stevetodoroffinterview
MERGEOP'S INTERVIEW WITH STEVE TODOROFF

 

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Sometime in the not so distant future the long awaited Leon Russell
biography, "Long Hair Music, The Leon Russell Story" by Steve Todoroff
will be published. Current estimates place the publication date as early
as six months from now. In anticipation of this milestone, I conducted a
mini-interview with Steve discussing his career as a Leon Russell fan,
Leon researcher, and as Leon's biographer.
 

mergeop - How did you discover Leon Russell and his music?

ST - I first heard about Leon from the local butcher in the grocery
store my mom patronized in Bixby, Oklahoma, a small town where we lived
just south of Tulsa along the Arkansas River. The butcher's name was
Bill Davis, and he cut meat for his father-in-law, who owned the grocery
store, during the day and sang around the Tulsa night clubs at night.
This was around 1965/66, and I was around 11 or 12 years old.

One day he told me about a fantastic piano player from Tulsa who went
out to Hollywood and played on Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra records,
but he said he also played on the rock & roll TV show Shindig. I
wondered if the guy was so good why he didn't put out records of his
own. I didn't really remember the name of the musician, but several
years later (around 1970) I was in my high school Drafting class when
the guy next to me passed me an album with an outrageous looking guy
with long hair and a beard staring out from the cover. I didn't think
much of it until I overheard him say "yeah, this guy used to play piano
on Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra's records". It didn't take Scotland
Yard to figure out it was the same guy. Coincidentally, I had just
started hearing the song "Roll Away The Stone" on the radio and finally
figured out it was by this mystery musician, who I came to know as Leon
Russell. I've been hooked ever since.
 

mergeop - Why did you decide to write the definitive biography of Leon?

ST - In 1971 there was a flurry of articles about Leon in the national
press such as most of the rock periodicals such as Rolling Stone,
Circus, Zoo World, etc. The local Tulsa newspaper also began to write
about Leon, particularly his return to Tulsa to live, and some of the
charitable acts he performed for a local youth mental institution called
Hissom (a mini-concert for all the kids), plus turning over his lake
resort in the summer to a local home for troubled youths, Tulsa Boys Home.

I started collecting many of these articles, and the more I read the
more interested I became in his musical career and life. I began to read
how he played piano on many of the hits in the '60s, and was curious if
there was a way to find out which records he played on. I began going
through my older sister's record collection, and sure enough I found
several 45s where Leon was listed as the arranger, which intrigued me
even more. I kept collecting anything I could find on Leon for many
years, figuring that one day someone would finally write a book about
his life. Around 1979 I had a considerable amount of material to show
for my efforts, enough in fact that my wife Kathy suggested I try to put
it into some type of book format. I decided then that I should try to
organize everything together for a potential book.
 

mergeop - How did you go about researching the biography?

ST -. I began to go to Los Angeles in 1968 for vacations with my
parents. I actually ran into a group that included Leon in 1968 near
Universal City, where Leon's home was. My folks took me to eat at a
hamburger joint, I believe it was Fatburger, and we were sitting near a
group of "hippies" when I overheard one of them say he was getting ready
to head back to Tulsa. I turned and asked him if he was from Tulsa, and
he told me yes, he lived there but spent a lot of time in L.A. in the
music business. He said his name was Carl. In hindsight I realized it
was Carl Radle, and the other 3 were Leon, Marc Benno, and Jimmy
Markham. I was actually sitting back to back with Leon and didn't know
it at the time.

Anyway, as I collected memorabilia on Leon in the Seventies, I became
acquainted with many people at Shelter Records, both in Tulsa and Los
Angeles. It was through these relationships that I finally became
acquainted with Diane Sullivan, who put out the Russell Rag, a fan
newsletter. She also worked for Leon until he moved his operation to
Nashville, and had purchased his old Skyhill Drive home/studio near
Universal City. By this time I was working for Getty Oil, and part of my
responsibility was the West Coast, so I traveled to L.A. around 6-8
times a year, both on business and vacation. Diane was kind enough to
invite me and my family by Skyhill to visit and look through all of her
Leon memorabilia, which put my collection to shame. I took my Nikon
camera and several dozen rolls of Kodachrome film with me and took
slides of much of her collection for future use/reference. In addition,
Diane invited J.J. Cale and Jimmy Karstein over to her house and
conducted an interview with many pages of questions I had furnished
which she recorded so I could hear at a later date. This interview
proved to be an invaluable in filling in many holes I had regarding
Leon's days as a struggling musician in Los Angeles. Finally, Diane
furnished me with a ton of video, much of it unavailable commercially,
to use in my research, and answered probably a million of my questions.
This book would never have gotten off the ground if it hadn't been for
Diane's generosity and assistance.

