From Bob Wills to Bob Dylan: Tulsa positions itself as major league in music

More than an hour after a lunch interview began and long after drummer Jamie Oldaker had conquered the three-coneys-and-a-drink special at Coney Island in the Brady Arts District, he said this about Tulsa’s status as a music town:

“It was sleeping for a while. It has always been a music town. It never stopped and came back all of a sudden. … It has always been here. It was sleeping for a few years, and now it’s waking up, I think.”

Other lunch visitors had no way of knowing they were sharing a dining room with someone who has shared stages with Eric Clapton, Bob Seger and Peter Frampton.

In 1964, Oldaker was watching television when the Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He turned to his parents and said, “I want to do that. I want to be on that show.”

In 1971, Oldaker performed on the show with Phil Driscoll.

That was 45 years and more than 35 gold/platinum records ago. Oldaker has toured or recorded with the aforementioned artists, plus the Bee Gees, Ace Frehley, Stephen Stills, the Tractors and others.

On Monday, he was telling stories about his hometown’s past (ask him about the time Chicago played a high school graduation party here) and fielding questions about Tulsa’s credentials as a music town.

This is a subject because of March 2.

That was the date when it was announced The Bob Dylan Archive — more than 6,000 items from the legendary singer and songwriter’s personal collection — had been acquired by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa.

Dylan’s treasures will be permanently housed in Tulsa.

The response in some corners of the universe may have been, “Tulsa? Really?”

Tulsa. Really.

It makes sense if you’ve been listening.

World famous

Men who made their fortunes in the “Oil Capital of the World” bankrolled wow-inducing Tulsa architecture and invested in the arts. Tulsa became a cultural gem on the Great Plains. The first opera house built here predated statehood. And the “Carnegie Hall of Western Swing” opened in 1924.

That would be Cain’s Ballroom, which, truth in advertising, is world famous.

“When I was in the Soviet Union for the first time, more than 40 years ago, I had people ask me about Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” veteran music manager Jim Halsey said.

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys began appearing on Tulsa radio station KVOO in 1934, and they held court at Cain’s Ballroom from 1935-42 while popularizing Western swing, a new strain of country music.

Cain’s Ballroom became one of the hottest venues in the country. Billy Parker, a country music performer and five-time national country disc jockey of the year, called Cain’s an institution and acknowledged it was a badge of honor to play there.

After Wills moved to California, his brother Johnnie Lee Wills continued swinging at the legendary dance hall. Bob later rejoined him.

Music promoter Larry Shaeffer bought Cain’s in 1976 and began using it to showcase rising touring acts. Oldaker replied “Bob Wills” when asked what he thinks of when someone mentions Cain’s Ballroom. He then name-dropped the Police, Elvis Costello and Sid Vicious (who punched a hole in a wall at Cain’s in 1978).

“All those people played there,” Oldaker said.

In a story about Cain’s Ballroom on, Jeremy Plato of Cross Canadian Ragweed called Cain’s a cathedral. “Aside from all the history, it’s also a cool place to play.”

During the Western swing era at Cain’s, Leon McAuliffe was tearing up the joint at his own place, the Cimarron Ballroom. Parker said it first dawned on him Tulsa was a music town when Cain’s and Cimarron were bringing in all kinds of talented folks.

Once upon a time, Parker was playing the Cimarron with Jim Reeves and decided to skip over to Cain’s to see Buck Owens and his band. Parker said he and Ray Bingham got thrown out of Cain’s because of the rivalry between the venues.

“It was always kind of that way between the Cimarron and Cain’s,” Parker said.

After the Wills boys headed to Vegas in the late 1950s, Benny Ketchum moved into Cain’s Ballroom and bridged the gap from Western swing to rock ’n’ roll.

The era of Shelter Records

In the beginning Tulsa swung. But it did not rock.

Historian and former Tulsa World entertainment writer John Wooley wrote those words in 2003, when he knocked out a “Rock of Ages” series on Tulsa music.

Wooley wrote about Tulsa kids who were influenced by rock music of the 1950s and went on to have significant careers. He said a few became household names, including Leon Russell, JJ Cale and David Gates, who wrote and performed the No. 1 hit “Make It With You” while with the band Bread. Gates also had a top 15 hit (“The Goodbye Girl”) as a solo artist.

Many others had a voice in creating what has been called the Tulsa Sound. Did you know Tulsa had a sound?

