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How Chuck Berry Gave Leon Russell His First Big Break in the Music Business

This is a rewrite of a post from August 2019. It was called to our attention that we had some errors in the previous post.  The gentleman who called these things to our attention is Bartlesville resident, Jim Hess. 

Why would Jim have better knowledge of these things?  First, he’s a little bit older than I am and closer to the actual event.  Second, his college roommate was Leon (Russell Bridges) Russell’s best friend in high school.  Third, Jim’s family has owned a business in our mutual hometown of Bartlesville Oklahoma for years.  At one time, the head of security for the Hess family business was the Bartlesville cop who arrested the inebriated Jerry Lee Lewis, and threw him in jail, preventing Mr. Lewis from playing the gig at the local Civic Center. Mr. Lewis was driving a baby blue 1958 Mercury Convertible.  He was stopped crossing the railroad tracks on West Frank Phillips Blvd in that small town in Oklahoma. 

Jim Hess is a real student of Oklahoma Music history and is currently working on a project to get Steve Harden, inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. More on that later.

Some back ground:

Born on April 2, 1942, in Lawton Oklahoma, Leon Russell was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While still in school at Tulsa’s  Rogers High School, he became an integral player around Tulsa. Some of the musical luminaries from that era include Rocky Frisco, Elvin Bishop, and J.J. Cale.  Also active during that time was Gus Hardin (Married to the son of a local Bartlesville, Oklahoma dentist, Steve Hardin.  Steve had an amazing career and ended up as Glen Campbell's Music Director.  The music played by these artists, beginning in the late 1950s, became known as “The Tulsa Sound.” Other influential Tulsa area musicians of the era include Jamie Oldaker, Jim Keltner, Roger Tillison, Eric Clapton, Clyde Stacy, Flash Terry, Roy Clark, David Teegarden. Soft Rock artist David Gates is also from Tulsa. 

Country music is a story for another day. Suffice to say, Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom was home to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, numerous local and national country artists, as well as the above mentioned local artists.   

Numerous blues artists have roots in Oklahoma. Robert Johnson used to play in all black Taft OK. Blind Lemon Jefferson brought his “Hot Box” guitar style to the state from Texas.  Jefferson may be the earliest recorded player to use the guitar for single-string solos in blues, and he ultimately inspired other guitarists, including jazz innovator Charlie Christian, whose primary musical experiences came in Oklahoma City. Joe "The Honeydripper" Liggins, born in Guthrie, Okla., charted a number of singles during the late 1940s and early 1950s with his streamlined rhythm and blues. Liggins had huge hits with "The Honeydripper" in 1945 and "Pink Champagne" in 1950. Joe's brother, Jimmy Liggins, born in Newby, Okla., led an R&B group in the late 1940s and early 1950s that also presaged rock and roll with hits like "Cadillac Boogie." Liggins also wrote the now-classic blues song "I Ain't Drunk."

The most widely recognized Oklahoma blues guitar star, Lowell Fulson, was also influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson's style via 78-rpm records, which Fulson heard while growing up in Ada OK. After playing in string bands in Oklahoma and touring with artists such as Texas Alexander and Howlin' Wolf, Fulson migrated to northern California. There he became immersed in the West Coast scene and played with a number of jazz and jump players in the 1940s. By adding a horn section in the mode of swing bands to his electric blues lineup, Fulson created what is typically called the "uptown blues" sound, which B. B. King made famous. Fulson's huge 1950 R&B hit, "Everyday I Have the Blues," became King's theme song. It is also said that Fulson gave a young and blind keyboard player, Ray Charles, his start.

Guitarist Wayne Bennett, from Sulphur OK, drove Bobby Blue Bland’s sound with his epic guitar stylings. Bennett also played with Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Otis Spann, and Otis Rush.

Jimmy Nolen, from OKC, developed into another one of Oklahoma's important blues guitarists. Thought of as inventor of the "chicken scratch" guitar style, Nolen became credited with being the father of funk guitar. Nolen's recordings as primary guitarist on James Brown's major hits "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Sex Machine," and "Get on the Good Foot" testify to this significant player's work and influence.

DC Minner was raised in an Oklahoma juke joint called Cozy Corner operated by his grandmother in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. There he was first exposed to the blues by Al Freeman, who played slide guitar with a pocketknife. Minner traveled as a sideman with Lowell Fulson, Chuck Berry, Freddy King, Bo Diddley and Eddie Floyd.

One blues artist who tends to get lost in the mix of Oklahoma blues histories is guitarist Jesse Ed Davis.  Davis exhibited extremely diverse skills by playing slide, rhythm, lead, country, and even jazz guitar on Taj Majal's first three albums. This reputation led to sessions for Leon Russell, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Captain Beefheart as well as four of Davis's own solo albums.

This story is some background to the story of how Claude Russell Bridges, later known as Leon Russell, got his first big break in music, at the behest of Chuck Berry, with unconscious participation from Jerry Lee Lewis. He went on to become a keyboardists for the famed Wrecking Crew group of backing musicians, appearing on a number of hit records in the 1960s, including recordings by Sinatra, Streisand, Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis and the Playboys, and many more. He played along side Glen Campbell, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, and many other luminaries.

Russell, along with George Harrison and Bob Dylan, were the driving force behind the epic concert for Bangladesh. Russell launched the career of Joe Cocker with his “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”tour. In his final years, his duo with Elton John called “The Union, is considered some of his finest work.

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.

It happened 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 in 1958, 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.”

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.  All these big stars showed up in Bartlesville  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, and with the help of Jim Hess.  Lewis missed the first show.  "The Kid" had impressed everyone with his chops, so Chuck decided they should "put him out there."  So they did in the second show, according to the local lore.  There wasn’t a lot of complaining about the fact that it wasn’t Jerry Lee entertaining them. This event seemed to have gotten Leon’s foot in the door when he moved to Los Angeles.

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

According to local lore, Chuck Berry was throwing cherry bombs around even at the music venue.  Earlier in the day, Chuck got some local teenagers to wash his Cadillac.  He was throwing the cherry bombs around the gas station until someone threatened to call the police. Danny and the Juniors try to pick up some local girls, and everyone had a great time. A lot of this is from writings in student year books from the era.

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."

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. 

More lore: One day, Bridges, who had changed his name to Leon Russell, 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 recording 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.

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