here from Fort Worth. I'm not leaving until I see Leon,'" Oldaker said.
Those inside conferred, eventually agreeing to let the guy in, perhaps against their better judgment. Williams sat down behind a piano, his guitar in his lap, and began playing both instruments and singing at the same time. His audience soon realized it was hearing something exceptional.
"Somebody said, 'You better call Leon,' " Oldaker said. Russell was summoned to listen to Williams and quickly brought him into the Shelter Records fold. Williams went on to become one of the most prolific and well-regarded songwriters of that era, eventually penning tunes for artists ranging from Clapton and Delbert McClinton to Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Those who were there
--and those who weren't
The Church's famously freewheeling atmosphere produced some remarkable results. Among those who recorded tracks or entire albums at the Church in those days were Phoebe Snow; blues great Freddie King; Ramsey; hometown heroes the Gap Band, J.J. Cale and Dwight Twilley; and Peter Tosh, a member of Bob Marley's Wailers, all of whom achieved at least a degree of stardom. Some became very successful, including Snow, who charted a top 10 hit, landed on the cover of Rolling Stone and made regular appearances on "Saturday Night Live" during her Shelter days. There were even sessions featuring Michael Bolton, who went by his given name Michael Bolotin then, and the band Kansas.
Perhaps the most famous group to emerge from those days was a Florida band called Mudcrutch. The album it recorded for Shelter bombed, but a later evolution of the group would go on to sell a record or two. Its name? Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Ripley said it was the British connection at Shelter Records--Cordell and Simon Miller Mundy, the label's A&R representative--who were responsible for so much of that success. It was Cordell, for instance, who wooed and eventually signed Petty.
"It's when you consider that English factor that the Church begins to take on the significance you're looking for," he said.
Ripley said the talent Cordell and Mundy imported had a profound influence on Tulsa and its art scene. Shelter may be best remembered for its rock'n'roll artists, but Ripley cites the label's early recognition of reggae as a musical force to be reckoned with and its signing of Tosh as one of its proudest moments.
Impressive as that list of artists is, rumors persist over the years that even bigger names recorded at the Church--Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, even various members of the Beatles. But there is little to no evidence to support those stories.
Much of the confusion, Ripley said, stems from the fact that Russell had private recording studios at his home on Grand Lake and his other home off Peoria Avenue. Some of those purported sessions may have taken place there, or not at all, he said.
"People ask me about the Church all the time, and they want there to have been more history there than there was," Ripley said. "But I just don't know how much went on there in the Shelter days."
That seems to be a common theme when it comes to recording the actual facts about what went on at 304 S. Trenton. No one was really keeping track of things for posterity, and during the years, recollections have gotten hazy. Cordell, who went on to produce the Cranberries and Melissa Etheridge, died in 1995, taking his memories with him. And Leon Russell, it seems, has little or no interest in revisiting those days.
"Leon doesn't want to talk about history at all, even with me, and I'm one of his better friends," said Ripley, who does a radio show called "Oklahoma Rock and Roll" that is broadcast on many of the state's NPR affiliates. "But Leon's not the expert, anyway. (The Church) was the Shelter studio, not Leon Russell's personal studio."
Ripley said there's no question the Beatles' George Harrison visited Russell in Tulsa in the 1970s.
"He was at Leon's house studio," he said. "But whether he recorded at the Church? I don't know."
Ripley also noted it's believed that the Beatles' Ringo Starr performed on one of Russell's albums, but the liner notes don't reveal much.
"Leon didn't do any credits," he said. "It just says 'Special thanks.' So whether Ringo came to Tulsa, I don't have any way of knowing."
Ripley said he is sure Paul McCartney never recorded in Tulsa, and while John Lennon had a Tulsa connection through his relationship with drummer Jim Keltner, Ripley doesn't give that notion much credence.
"I guess I'm not going to buy that," he said.
Nor is Tom Russell.
"That did not happen," he said of any of the Fab Four recording at the Church.
Oldaker, who began playing with Clapton at age 23, said the only time the British bluesman and rocker was in Tulsa was to perform a holiday show at Cain's Ballroom with Freddie King, though he doesn't remember the year. As far as Clapton possibly recording at the Church, Oldaker said, "Eric was never there--at least during the time I was there."
The Dylan stories are apparently wishful thinking, as well. He visited Ripley, a former guitar player in his band, after Ripley bought the Church, but he didn't record there.
