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The Tulsa sound is a popular musical style that originated in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the second half of the twentieth century. It is a mix of rockabilly, country, rock 'n' roll, swamp rock, and blues sounds of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Artists considered to have pioneered the Tulsa sound include J. J. Cale, Leon Russell, Elvin Bishop, Jesse Ed Davis, Gus Hardin, Roger Tillison, Eric Clapton, Rocky Frisco, Clyde Stacy, Flash Terry, Roy Clark, The Tractors, Steve Ripley, David Teegarden, and Jeff Carson. Although Dwight Twilley is from Tulsa, his power pop style bears no resemblance to the Tulsa sound; likewise, David Gates's most recognized songs (including his work with Bread) were mostly in the soft rock genre (though some of Gates's solo album cuts show a stronger Tulsa influence).
The first appearance of note by a Tulsa sound musician was Rocky Frisco's Columbia Harmony vinyl album, The Big Ten, under the name "Rocky Curtiss and the Harmony Flames". The album was recorded in New York City at Columbia's studio at 33rd Street and 3rd Avenue in 1959, during a time when Frisco lived in Pennsylvania. Clyde Stacy was one of the first, if not the first, Tulsa sound musicians to score a nationally charted record, "Hoy Hoy" b/w "So Young". This was actually a double-sided hit released by Candlelight Records in 1957. Don Wallace, a popular Tulsa disc jockey, was instrumental in landing the recording contract for Clyde Stacy. Members of the NiteCaps during that period were John D. Levan, Rick Eilerts, and Bill Torbett. John D. Levan was one of the first Tulsa lead guitarists having played for both Clyde Stacy in 1955, and Gene Crose 1956, then again with Stacy in 1957. Levan was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in August 2004 along with Tulsa Radio Personality "Rockin" John Henry. Another Tulsan, Billy Reynolds Eustise, scored a hit with his 1957 recording of "Cherry Pie".
A note from Rocky Frisco: "It's my opinion that the real roots to the Tulsa sound lead to Flash Terry and his band. Flash played at the Flamingo Lounge, on Greenwood. In 1957, Flash invited me to the weekly jam, on Tuesday nights, so I showed up and sang a few songs. I told Cale and Bill I had enjoyed the visit, so the next time I went, they came too. As time passed, more of the guys came and played. I was with Cale at a radio station in California when he said, 'There really isn't a Tulsa sound.'"
Another band to exemplify the Tulsa sound was Cargoe. They, along with James Mobley and Steamer's Trunk were the house bands at The Machine, one of Tulsa’s popular clubs, and played at radio station KAKC's free music in the parks shows, which attracted just about all of the players listed above.
Leon Russell was the first member of the Tulsa scene to make inroads into the L.A. music scene, playing for Ricky Nelson along with James Burton. He then joined Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew and then produced Gary Lewis and Jan & Dean. He brought many Tulsans out to Los Angeles, including Jimmy Karstein, Bill Raffensperger, Tommy Tripplehorn, Carl Radle and Larry Bell, and was later co-owner of the historic The Church Studio in Tulsa and home to Shelter Records, which signed a number of significant Tulsa sound artists including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The Church Studio was purchased in 2016 by husband and wife Ivan Acosta and Teresa Knox, who have said they intend to renovate the building, seek registration on the National Register of Historic Places, and use it as a recording studio and community facility.
Eric Clapton was the most prominent non-Tulsa artist associated with the Tulsa sound. For 10 years, his band consisted of Tulsans Carl Radle (bass), Dick Sims (organ), and Jamie Oldaker (drums). During that time Clapton was a frequent performer at a variety of venues in the Tulsa area. In his review of Clapton's 1978 album Backless, critic Robert Christgau wrote, "Whatever Eric isn't anymore . . . he's certainly king of the Tulsa sound."
In addition to Clapton, J.J. Cale's influence has been cited by Mark Knopfler, among others. His songs have been recorded by many artists, including Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Deep Purple, the Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Cash, John Mayer, The Band, Kansas, Santana, Captain Beefheart, Widespread Panic, and Bryan Ferry. The songs of Tulsan Elvin Bishop have often been covered by other artists, including Starship. Taj Mahal had two Tulsans in his band: Chuck Blackwell and Gary Gillmore, and one Oklahoma City native, Jesse Ed Davis.
Music journalist John Wooley and others have noted that the Tulsa sound has directly and indirectly contributed to various other genres of music, including genres outside rock music, such as alt-country and Red Dirt music, the latter of which also originated in Oklahoma (Red Dirt originated in Stillwater). Leon Russell noted: "I'm not sure what the Tulsa sound is, I suppose it started when we were with Jerry Lee Lewis, we would be playing a shuffle while Jerry Lee played straight eighth notes, if that is what they call the Tulsa sound, that's not a bad thing".
- Wooley, John. "You know it when you hear it: Put that dictionary down: The Tulsa Sound is hard to define but easy on the ears," Tulsa World, January 2, 2004; no longer online, archived page at web.archive.org retrieved March 2, 2020.
- Hoekstra, Dave (15 April 1990). "Songwriter J. J. Cale prefers to remain in the background". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 3 June 2013. – via HighBeam Research (subscription required)
- Singer Gus Hardin Killed in Accident. TulsaWorld.com (February 18, 1996). Retrieved on November 29, 2019.
- "Jeff Carson Biography". Oldies.com. Retrieved November 29, 2019.
- Rockabillyhall.com (accessed October 8, 2013)
- Joshua Kline, "Past and Future Sound", This Land Press, June 23, 2010.
- Mike Easterling, "Feels Like Religion: Jesus and Leon might have left the building, but almost 30 years later, the Church Studio resurrects its legendary music and religious past." Urban Tulsa Weekly, November 11, 2009.
- Jerry Wofford, "With new owners, The Church Studio aims for recognition", Tulsa World, October 27, 2016.
- Robert Christgau, Rock Albums of the '70s: A Critical Guide (Da Capo Press, 1990), ISBN 978-0-306-80409-0, p. 82. Excerpt available at Google Books.
- John Wooley, From the Blue Devils to Red Dirt: The Colors of Oklahoma Music (Hawk Publishing Group, 2006), ISBN 978-1-930709-61-4.
- Thomas Conner, "Getting Along: Woody Guthrie and Oklahoma's Red Dirt Musicians" in Davis D. Joyce & Fred R. Harris, eds., Alternative Oklahoma: Contrarian Views of the Sooner State (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), ISBN 978-0-8061-3819-0, p. 92. Excerpt available at Google Books.