It was about this time that I contracted a couple of employees from the
American Federation of Musicians Union in Hollywood to do some research
for me. The Union wouldn't let anyone but an employee have access to
their records. Two ladies who worked there volunteered to do the
research for me at an hourly rate, and they worked for me for about a
year. I finally had to have them stop around 1969, because the amount of
material they would have to go through was formidable, and I had already
maxed out my budget several times. Plus by 1969 Leon had begun to cut
back on his session work. They began their research in 1961 and went
through 1968, looking for any session contract where Russell Bridges or
Leon Russell appeared. They would send me the raw data typed out in
landscape format on legal size sheets, and I would have to take it and
organize it the best I could. Many times they would have the record
label, studio, date, tunes, session leader, but no artist, so I would
have to begin researching who the artist might be. That's one reason it
has taken so long, because I would have to do additional research to
identify the artist, or to find the 45 and LP where the songs appeared
and document that for the Sessionography portion of the book. I also
have tried to find the actual record to photograph and have that
available as well. When they had finished I had hundreds of pages of
sessions to organize, and it was quite a challenge.

Thanks to the early Apple Macintosh computers and Microsoft Word it made
my job somewhat easier. I used to write to Microsoft and complain that I
couldn't save my Word files because they were too big, and they wrote
back and said they had never had anyone have a text file too big to
save, and would I please send them some additional information so they
could make improvements to the program, which they did. I continued to
use a Mac and MS Word to finish the book, which I thought was fitting.

In addition to all the text, there are thousands of photos and scans
that I have accumulated, so you can see how big a project this has
turned out to be. I've also been blessed to interview many wonderful
people over the years who had worked with Leon or had some other
connection with him, including many who are no longer with us. Some that
come to mind are his mother, Hester Fullbright, drummer Hal Blaine,
Ricky Nelson, childhood friend Don Copeland, Jimmy Markham, Jimmy
Karstein, Chuck Blackwell, Diane Sullivan, steel guitarist Leon
McAuliffe, Capitol Records engineer Chuck Britz, guitarist James Burton,
Sweet Emily Smith, producer Peter Nicholls, Denny Cordell, Marc Benno,
Jerry Lee Lewis, Snuff Garrett, Jack Nitzsche, Margaret Frese, and many
others. It's been fun to work on, but has taken a lot of time,
especially working on it part-time like I have for so many years.
 

mergeop - How did your first real contact/meeting with Leon come about and how did it go?

ST - I saw Leon many times around Tulsa in the '70s, including at the
Shelter office and recording studio, but never really was introduced by
name. Finally in 1982 I opened a dialogue with Bobby Roberts, who was
handling Leon's bookings, appearances, and record deals. He got an
attorney involved with me to look over all the material I had put
together on Leon. Rather than send it to Nashville, I preferred to show
him in person, so he suggested I meet him in Dallas in June, 1984, and
to bring all my material with me. Leon was going to film a music video
in conjunction with the release of his new album "Solid State". I flew
into Dallas early and checked into the Anatole Hotel, which was fairly
new at the time and up to that point was one of the more lavish hotels I
had ever stayed in. I phoned Bobby Roberts, who told me to be in the
lobby at a certain time to ride with them to the Studios at Los Colinas
where the video would be shot. I went downstairs and waited and before
long a long limo pulled up. The driver came around and opened the door,
and as I entered the limo who should I first encounter but the Master of
Space and Time himself. It took me by surprise to the point I almost
couldn't speak. Finally Bobby said, "Hi Steve, I'm Bobby, and this is
Leon. Why don't you show us what you've brought with you." Well, I
pulled out several items, one of the first being a copy of the 45 that
Leon and David Gates did together in 1962 called "Sad September" under
the names David & Lee. I handed it to Leon and said, "I thought you
might like to have this for your collection." He took the record,
laughed and said without missing a beat, "I thought I'd bought all these
up years ago." I proceeded to show him some of the photos and text that
I had worked on up to that point, and he seemed pleased with what I had.