Described by Wooley as a laid-back, blues- and country-influenced version of rock ’n’ roll, the Tulsa Sound was never more visible than when Russell, after making a name for himself, co-founded Shelter Records. He returned to his hometown and converted a church into a recording studio.

You never know who was going to carry a tune to Tulsa during the 1970s. Clapton. George Harrison. Tom Petty was a pup when he enlisted with Shelter Records. “A lot of people used to think Petty was from Tulsa,” Dwight Twilley, who was in the Shelter stable, told the Tulsa World in 2010.

The presence of Russell and other artists generated considerable buzz. And societal events made the climate ripe for creativity.

“I grew up in that period when Leon Russell was here and Harrison and the whole thing was going on,” Oldaker said.

“There were clubs and bands everywhere. It was phenomenal. There wasn’t a bad band in any part of town. You could go north, south, east or west — any place, any club — and hear somebody good.”

If you encountered someone with long hair and an English accent in Tulsa at that time, the assumption was that person worked for Shelter Records.

Oldaker used to drive by the Church Studio and ache to get inside.

But the door was locked, and you essentially had to know somebody to gain entrance. Oldaker got in because he was hired by Russell as a session musician. He was preparing to go on the road with Russell and the Gap Band when he got word that Clapton wanted to hire him and other Tulsans.

“Eric Clapton came here (decades ago) getting stuff from this town because it was good,” Oldaker said. “He didn’t come here just to hang out.”

On the subject of Tulsa’s influence on Clapton, Wooley said this in 2010: “Basically, all people need to do is listen to Clapton’s style before he came to Tulsa and afterward to hear the difference between, say, the Yardbirds and Cream stuff and ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Layla.’ Clapton had a marked tendency to overplay, to cram as many notes into a solo as he could — until he fell under the spell of Tulsa and, specifically, JJ Cale and local guitarist Steve Hickerson.”

Is it all part of the fabric of being a music town? Absolutely.

“Was it as big an impact as Motown or Stax in Memphis or New Orleans or the Philly Sound or L.A.? No,” Oldaker said. “But it had a ‘thing’ here that people do know. I will be touring and people will say ‘Where are you from?’ Are you a part of that Tulsa thing?’ They have heard of it.”

Tulsa energy

Longtime Tulsa resident Jim Halsey built what was once the No. 1 country music agency in the world.

Halsey moved here from Independence, Kansas, 45 years ago. He said he picked Tulsa because of the “energy” here and because Tulsa makes things happen.

What did Halsey mean by that? He touched on the topic again when asked about Oklahoma being a creative place.

Said Halsey, “I think it has to do with the land. I think the land itself is nourishing. And it has to do with the Native peoples that are here. And it has to do with, which comes first, the entrepreneurial people or the energy that is there?

“Well, it’s when that energy meets with the people that something happens. I really saw that a long time ago with all the wildcat oil guys that would come here. … They made a whole other nation here through energy — not only the spiritual energy that comes from the land, but the energy that comes from the oil and the gas. I feel that has been one of the reasons why so many artists have come from here and a predominance of Native American artists. Painters. Sculptors. Weavers. Basket-makers.”

And musical artists.

Halsey guided (and in some cases discovered) artists like the Oak Ridge Boys, Roy Clark, Hank Thompson, Reba McEntire, Wanda Jackson, Tammy Wynette, Rick Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black, the Judds, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Lee Greenwood and others.

Parker described Halsey’s importance to the music scene in Tulsa as huge.

“Halsey had it going pretty good here, having all those concerts here and all those artists coming into Tulsa,” Parker said, noting that Tulsa is a halfway point between Nashville and Los Angeles. “I think it was a good stop — and it’s still a good stop — for a lot of the artists.”

Halsey sweet-talked Clark into moving from the east coast to Tulsa in the 1970s. Halsey convinced Clark (who was in demand because of the popularity of “Hee Haw”) that he would spend more days at home if he lived in Tulsa because he wouldn’t lose full days traveling from one coast to the other.

“I’d played there a lot, and loved it,” Clark wrote in his autobiography.

Clark is still a Tulsan.

Halsey sold his agency in 1990 and founded the Jim Halsey Institute because he wants to educate others and help them pursue dreams in the music industry.

Speaking of educating others …

Right place, right time

Oldaker is only a few days removed from an Oklahoma Speaker’s Ball presentation of “A Journey Through Oklahoma’s Music History: From Bob Wills and Vince Gill and Beyond.”

