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How Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis Launched Leon Russell's Music Career

Born on April 2, 1942, in Lawton Oklahoma, Leon Russell was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma and early in his career became an integral player along with Rocky Frisco, Elvin Bishop, Gus Hardin (Married to the son of a local Bartlesville, Oklahoma dentist, Steve Hardin, who ended up as Glen Campbell's music Director) and J.J. Cale in the late-1950s/early-1960s roots-rock movement that became known as Tulsa Sound. He was also among the keyboardists in the famed Wrecking Crew group of backing musicians, appearing on a number of hit records in the 1960s. Russell, along with George Harrison and Bob Dylan, were the driving force behind the epic concert for Bangladesh. As one can see from the picture, Russell also played guitar.  In fact, his guitar teacher was none other than James Burton, the guitar player Elvis stole from Ricky Nelson.

This is the story of how Claude Russell Bridges got his big break in music in the unlikely town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a town of about 35,000 people 45 minutes north of Tulsa.

Known as Claude Russell Bridges in 1958, he made quite a name for himself as a teen age musician around Tulsa.  He would entertain classmates during lunch hour on a grand piano at Tulsa Rogers High School.  That piano was recently restored and a commemoration concert was recently held in the Rogers High School auditorium to celebrate the completion of the restoration and pay tribute to Leon Russell. In fact, when the Alan Freed Cavalcade of Stars came around, the teenager Bridges was selected for the pickup band who would back stars like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.  The following is from the Bullock Museum:

"In 1958, Holly joined the Big Beat Tour, hosted by Alan Freed, the disc jockey who coined the phrase "rock and roll" and one of the earliest promoters of the music. Along with artists like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Holly and the Crickets performed an incredible 68 shows in just 44 days, touring the Midwest and eastern U.S. and Canada. In Boston, the crowd turned so rowdy during Holly's set that the authorities turned on the house lights to end the show and reinstated a citywide ban on rock and roll. Holly died in a plane crash in Iowa on February 3, 1959, at the age of 22."

Two of the biggest stars in this tour were Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Lewis's drinking and general debauchery was deeply resented by Chuck Berry, in particular.  Not showing up for gigs, or showing up so drunk one couldn't perform, was unforgivable to Berry, and justifiably so.  Of course, Chuck had his own peccadilloes.  He was notoriously tight, and was a general cut up.  But he was damn serious about his music.  So all these big stars showed up in this little town to play two shows in one day.  This was a stop off between larger cities like Tulsa, Kansas City, St. Louis, etc.

This event is well chronicled by the high school kids of that era.  As the lore would have it, Jerry Lee was either too drunk to perform, or in jail on an alcohol related matter.  That part isn't clear.  What is clear, is he wasn't available.  Lewis missed the first show.  "The Kid" had impressed everyone with his chops, so Chuck decided they should get "make up" to change "The Kid's" looks to emulate Lewis, and "put him out there."  "No one will know the difference", said he. "The kid plays and sings great!"  So they did, according to the local lore.  Most noticed the difference, but no one cared, he was so good. 

At the link is a very young Leon playing Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Bethoven" on the TV show "Shindig."

During this time around the concert, Chuck Berry is throwing cherry bombs out into the audience, Chuck got some local teenagers to wash his Cadillac, Danny and the Juniors try to pick up some local girls, and everyone had a great time. 

Some quotes from kids of the day:

"Yes, I do remember it. It was in the old civic center. I was not there, and the only thing I remember was that after the concert Chuck Berry and other performers were upstairs in the building and things were getting rowdy. Some of the teenagers started up the stairs to see them (of course making lots of noise, etc.) To keep them back, Chuck Berry threw a cherry bomb down the steps. It slightly injured someone from our class named Berry. All was soothed over quickly however, and nothing else was made of I remember. But do you know how long ago that was!"

"Heck , Yes I remember! I went! A bunch of us were killing time before the concert at a filling station downtown when Chuck Berry brought his Cadillac into get it washed. He had all kinds of firecrackers and we all set them off until the owner threatened to call the law. Then we washed Chuck's car and got ALL wet - had to go home and change clothes to go to the concert."

"I do remember the Jerry Lee Lewis no show concert. It was in the old civic center and the crowd did get pretty restless waiting for Jerry Lee. I have the impression that Jerry Lee no showed lots of concerts but it was a disappointment not to see him."

So a few years later, Claude Russell Bridges is fed up trying to make it in the music business in Tulsa, so he moves to Los Angeles to sell insurance.  One day, he stumbles across a recording studio and knocks on the door.  As the story goes, someone remembered him from that small town concert in Oklahoma, and the next thing you know, he's a member of the "Wrecking Crew." He played on tracks by Sinatra, Streisand, The Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis and Playboys, Jan and Dean, and many more.  He played along side Glen Campbell, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, and many other luminaries.

More lore: One day, Bridges, who had changed his name to Leon to match a friend's who lent him a fake ID to get into clubs he was legally too young to perform in, stumbled in to a session both late and drunk. The producer that day was none other than Phil (Wall of Sound) Spector.  As the story goes, Leon stumbles over to the piano, lifts the lid, and gets ready to play.  Spector comes over to him and asks him, "Do you know the meaning of the word "Respect?"  Leon turns to him and asks, "Do you know the meaning of the words "Fuck You?"  So he put the lid down, got up and walked out.  It didn't seem to damage his career.



  • Jim, This isn’t meant to be a complete work of Leon’s life. We would appreciate you telling us anything you know to be factually incorrect. As I understand it, Leon was actually 17 or 18 when this happened. Yes, we had to rely upon a lot of hearsay, due to the fact that so many decades have passed. People who actually attended the event have different takes on what happened. I know your name from Bartlesville, so you probably have some good information. A lot of my information came from a class mate’s older brother who attended one of the shows. We’re gathering up available information regarding the music scene from NE Oklahoma during that era. Any help you can provide would be welcome, especially anything regarding Dale Roark, Richie Dickerson, Archie Barnes, David Teegarden, David Gates, Jamie Oldaker, Emily Smith, Jim Keltner, and Tom Murry, to name a few. We attended the piano commemoration at Rogers High School, and some of the stories came from people in attendance. I’ve also resurrected information given to me when I met Emily Smith at the Shy Clown in the 1980s. Keltner and the rest of Joe Cocker’s band happened to be in there at the time. I didn’t understand the significance of those people then, and am trying to put the pieces together.

    David Ruggles
  • I think the point of the story is more nostalgic than a complete biopic. There’s no doubt that Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and JLL coming to a small Oklahoma town created a major buzz at that time. And a 14 yo musician who’d go on to be a legend performing with them is pretty compelling too.

    Curious what you find in error? I’d definitely like to hear more.

  • There’s so many mistakes in the above story that it really should be pulled. Leon’s real early career story is way more interesting that this patchwork containing only bits and pieces of his early life.

    Jim Hess

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