Author: Warren, Cleve
Date published: May 1, 2011
New Orleans. Chicago. New York. Detroit. Boston. Philadelphia. When you think of hotbeds of American drumming over the years, those cities would likely be the first to come to mind. But for longtime fans of classic rock and roots music, Tulsa, Oklahoma, would hold its own against many a larger, more famous metropolis.
Classic exponents of the "Tulsa feel" are often cited for their unique shuffle grooves, their mastery of medium and slow tempos, and their laid-back, low-pitched snare drum sound. Words like heart and soul are also commonly dropped, and the importance of these intangible elements is certainly borne out by the number of classic rock legends-including Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, and Bob Seger-who sought out the city's greatest musicians to help bring a distinctive depth of feeling to their music.
Tulsa in the late '50s and early '60s was an unusual place. Though the city could boast Cain's Ballroom and the radio station KVOO, both home to Bob Wills, the "King Of Western Swing," Tulsa wasn't a media center and didn't house many well-known recording studios. But the musicians there developed an idiosyncratic sound of their own, inspired by the city's diverse musical environment, which featured western swing, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and early rock 'n' roll. This, coupled with the spirit of the land runs, the wild weather, the Native American culture, the rough-and-tumble oil business, and the rugged Oklahoma spirit, resulted in an addictive musical personality that infused a staggering number of important recordings for decades.
The list of great players who hail from Tulsa includes Jim Keltner (John Lennon, George Harrison, Ry Cooder), Jamie Oldaker (Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, the Tractors), Scott Musick (the Call), Rick "Moon" Calhoun (Rufus & Chaka Khan), John Hoff (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King), Russ McKinnon (Tower Of Power, Barry Manilow), Ron McCrory (Asleep At The Wheel, Rick Danko), and Phil Seymour (Dwight Twilley). Three men in particular, though-Chuck Blackwell, Jimmy Karstein, and David Teegarden-are widely regarded as the most influential and historically significant drummers in Tulsa's musical history. More than any other players, this triumvirate helped export the city's sound and feel to the rock 'n' roll world.
All three started playing drums in their school bands in the '50s, and there are two main influences that link them: Leon Russell and Levon Helm. Starting in the '50s, Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, with Helm on drums and vocals, played a circuit of teen hops and "knife and gun" nightclubs in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas in the spring and fall of every year. Rock 'n' roll was still relatively new, and there weren't many touring bands. The Hawks were an exception, making them an important thread in many regional musicians' careers.
The band's performances were must-see events. Jimmy Karstein and David Teegarden agreed that Helm was the most important rock drummer they had seen. Levon's simple, direct style and dead-on timing made a huge impression on all of the young Tulsa drummers, especially Karstein. "I can remember the way he set up his kit," Jimmy says, "at an angle rather than in line or behind the band, so he could better hear and see the rest of the group. They were tight, with simple but powerful arrangements and a tremendous amount of energy."
Chuck Blackwell is the undisputed godfather of Tulsa rock 'n' roll drummers. He would be quick to tell you he was not the first rock drummer in Tulsa-but ask anyone with a connection to the city's music scene, and they'll agree that he's the most important. Blackwell's parents bought him a snare drum and a foot pedal attached to a cardboard box. With this Chuck tried to play along with the radio. Popular music prior to 1956 held little interest for the young drummer. As Blackwell tells it, "When the Big Bang-Elvis-happened in 1956, all hell broke loose, and I wanted to be part of it." Blackwell eventually found some like-minded teenagers in Tulsa, and they started playing.
Among this group was a young pianist named Claude Russell Bridges-now known to the world as Leon Russell-as well as singer-songwriter J.J. Cale. After exhausting the teen hop and club scene, the band was looking to take the next step. To Blackwell and his cohorts, American Bandstand in Philadelphia was the center of the rock 'n' roll universe. Somehow they managed to cram into the back of a 1950 Ford, along with their equipment, and drive to Philly. A month later they came to the conclusion that Philadelphia was not for them. So it was back to Tulsa-flat broke.
It didn't take long for an opportunity to present itself, in the form of Jerry Lee Lewis, who needed a band to tour out west. Blackwell and his friends were more than eager to hit the road. Their last gig in Kansas ended in a near riot when Lewis didn't show. Once they made it to California, they couldn't play where alcohol was served because they were under twenty-one and subject to arrest. Fake IDs were the remedy, and the group was soon working in bowling alleys and clubs. Russell, the piano player, was discovered by someone who needed a keyboardist for a demo session, and soon he was doing major session work all over L.A. Through Russell's recommendations, Blackwell found a gig with the hugely popular Everly Brothers. His simple but powerful style soon had him playing with a host of great bands around town.