Oldaker said “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was written in Oklahoma (when it was Indian Territory).

He said “Heartbreak Hotel” was written by Mae Boren Axton, the mother of Hoyt Axton, who was born in Duncan and spent early years in Comanche.

There are other examples, but the point is the Speaker’s Ball permitted Oldaker to entertain and educate at the same time. Legislators told him they had no idea some of the songs “were from here.”

Oldaker also found it necessary to educate legislators when he was lobbying for a proposed OKPOP Museum to be located in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District. He said the pop culture museum was met with resistance because some lawmakers wanted it to be located in Oklahoma City. Oldaker contended that Tulsa was more rich in arts and culture, and he recruited Ronnie Dunn to help. Dunn launched his career by playing gigs all over Tulsa.

“Oklahoma was full with industry types,” Dunn told the Tulsa World in 2013. “It always has been, but it’s hardly recognized for that. Boy, was I lucky. I was at the right place at the right time. I was in Tulsa.”

Oklahoma City has an NBA team. OKPOP will be in close to the historic Brady Theater, Cain’s Ballroom, the Woody Guthrie Center and, someday, The Bob Dylan Archive.

If Oklahoma City is considered major league in sports, perhaps Tulsa is major league in music.

“I think it has been for a long time,” Halsey said. “I think the Bob Dylan acquisition is just the solidification, the verification, of the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,’ so to speak.”

Halsey said the “pristine” Woody Guthrie Center and The Bob Dylan Archive will put Tulsa on par with Nashville (home of the Country Music Hall of Fame) and Cleveland (home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

“Tulsa has always been considered a vibrant birthplace for all kinds of good music, going all the way back to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and on through the Leon Russell period,” Halsey said, also mentioning that Tulsa was known for blues and jazz, thanks to figures like trombonist and band leader Ernie Fields.

“And I think that with the advent of bringing the Dylan thing in here, it really puts not only a lot of intellectual property on the table, but it is going to be a great place for people to come from all over the world to study these archives. Congratulations, Tulsa. Amen.”

Oldaker, referencing restaurant, hotel and arts development in the Brady Arts District, said, “The more of this that goes on, it attracts music and art. … People gravitate toward that just like they did in Austin.”

Oldaker wanted to make clear that anything he says in regard to Tulsa and its music scene are — right or wrong — just his viewpoints. He’s just calling it like he sees it, and he lived it.

Homegrown momentum

Oldaker was just a teen when he played in a band that opened locally for acts like the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Paul Revere. The young drummer was backstage at the Assembly Center when someone tapped on his cymbals. Oldaker’s immediate thought was, “Don’t touch my stuff!”

The cymbal-tapper, Jim Morrison, said, “Nice cymbals, man,” and walked away.

Hendrix? He shook Oldaker’s hand and said, “That was a good set.”

At that time, Oldaker didn’t really know or care who those people were. He had tunnel vision and wanted to be in a headlining band, instead of a warm-up act.

“I wanted to travel, I wanted to stay in nice hotels and I wanted to play in front of millions of people, I wanted to sell records,” he said.

“The only thing I did not put into my equation when I was a kid was I didn’t ever say I want to make a lot of money. I didn’t think that was part of the thing. That wasn’t a goal. My art was the goal.”

Oldaker, who is in the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, said he will always support his city and his state because he was supported by the people here. Tulsa still supports music-makers.

Tulsa ranks 47th in U.S. city population, but the BOK Center (which opened in 2008) was 26th nationally in 2015 ticket sales, according to Pollstar. Garth Brooks played seven sold-out shows there last year and ticket-buyers nearly “broke” the phone lines trying to purchase seats to a series of shows at Drillers Stadium in the 1990s.

(Any recap of Tulsa music should perhaps include a 1977 Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings outdoor show which drew a crowd estimated at 60,000. “We wanted every one of these people here, but we don’t want one more,” Shaeffer, who promoted the concert, said. Ella Fitzgerald played the first concert at the brand new Tulsa Performing Arts Center that same year.)

Cain’s Ballroom ranks among the top 20 club venues in the world and sold a record number of tickets last year. The Brady Theater placed 102nd worldwide among theater venues. Venues at local casinos host a continual stream of artists with big followings. You can see a “name” act here virtually every week.

Maybe the momentum is such that another “name” act will be homegrown.

“If it goes the way it should go, then you’ll see another cycle of something happening,” Oldaker said. “You might get a star out of Tulsa that does really well.”