Leon Invades Nevada City
The venue is small and packed; the amplification better fit for the Hollywood Bowl. My friend and I are but four feet from Leon, just in front of the giant stage-left speaker. Only seconds before, Leon had walked right in front of us, nearly stepping on our toes, to mount the stage and seat himself behind a traveling keyboard in a big metal box.
Besides residing in Tulsa, OK for quite a while, Leon and I have another thing in common: Neither of us has gotten any younger. Leon's mane and beard are the color of the winter time peaks of the Northern Sierra Nevada which lie just east of this hip and friendly mining town gone tourist village full of artists, musicians and business folks.
Claude Russell Bridges attained Social Security age just last April, and he's looking it. Leon made his entrance along a human hallway of California fans from the garden door of Cooper's bar using a cane. Seeing him with it flashed me back to the KOTV-6 studio the day Russell, at the piano and into the camera, lamented that, rather than "Home Sweet Oklahoma," he had Mazeppa Pompazoidi on his mind.
We were all so damn young and silly then as we celebrated this homegrown music icon as well as the newly-incubated local television show with another Tulsan, the talented funny man, film actor and painter Gailard Sartain. It was a Lawzee afternoon there at the 3rd and Frankfurt studios, only blocks from downtown Tulsa's May Rooms.
Segues of only 2 to 3 seconds were allowed from song to song by the Okie Master of Space and Time. "I've Just Seen A Face," "It's A Hard Rain Gonna Fall," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Stranger in a Strange Land," and "Hoochie Coochie Man," were some of the greats pumped out by the quartet of keyboard, guitar, bass and drums.
Leon spent a few moments on stage alone with his hit "A Song For You." His treatment of Hoagy Carmichael's standard, "Georgia On My Mind," wrung out more groovy chord changes than what the great, blind jazz pianist, Art Tatum might have done on a given evening.
Jazz fan that I am, I was disappointed that the composer of one of my favorite songs, "This Masquerade" didn't include it on the Nevada City program. But in all candor, I must say Leon's "Goin' to Kansas City" (at a most prestissimo tempo) puts Wilbert Harrison's original disc hit in the shade of any Kansas City oak tree.
Last tune of the night was declared a sing-a-long by Leon. No one knew what the song would be, but when the Russell ensemble tore into it, everyone at Cooper's knew what their part was: "Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire!" Wow!
"Fifty-one years," Leon's roadie claimed is how long Russell has been doing this. That made me think that that's how long I've been doing stuff in broadcast. Quite awhile. And, with a little personal candor, I was getting to the point of "phoning in" what I was doing on the radio; getting a little tired of it while at the same time missing it when not doing it. That's how Leon's performance in Nevada City came off for me: Mechanical and cranked-out, but my gawd what a cranking-out this cat can crank.
Doing early radio work at old KTUL Radio 1430 AM in Tulsa brought me back to another thing that Leon Russell and I might have in common: Frank Berry. One of the first things I did at KTUL as a very junior jock was run the board for Frank's blues show. Seems I remember Leon being quoted somewhere that Mr. Berry was one of Mr. Russell's early influences.
Yip, always listenin' to the radio. Nowadays, it's KVMR at 89.5 and only about three blocks from Cooper's.