"A lot of things people wish they could have made happen there or wanted to go on at that place did not," Tom Russell said.
None of that should be viewed as an argument that the Church's importance has been overstated through the years. In fact, for a studio that was only around for four years--Leon Russell and Cordell ended their partnership in 1976--the Church and Shelter Records had an astounding impact on music not just in Tulsa, but around the world.
Just as the window was beginning to close on the Church's most famous era, Ripley wandered into its orbit. In the early 1970s, he had been kicking around Stillwater, making ends meet by recording commercial jingles and recording tracks in his own studio before moving on, landing at some point in Tulsa, where he began recording at the Church. He recalled the abrupt end of the Church/Shelter era.
"I worked on my demos there on a Friday night," he said. "By Monday morning, the phones were disconnected, and that was it."
Thus began Ripley's long, complicated dance with the building. Over the years, he would perform a variety of roles in the music business--monitor mixer and engineer for Leon Russell, playing guitar for Dylan, building guitars, trying to be a songwriter, and working for local music impresario Jim Halsey--while moving between California, Tulsa and Nashville.
In 1977, while working for Halsey, the two hatched a scheme to buy the Church and reopen it as a studio with Nashville star Roy Clark, Halsey's most famous client. Ripley recalled pulling up to the building in Halsey's Cadillac one day while the two discussed the plan, only to find out that Leon Russell had just sold it to the Tulsa Indian Council on Drug Abuse, a government-funded rehabilitation agency.
Ripley and Halsey considered locating their studio somewhere else--he said they briefly thought about locating it in the basement of the Mayo Hotel--before abandoning the idea. Ripley went back to work for Leon Russell and left Oklahoma.
The Church remained in the hands of the Tulsa Indian Council until 1983 when it was sold to a local consortium that converted it into a Christian music studio run by Ben Ferrell, though the agency continued to maintain office space in the building. Ferrell operated the contemporary Christian label Castle Records from the Church, while the studio was known as Greystone Studios. Tom Russell even returned to the building for a short time to resume his spot as engineer.
In 1987, Ripley, who had been considering starting a guitar company with his friend and associate Eddie Van Halen--yes, that Eddie Van Halen--returned to Tulsa for a visit and was looking for a building to purchase. As chance would have it, the Church was back on the selling block.
Ultimately, he and Van Halen decided against going into business together, but Ripley and two of his friends--keyboardist Glen Mitchell and guitarist Ron Getman--decided to acquire the Church and reopen it as a studio. They took over in the fall of 1987 under a lease-purchase agreement, Ripley said, believing that the Tulsa Indian Council--which had continued to lease space in the building after selling it--would help offset their monthly payments with a little rent money. A few days later, Ripley said, the agency lost all of its funding and ceased operations.
Discouraging as that development was, it didn't deter Ripley, Mitchell and Getman. By the start of 1988, they had marshaled the resources to buy the building outright, signaling the beginning of the second great era in the building's history as a music icon.
Back in the groove
Ripley looks back at his dalliances and affiliations with the Church throughout the years and marvels at how many times it, and the people who were such a big a part of it, kept moving in and out of his circle of consciousness. The biggest illustration of that came in the fall of 1987, shortly after he and his partners took over the building.
"Call it a crack in the cosmos or happenstance, but Leon had a gig out at (Grand Lake)," Ripley said, and he was of a mind to lay down some tracks while he was in town. "So our first client two or three weeks later was Leon."
The irony of that wasn't lost on either of the two old friends.
"I said, 'Leon, it looks like I'm following in your footsteps,'" Ripley said. "Leon said, 'Steve, be careful where you step.' "
Under Ripley's direction, the Church didn't give birth to as many noteworthy careers as it had before, but it didn't stop serving as a birthplace of great music. Ripley, Mitchell and Getman all played together for a time in the Tractors, the band that sold more than two million copies of its self-titled debut disc, becoming the top-selling debut country album of 1994, earning a pair of Grammy nominations.
Others who recorded there during that time were Roy Clark, rock pioneer Bo Diddley and Freddy Fender, though that album was never released. A number of local artists also frequented the place, including the Norman alternative band the Chainsaw Kittens, who cut their debut disc Violent Religion there.
Ripley recalled that the Kittens were not especially well prepared when they entered the studio, with the other band members apparently unaware of the lyrics frontman Tyson Meade would be singing.
