Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges on April 2, 1942 in Lawton, Oklahoma, a little under 3 hours from Tulsa. He began playing the piano at a young age, four in fact, and he attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, OK. While he was in high school he began playing nightclubs, adopting the name Leon from a friend who lent him an ID because he was too young to perform. Leon was part of the team responsible for creating what is known as the Tulsa Sound, a mixture of rock, country, rockabilly, and blues. Often referred to as a musician’s musician, Russell worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan. He led a successful career as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer. While recovering from a heart surgery, Russell died in his home in Nashville, TN, in his sleep. He had been looking forward to touring in January.
Leon Russell’s effect on Tulsa was two-fold, he helped to create the “Tulsa Sound” and make it famous, and he also paved the way for other Tulsa musicians. He also had an effect on many of the big names we celebrate today, Elton John calls Leon Russell an inspiration and a mentor, stating that much of the way he plays the piano was influenced by Russell. Black Francis, a singer in the Pixies, states that his vocal style was heavily influenced by his loose, free, and exaggerated style.
Celebrities and Tulsans alike have been sending love his way, many are leaving flowers at Church studio in remembrance, even the historic Circle Cinema has put up a marquee stating “Rip Leon, Tulsa Loves You”, and well, we do. He truly did what many others fail to do, he did what he loved. For us here at the Campbell Hotel, he is easy to remember, we have a room dedicated to him, and it is our privilege to honor his memory in the same way we honored his life, with extreme respect to his roots and to his talent. Leon Russell was and will always be one of our favorite Oklahomans.