Before I knew it we were at the Studio. They had told me on the ride
over that the night before Leon had been a guest on the David Letterman
show, and had flown into Dallas immediately after. Leon was joking about
riding over to the hotel from the airport and watching himself on the TV
in the back of the limo. The other two guests that night were a nerdy
looking Howard Stern, and Jerry Seinfeld. An interesting combination.

They began shooting a music video that day for the song "Good Time
Charlie's Got The Blues". I hung around the shoot all that day, and was
able to spend time with Leon in his dressing room between takes, going
over my book material and just getting to know him a little better. It
looked like it was going to take a couple of more days so I called my
wife Kathy to fly down from Tulsa and hang out with me. Before I knew it
the limo had picked her up and brought her directly to the Studio just
in time to see Leon in the recording studio laying down some basic
tracks for a song he wanted to record with Willie, "Don't Be Cruel".

The buzz was that Willie was flying into Dallas to do a cameo for Leon's
new video on his way to Las Vegas, where he was to appear with Frank
Sinatra at the Sands. Leon wanted to use this opportunity to record with
Willie while they were together, so he was cutting the basic track ahead
of time. It was my first opportunity to see Leon at work in the studio,
and it was a sight to behold. Leon laid down the basic drum track using
a Linn Drum drum machine. He then started laying down the basic piano
track. He would get up between tracks and walk around the studio
stroking his beard, formulating the next track in his head. I didn't
recognize the song at first because the arrangement was far different
than the original song, but finally I heard him singing some of the
lyrics while he was playing and recognized it. Leon played some of the
best piano I've ever heard him play that night. After laying the first
piano track he would come in and add fills and additional notes. I wish
I could describe what it sounded like, because it will probably never be
released, but let's just say it was pure genius.

I need to mention that Don and Barbara Anthony, who lived in Dallas and
ran Leon's fan club, were also there that night. I knew them from the
fan club and from phone conversations, but this was the first time I had
met them in person, and we hit it off immediately. The next day Willie
did show up for his cameo, as did Delbert McClinton to watch the
festivities. This was my first time to be around Willie, and to say he
was a nice person is an understatement. We visited at length, and when
he found out it was Kathy's birthday he sang happy birthday to her. We
both met Leon's bride Jan for the first time, and an infant Sugaree. It
was a once-in-a-lifetime event for us and one that I'll always remember.
Bobby Roberts was let go within the next year, but I was fortunate to
continue my relationship with Leon, and got to know him as a friend and
business associate.
 

mergeop - You've promoted several of the Birthday Bashes in Tulsa. How
many and what for you are some of the more noteworthy events.

ST - I did my first Birthday Bash in April, 1986. Leon had stopped
playing Tulsa on a regular basis, partly because he was on a
self-imposed hiatus after the NGR{New Grass Revival band} had broken up.
During that time he had moved his entire operation to Nashville, gotten
remarried and started a new family, and had also started writing and
recording again, so other than a few selective concerts he really hadn't
been touring that much. I decided that I was going to bring him to Tulsa
myself on his birthday, April 2, and be a big time promoter. I booked
the Brady Theater in Tulsa, and bought lots of radio advertising on
several stations. Ticket sales were steady, but not as good as I had
hoped. I learned that Tulsa was a "walk-up town", and that many of the
tickets were sold the night of the show. This was all so new to me that
I had no idea what everything was going to cost, or what even some of
the costs would be. Kathy asked Leon what he wanted for his after-show
meal and he told her steamed mussels, so she cooked all day the day of
the show and made him the steamed mussels and many other dishes,
including lots of desserts.

I booked my old friend Bill Davis and his band to open, and away we
went. The show was great, Leon was happy, the fans were very happy, the
local papers gave it great reviews, and I broke even, which I later
found out was a miracle in itself since I knew nothing about promoting a
concert. I didn't attempt it again until 1992, which was going to be
Leon's 50th birthday. That show was a near sellout, Leon and I both made
some decent money, and Leon told me I was his favorite promoter, which
made my decade. Gary Busey sent a video tribute for that show from the
set of Under Siege, and Willie and his band recorded a rendition of
"Happy Birthday" to play at the show.

I did it again in 1993 expecting more of the same, but ticket sales were
way off. In addition, I received a call the afternoon of the show at the
Brady Theater from Leon's stepmom, Bernice Bridges. She informed me that
Leon's father had passed away that afternoon in a nursing home in
Stroud, Oklahoma. I wasn't sure what this meant for the show, but I went
to the hotel where Leon and his family were staying to give him the
news. He wasn't there. I remembered Emily Smith telling me that Leon was
coming over to her house to visit that afternoon, so I called her and
sure enough Leon was there. I gave her the news and she told Leon. That
night during Leon's solo portion of the show he spoke about his dad's
death, and said, "I hope in death he finds the peace he couldn't find in
life" or something like that. I was quite touching.