"It was all this nonsensical, non-Baptist stuff," he said, laughing. "But we made a great little record."
Ripley would go on to record other notable local acts at the Church, becoming a mentor to many younger musicians in the process. The Tulsa group Admiral Twin camped out at the Church for several months in 1999, recording its disc "Mock Heroic" there.
Later came the Red Dirt Rangers, who recorded "Starin' Down the Sun" there in 2002 and "Ranger Motel" at the Church in 2006. Those experiences were a highlight of the band's career, according to John Cooper, the band's mandolin player and percussionist.
"You could feel the music notes that had been in there before," he said. "The place was so musical, it inspired better performances."
Cooper had an especially fond regard for the acoustics, recalling the way the studio--formerly the sanctuary in the church--promoted a full, robust sound.
"One thing I really remember was that when we're singing, Ripley said, 'Kick your heads back and let it go out into the room, and it'll come back into the microphones,'" Cooper said. "He told us that the first time we recorded there, and he was absolutely right."
Ranger Motel wound up being the last album recorded at the Church before Ripley sold it in 2006. Despite his obvious affection for the building, Ripley takes a decidedly pragmatic view of it.
"It was a huge building with huge bills--one that was insurmountable was the expense of running the building," he said, recalling that the utility payments for the 8,000-square-foot structure usually were more than the mortgage payment. When he and his partners put it on the market in 2006, it was not a difficult decision, he said.
"We were all kind of through 'playing studio,'" Ripley said of himself and his two partners. "It was well-thought-out and well-planned."
By that point, Ripley and his wife Charlene were excited about getting on with the next part of their adventure together, as he is fond of saying. Ripley's father had recently died, and he decided to take his father's homestead near Pawnee as his part of the inheritance. These days, he much prefers country living.
"I get kind of sick at my stomach just driving into Tulsa, let alone thinking about going back on the road," he said.
The closest Ripley comes to waxing sentimental about the Church is when he said, "Nineteen years is a long time to be in a building. I got used to it. It was my home, and I spent hours and hours and hours there flipping switches and sleeping on the couch."
Others are less guarded in expressing their feelings. Wooley, a regular visitor to the studio in the 1990s when he was covering music for the World, doesn't have to reach back far to name his favorite memory of the Church.
When the Rangers were recording Ranger Motel there in the fall of 2006, he got a call one day from Ripley, asking permission to use Wooley's Vox Jaguar organ. The Vox Jaguar is well known in music circles for its distinctively cheesy tone--a sound legendary keyboardist Augie Meyers made famous with his parts on such Sir Douglas Quintet hits as "Mendicino" and "She's About a Mover"--and the Rangers, heavily influenced by Doug Sahm, were hoping to recapture a bit of that magic on their new recording, with Ripley extending an invitation to Meyers to play on several songs.
"Steve called me and said, 'Look, the only person I know who has a Vox Jaguar is you,'" Wooley said. "He said, 'Could we use it? Could Augie Meyers play your Vox Jaguar?'"
Wooley didn't have to give it much thought.
"Well, hell yeah," he said.
Ripley boxed up the instrument and sent it California for a careful cleaning and tuning, Wooley said, and on the first day Meyers was scheduled to be at the Church to record his parts, Wooley was extended an invitation to attend. Not only was he excited about watching the legendary keyboardist play his organ, Wooley had a favor to ask of Meyers.
"I had always wanted to know how to play a specific part on 'Mendicino,'" Wooley said, explaining that the mechanics of performing one of the song's signature phrases had always eluded him.
"So with me standing there, (Meyers) showed me how he played that little lick," Wooley said. "That was one of the most beautiful moments of my life."
It didn't take Ripley long to find a buyer, once he made the determination to sell the Church. Randy Miller was driving by one day in 2006, stopped in and walked out a short time later, having made the decision to become its new owner.
Simple as it sounds, that's exactly how the deal went down. Ripley said Miller came in one day with his daughter Whitney and another woman who worked for him.
"We came in and talked a little bit in the big room, then he went in the control room, sat down and said to the girls, 'Go look at this building.' "
While Ripley led the two women on a tour of the rest of the Church, Miller was busy scribbling some notes.
"When we got back, he had written up a letter of intent, and he said, 'I'm going to buy your building,'" Ripley said. "It may have been impulsive, yeah, but I believe his heart is in the right place, that he loves the building at least as much if not more than most of the people who made music there over the years."