One group of particular note was the Wednesday-night band at the famed Palomino Club in North Hollywood. This ensemble contained the legendary musicians James Burton (Ricky Nelson, Elvis) on guitar, Delaney Bramlett (mentor to Eric Clapton, founder of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends) on bass, Joey Cooper (vocalist on dozens of albums) on rhythm guitar, and Blackwell on drums.
Through Russell, the band was discovered by the television producer Jack Good of Shindig, who wanted a group to cover hits by acts that he couldn't book on the weekly show. This unit had the ability to play just about anything, and the members soon found themselves in American teenagers' living rooms every Wednesday night for two years. Blackwell and the guys also had a necessary quality for TV: They looked great. The band became almost as famous as the headlining stars on the show each week. After Shindig went off the air, Blackwell started playing with the Sunset Strip favorite Taj Mahal. Chuck's three albums with the venerable bluesman are classics.
During this time, Russell's influence on the L.A. rock scene was becoming powerful. The keyboardist assembled a legendary band for Delaney Bramlett, with Jim Keltner on drums, which served as the opening act for the illfated supergroup Blind Faith. Joe Cocker soon brought Russell on board and took the Bramlett band en masse, along with Blackwell, Keltner, and session great Jim Gordon as drummers. Mad Dogs & Englishmen was rock 'n' roll's first traveling road show, and we're left with a great legacy of music and video from that tour; go to YouTube to see Blackwell and Keltner playing on Cocker's hit "The Letter."
Blackwell spent the next few years doing sessions for various artists signed to Russell's Shelter Records. His playing on Freddie King's Getting Ready album is an example of blues drumming at its finest. Although he retired from music for a few years to concentrate on his family and his Tulsa-based stained-glass business, Blackwell is back playing around town with some of the best musicians on the scene. He favors a straightforward style, where the snare always seems to hit just a little behind the beat. Hearing Chuck play today, you can hear the embodiment of that unmistakable Tulsa feel.
Jimmy Karstein was next to follow Blackwell to Los Angeles. He literally lived in Leon Russell's closet until he started to play in and around Hollywood. "When I got to L.A.," Jimmy recalls, "I saw all these giants of drumming-Shelly Manne, Art Blakey, Louie Bellson.... I knew this drumming business was hard, so I'd better learn to play music instead."
Karstein's solid Tulsa groove and close relationships with Russell and Blackwell helped him land the gig with the Everly Brothers. Later Karstein replaced Jim Keltner with Gary Lewis & the Playboys, once again thanks to an endorsement from Russell.
There are a couple of little-known facts about Karstein's credits. First, he played on two tracks of the final Buffalo Springfield album, Last Time Around. Second, he was the only white drummer to play with the legendary bluesman Bobby "Blue" Bland. Karstein also worked with Joe Cocker, Taj Mahal, Billy Lee Riley, the Tractors, and Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert band, which featured Pete Townshend, Steve Winwood, Ron Wood, and Jim Capaldi.
Karstein toured with J.J. Cale for nearly thirty-five years (see Eric Clapton's 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD) and with the regional "Red Dirt" music pioneers, the Red Dirt Rangers. The Rangers play all over the Southwest, and Karstein is still actively playing in Tulsa as well. When he's not with the Rangers, he can usually be found with the Bluehemians. To this day Karstein possesses a kindness and humility that continue to make him an inspiration to all who meet him.
The youngest member of Tulsa's "Holy Trinity" is David Teegarden, who worked in L.A. with Leon Russell and J.J. Cale, among other artists. Teegarden later became part of Detroit's burgeoning rock scene, which included Bob Seger, with whom David and organist Skip Knape would often perform. In 1970, under the name of Teegarden & Van Winkle, the duo scored a Top 40 hit with "God, Love, And Rock & Roll."
In 1972 Teegarden and Knape recorded a seminal Seger album, Smokin' O.P.'s, but Teegarden's official tenure with Seger started in April 1977, after Silver Bullet Band drummer Charlie Martin was seriously injured in a car accident. Teegarden's work on Seger's Stranger In Town album yielded several of the singer's biggest hits, including "Still The Same" and "Hollywood Nights." Teegarden recorded 1980's Against The Wind and the following year's live Nine Tonight before splitting with Seger in 1982.
Since his Silver Bullet Band days, Teegarden has been an active studio musician in Tulsa as well as a recording studio owner and producer, keeping busy at his Natura Digital Studios. For many years he has played in the top blues band in Tulsa, the Bill Davis Group, which has featured guitarist Tommy Tripplehorn (Gary Lewis & the Playboys) and bassist Gary Gilmore (Taj Mahal). Today, along with his drumming son, Dave Jr., Teegarden is inspiring and educating a new generation of the city's musicians.
Chuck Blackwell, Jimmy Karstein, and David Teegarden, who have more than 150 years of playing experience between them, represent great examples of how passion and talent can produce remarkably long musical careers. Their drumming today is as vital and relevant as ever, and all three of them continue to contribute to Tulsa's historic and colorful music scene.