I did the 1994 Bash, but we had severe thunderstorms and tornados in the
area that night, and the local weather man told everyone to stay home,
and they did. It was our worst attendance ever. I did a few more over
the years, culminating in the 60th Bash in 2002.
 

mergeop - The Internet. Your view on its impact on Leon's career.

ST - Well, it's certainly made some of his more obscure and out-of-print
items more readily available to the average fan. Ebay especially has
helped in that respect. It's also created a thriving bootleg market for
his CDs and videos. For an artist like Leon, who doesn't have the deep
pockets of a major record label behind him, or the ongoing publicity
machine spewing out press releases and advertising in the trades, it's a
way for the average person to be able to find out more about him. I can
tell someone about Leon who grew up in the '60s and '70s and chances are
they'll know who I'm talking about, although they probably couldn't tell
you the last time they heard one of his songs. Go a generation or two
past that and they have no idea who he is because it's such a visual
world we live in today. Unless they've seen him on MTV in heavy rotation
or some music awards show or some talk show, or heard his music on the
radio, they wouldn't have a clue, and really wouldn't have anywhere to
go to find out about him. So from a research standpoint, the Internet is
fantastic, and will only get better as time goes on.
 

mergeop - As a long time fan what direction do you think Leon should
take his recording career?

ST -. In my humble opinion some of the best music that Leon has recorded
was in producing the 3 Freddie King albums at Shelter. The arrangements
and the raw energy of those songs are just incredible. Leon's piano and
the rhythm section, which was for the most part the Shelter People band,
were just too good. They are essentially Leon Russell albums with
Freddie King singing and playing guitar if you examine them closely. If
he ever made a blues album that captured that sound for himself it would
be a major seller. The solo album and Shelter People albums were good,
but you had several different bands on each of those, so the sound
varied. Carney was a great album also, but was very laid back and lacked
that raw energy. Will O' The Wisp is probably my favorite studio album
that Leon has put out, and primarily due to the MG tracks on there. He
took a great rhythm section and made them sound even better. Those early
albums just seemed to have more energy than what you hear today. I took
Randall Jamail, the head of Justice Records, out to Nashville to see
Leon in 1994 to talk about a potential record deal. Randall said that
Leon's early albums had more of an "organic" sound to them, and I tend
to agree with that to a certain point, not because Leon is doing
anything different, but because of the digital/hi-tech sounds that make
their way onto everyone's records today. Maybe analog will make a comeback.
 

mergeop - In your long association with Leon, what are some of the high
points or more memorable moments?

ST -. I mentioned earlier that Leon called me his "favorite promoter",
and to me you couldn't get a nicer compliment. He also thanked me
publicly at the 2000 Birthday Bash during the beginning of his solo
section, which took me by surprise. We were driving around downtown
Tulsa together one afternoon in the late '80s, and as we drove by this
auto parts store on Detroit he started telling me about how that used to
be a club, and it was the first place he had ever played with J.J. Cale.
He said they had him stuck over in the corner playing the piano, and
that they just smiled and nodded their heads at him, even though he knew
there was no way they could hear him playing. That was something out of
the blue that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Another item that comes to mind happened in 1994. I was in Nashville
with him and we went out to a club. It was Leon, myself, Teddy, and a
friend of Leon's named Buster. There was a black singer there that was
really good. When he saw Leon there he did an acapella version of "This
Masquerade". It was very good, and a wonderful tribute to Leon. When we
got back to Leon's studio he sat down at his keyboard and started
playing a song that later appeared on the "Blues" album, called "The
Same Old Song". If you listen closely you'll notice it's actually "This
Masquerade" with a much faster tempo, but with the same changes. He
whipped that song out in less than an hour, much to the amazement to
Teddy and I. Leon is truly a musical genius.