Miller tells the same story, with an important addendum: As a kid, he used to park his butt on the curb across the street, waiting and watching for hours in the hope he'd catch someone famous strolling in or out of the Church's imposing double front doors. Not many Tulsans were aware of what was going on in that building, but Randy Miller was one of them.
In those days, he used to dream of being asked inside. Now, he's the one who controls access to the Church, along with his 25-year-old son Jacob, a University of Tulsa graduate. Together, the two hope to return it to its former glory as a music landmark, even if they don't have a solid plan for getting there yet.
"What it did for Tulsa was so unbelievable," Jacob Miller said of the Church. "I want to bring that back, almost have--dare I say it?--a revival of music."
The first step in that process was Willis Alan Ramsey's two-night stand at the Church in September. The next will be a concert by Tulsa native Autumn Bouakadakis, now an Austin singer-songwriter touring in support of her sophomore release "Velvet Sky."
That concert will take place on Friday, Nov. 27. No other events are planned at this point, but Jacob Miller said the possibilities for the building are numerous--it could be reopened as a recording studio or a full-time concert hall, perhaps even a church. Randy Miller envisions it playing host to major artists who would record concert videos there, sort of a Tulsa version of "Austin City Limits." He's already been approached by officials from iTunes and various record labels about other projects, but so far, nothing has seemed like the right fit.
"Where this place goes, I think there's an infinite number of possibilities," Jacob Miller said. "It's come full circle back to where it began--not as a church, per se, but as a place of music and rejoicing."
Whatever the Church winds up being, the younger Miller is confident about one thing.
"I don't think anybody's going to have a bad time in here," he said.
Oldaker would probably agree with that. He was one of those in attendance at Ramsey's gig last month, and it was clear his return jostled loose a lot of memories. The building's interior has been altered many times over the years--for instance, at one time, the south wall of the studio was covered in long mirrors because of the dance lessons that were offered there--but the one constant, he said, has been the men's room on the first floor famous for its black-and-white, Holstein pattern wallpaper.
"That bathroom looks exactly the same as when I first came here in 1973," he said, laughing. "Nothing's different. Even the door's the same."
But Oldaker soon grew contemplative when asked what it was like to be back in a place that had such a profound effect on his life and career. He recalled being almost overwhelmed by some of the people he was able to rub shoulders with in those days.
"They were kind of our idols, and we were kids," he said. "There was always something going on, but I think we were too young to know what we were doing with that studio. We had the resources, but we were not sure what to do with them. There was probably more partying and hanging out than making records."
Tom Russell remembers things differently. He makes a point of emphasizing that drugs were not synonymous with the Church, and even boozing was not widespread.
"Leon, over the years, got a bad rap for (drinking)," he said. "But he didn't drink hard alcohol that I ever saw. Most of the time he worked, he had a glass of iced tea in his hand.
"It was a lot more mild mannered than people thought it was," Russell continued. "Looks are deceiving. When we were in the studio, most people just wanted to get the job done."
And a tremendous amount of great work got done there throughout the years. Just where the Church ranks on the list of Tulsa music landmarks seems like a fairly cut-and-dried issue to Wooley.
"I can't think of anything past Cain's (that is more important)," he said. "I'm not sure if I can think of anything more important or worthy of inclusion at No. 2 than the Church Studio."
Ripley is less willing to embrace that idea, pointing out that comparing Cain's, a performance venue, to the Church, a recording studio, is largely an apples-to-oranges proposition.
Wooley acknowledged that difference, as well, noting perhaps the most important distinction between the two.
"The Cain's was for people, and the Church was for musicians," he said. "You had to know somebody to get in."
To Cooper, there's no debate about the Church's standing in one regard.
"To me, it is the most famous recording studio in Oklahoma," Cooper said. "What other place can come close to matching its history and the sound of the room? It really lends itself to great acoustics."
"There's more recording history that took place in that building, as far as Oklahoma goes, than any other building," he said. "I think that's safe to say. It swamps out everybody."
But that's not why Ripley still loves the building, though he is very much a student of Oklahoma popular music history. Ultimately, he established a very personal connection with the Church, one not far removed from its original purpose.
"I'm a Baptist boy and a rock 'n' roller because gospel music is a key to that," he said. "Being from Oklahoma, I can't separate that out. Going to work in the Church was always great for me. If that building had been a nightclub, I don't think it would have had that ethereal part. That's what makes it important to me personally."
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A28477