Discover Oklahoma City’s Past

Teresa Knox’s path to owning a recording studio began with a long history with Slurpee. It might be hard to imagine, about 45 years ago 7-Eleven created a series of collectible plastic cups with musicians who were notable at the time. Among them: The German Brothers, Peter Frampton, Johnny Nash and Leon Russell.

Knox kept Russell’s cup because he was a classmate at Tulsan and she loved his music.

Decades later, Russell became the public face and owner of the Church Studio, a sacred place for music lovers. There, Russell recorded his own music as well as other artists, including Tom Petty’s Mudcrutch, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Peter Tosh, and dozens of others.

The structure — which was built as a church in 1915 and turned into a studio by Russell in 1972 — had been in ruins for years. “She was just floating,” Knox says.

She bought it six years ago and embarked on a majestic restoration, beginning with its designation as a National Historic Landmark. Unlike the rectangular shape that resembles the camel back of all the other notable signs, the sign outside Church Studio is oval, reflecting the shape of the Russell’s Shelter Records logo. Knox had hoped that the studio’s reputation would bring in musicians to record, and that has been the case since it opened in March. And though she poured her personal Russell archive into the space—thousands of items, including Russell’s hats, a wand, and part of a famous rhinestone-encrusted suit—creating a museum/studio hybrid, Knox didn’t expect much tourist traffic.

“4,000 people visited us in March alone,” she says. “I knew people loved Leon, but I didn’t expect it.

A fan’s quest that started with a surplus Slurpee mug. The story of the church studio mirrors that of Tulsa, which in recent years has undergone a series of revitalization projects that have highlighted the city’s history—ceremonial and artistic, as well as complex and tragic.

Musical destination

The Church Studio had a rapid influx of visitors this month, thanks to the opening of the Bob Dylan Center about a mile away. These days, Tulsa, a city with a distinct and storied musical history, has become a destination for music tourism similar to other music cities like Memphis and New Orleans.

The Dylan Center and Woody Guthrie Center are located in the same building in the same building, both funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which has used some of the oil and gas billionaire’s spoils to create two spaces that serve as museums and research centers. .

In contrast to these new spaces, Cain’s Ballroom is only a few blocks away. It dates back to 1924 and has hosted dozens of country music legends, some of which are oversized portraits lining the venue’s perimeter: Hank Williams, Ernest Taub, and Roy Rogers. For seven years, beginning in 1935, Kane was the base of operations of western swing legend Bob Wells.

When Elvis Costello took the stage there to celebrate the opening of the Dylan Center, he noticed that his first visit to Caen was in 1978. The place is worth a visit, whether one puts on live music that night or not.

For those inclined to cemetery tourism, Wills is buried about 8 miles away in Memorial Park, a cemetery that is also the final resting place of Russell and Roy Clark and Carl Radel, Domino’s Eric Clapton. Russell’s giant marble piano sign makes his plot easy to find, and Clarke’s plot is colossal. Wills and Radle are marked by the tombstones set in the grass, so even with the section number, they require a little hunting.

Tulsa has also headed into her film history. The Outsiders House Museum is located where Francis Ford Coppola made his 1982 film based on S.E. Hinton’s permanent book. Take the right road from the Greenwood neighborhood, where Dylan and Guthrie are, and one passes the street where Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke made a memorable motorbike ride in Coppola’s “Rumble Fish”, another Hinton story turned into a movie.

difficult past

Greenwood is full of the fruits expected of an updated city district. It is home to the Tulsa Drillers, a minor league baseball team. Beautiful independent library. Eating and drinking establishments are well stocked. On the first weekend in May, Mayfest, who lined the street with vendors selling artwork while live music blasted off from Guthrie Green, hosted another tip of the Oklahoma-based songwriter.

Of course, any urban transformation has a broad story under the crust. Not all Tulsa history is sentimental.

Walk along Greenwood Street in this area and you’ll find Tulsans who reject the idea of ​​whitewashing history texts. All sorts of businesses line the street, and before reaching the door of any one of them, the visitor passes a bronze sign anchored to the concrete on the sidewalk. The signs represent businesses that existed before the neighborhood and Black Wall Street were sacked and caught fire 101 years ago.

Some of the signs represent businesses that have been burned and reopened (Dillard’s Shoe Shine Parlor). The majority represent companies like those owned by Dr. J. J. Patrick, which have been destroyed and closed down forever. If the story told at the Greenwood Rising Museum could not find its way into textbooks during an era of historical manipulation, the Tulsans along this path saw fit to keep history awash in metal and stone, less prone to political escape.

Greenwood’s elevation is as illuminating as it is devastating. Thanks to the Watchmen on TV, the Tulsa massacre is better known today than it was (outside of Tulsa) a century ago. However, the museum presents a vibrant and thriving black community that has been sacked for reasons as predictable as they are outrageous.

The museum does not attempt to establish statistics on the number of dead or the number of businesses destroyed. It offers some estimations, but instead, it presents an astonishing past and present by trying to replicate the Greenwood community of a century ago and how it was burned to the ground.

“They have the jacket”

Crossing the arcades from Greenwood into Tulsa’s main downtown area opens up a later space full of interesting sites worth visiting. A mile from the church studio is Russell’s impressive mural. Decopolis is a gorgeous destination in the Philcade Building, an Art Deco feast, with shadow boxes through the atrium bearing witness to its history. The building’s design elements are breathtaking, requiring picture after picture of the small elements on the outside and inside, with an elevator that can take its occupants back in time. (Note: Topeca Coffee Roasters inside the premises are also able to manipulate time with their great brewing.)

Lyft drivers had the kind of day job for a business degree one would find in the city. A native of Nigeria, I realize that Houston has a large community of Nigerian immigrants and their children. But he found Tulsa’s pace more acceptable. Highway lanes are not battlefields, but residence points.

This city of about 400,000 certainly has the same problems as the rest of the nation: a divided city in a divided nation. But he also seems to be embracing his history — the good and the bad — rather than picking out the parts that make him glow. With this mindset, the Bob Dylan Center feels like a natural resident of a town that seems dedicated to its arts, culture, and history.

The Church Studio, then, is a fine representation of Tulsa. Once Knox acquired the designated space as a historic landmark, the rules and regulations were put in place. She was unable to set up and archive her workspace in a way that would be in keeping with the 107-year-old church.

So the past is the past, and the new must be grafted onto the old. The entrance to the studio is quite modern, but with artistic and design details that hint at the past: the wires along a ladder look like the strings of a guitar or piano.

But the marriage of history and commerce remains the backbone of such a place. Speaking of the Dylan Center, Elvis Costello said of the combination of form and function, “You have to have both. It’s a business.”

The studio welcomed bass guitar Tommy Emanuel as its first musical guest and has received many visitors since then, including Kenny Loggins. But two of the curators from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame could be seen eyeing Russell’s floral, rhinestone-encrusted pants and accompanying hat.

Hmm, Knox said, shaking his head to the gallery’s curators.


Andrew Dansby
@houstonchronicle.com |
Twitter: @andrewdansby

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