In 1989 I was in the process of moving from Tulsa to L.A. Leon was going
to participate in the Woodstock 20th Anniversary Concert in Dominguez
Hill, CA along with Edgar Winter and many other great acts. I showed up
that day and hung out with Leon and Edgar, and Brad Davis, who was
booking Leon at the time. At the show I met several rock luminaries,
including Wavy Gravy, Ginger Baker, Mark Farner (from Grand Funk
Railroad), Kelly Davis (the widow of Jesse Ed Davis), and Jack Gordon,
who was married to LaToya Jackson at the time and was also her manager.
I also bumped into Leon's ex-wife Mary that night, who was with her
Spanish boyfriend, and a very young Tina Rose. I was responsible for
getting Leon to the gig from the hotel, so when I showed up to get him I
told him that Mary was backstage with her boyfriend. He looked me in the
eye and smiled and said, "well I could have done without that."

After the show the promoters held a 50th birthday party for Ginger
Baker, who looked old beyond his years. It was quite an evening to be
sure. Another memorable moment for me was in 1990. Leon was going to
play at Pepper's in L.A. with Edgar and the band. I had been keeping in
contact with Gary Busey, who was still rehabbing from his motorcycle
accident. I told him that Leon was coming to town and he asked Kathy and
I to meet him at the show, so we did. When we met Gary at the venue you
could tell he was still struggling to get back to normal. He was very
slow and methodical when he spoke, and very attentive when he was
listening, which was quite out of character for him. He showed me a
microcassette recorder that he carried everywhere with him in case he
needed to remember something for later. The show started and about
halfway through Gary got up on the stage and played the congas for a
song or two. You could tell he was excited to be playing with Leon again
before a live audience. Afterwards he told me that this had been the
first time he had gotten out to do anything like this since the
accident. That was a side of Gary that I hadn't seen before that time,
or ever since.
 

mergeop - You mentioned Woodstock 2000. Was Leon at the original Woodstock?

ST - To my knowledge Leon was not at Woodstock. In fact, supposedly he
was in L.A. meeting with Denny Cordell for the first time while Joe was
at Woodstock performing with the Grease Band.
 

mergeop - Didn't you attend a performance taping in Austin?

ST - In 1987 Kathy and I met Leon and Edgar at the Austin Opry House to
watch them do a TV special in conjunction with a Wrangler Talent
Contest. Willie was part owner of the Opry House back then and was there
with his band. Dickie Betts, guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band,
was there to perform too. We spent the entire day at the Opry House,
running into many interesting people. Harry Reasoner was there on behalf
of "60 Minutes" to interview Willie for a piece on then-Texas Governor
Bill Clements. It was a real pleasure to sit and chat with him.

I got to spend a lot of time with Willie that day, and even got to hold
his precious Martin guitar. He told me that Leon was the first to sign
it many years before. Willie has to be one of the most accommodating
people on the face of the earth.

The feature film "Nadine" was being shot around Austin, and a couple of
the stars, Jeff Bridges and Rip Torn, showed up to hang out that
afternoon. I'll never forget someone coming into the War Room to ask
Leon if Jeff Bridges could come up and meet him. Jeff came up and they
visited for a while. I got a picture of Leon, Jeff, and Kathy together,
or as I like to call it "Kathy and the Bridges Boys". Rip Torn came back
that evening, as did Jeff Bridges, for the performance. Rip and I got
kicked out of the balcony during the show because they thought we
weren't supposed to be there, but then somebody said they thought I was
Leon's attorney and manager so they escorted us back in. Hanging out
with Rip was one of the highlights of the trip that had many highlights.
He's a hoot, especially with a snootful of tequila. Sadly, the group
that won the contest was killed in a plane crash before the show even
aired on TV.
 

mergeop - Do you have any estimates regarding the biography as to price,
length, number of photos, etc.?

ST- There is so much material for "Longhair Music" that it may not be
economically feasible for it to all fit in one book. That means there
could be two volumes, or some of the material may have to be left out.
There are hundreds of pages of text, and hundreds of photos, both color
and B&W. Most have never been published, and have been licensed
exclusively for this book. I wouldn't even venture to say what the price
will be. That will be up to whoever publishes it. In any event, you
should probably start saving up for it now.
 

mergeop - What impact has Leon's music had in your life?

ST - The music of Leon Russell changed my life. Through a lucky break I
was dropped into his world. From the very first time I heard about him
he was someone I admired and I wanted to find out what made him tick. To
find out about this person whose music stirred my emotions and affected
my spirit. What I found out was that to Leon it's all about his music.
And his principles. And his family. If something was jive to Leon, he
wouldn't do it. Not for money. Not for fame. Not for anything. He's the
real deal, and I'm proud to have known him. There will be only one Leon
Russell.

Reprinted from mergeop's Leon Russell Newsletter, September 30, 2002.













































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