Forgotten Artists – Roger Tillison

Roger Tillison is not a name many will have come across in the first place let alone forgotten. However, he is a fine example of the Tulsa Sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which included Leon Russell and J J Cale as its standard-bearers. Additionally, he spent time in Woodstock when Dylan and The Band were in town. In our increasingly globalised world, with immediate access to virtually unlimited digital music, it is easy to forget the rich legacy of the many individual regional musical styles of the United States that provide such rich foundations for Americana. These musical styles were developed from local influences and worked up in live shows as much as in recording studios and therefore have a distinct and unique sound. The Tulsa Sound was one such key component and Roger Tillison was at the heart of it in its heyday.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a very rich musical history which was aided by the transient nature of its population due to the local oil industry. It has a major claim to helping put the ‘W’ in Country and Western Music as Bob Wills launched his national career in the ‘30s with broadcast performances from Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom.

Gene Autry at the start of his career styled himself as the “Oklahoma Yodelling Cowboy” when he had a show on a local Tulsa radio station. Woody Guthrie casts his Okie shadow over the music and the Woody Guthrie Archive is currently housed in Tulsa. While Tulsa is predominately white, it has a sizeable black population and while Oklahoma had a long history of segregation and discrimination, like much of the south, there was early cross-fertilisation of styles and ideas between black and white musicians. The city hosted such notable jazz, blues and R&B musicians as Earl Bostic, Jay McShann, Lowell Fulson and in the ‘70s The Gap Band. This melting pot of influences meant that when young musicians started to play the new rock ‘n’ roll in the clubs and bars of Tulsa, from the mid ‘50s onwards, they developed a laid-back variant that was a mix of blues, gospel, soul, jazz and hillbilly twang. J J Cale, who was in at the ground level, has said “We were just trying to play the blues and didn’t know how, so that’s what we came up with.”.

Leon Russell left Tulsa in 1958 to head to the nascent recording industry in Los Angeles to try and make it as a full-time musician and quickly got a gig working with James Burton backing Ricky Nelson. In many ways, this was a mirror journey to that which many Okies had made over twenty years earlier, as thousands fled the dust bowl and settled in California. On his return trips home, he would regal his friends and fellow musicians with tales of the music scene on the West Coast and many joined him including J J Cale, Jim Keltner, Carl Radle, Bill Boatman and Jimmy Markham. By this time Leon had become a member of the Wrecking Crew, the group of first call session musicians in Los Angeles, and he used his Okie friends when he could for his own productions. Additionally, there was plenty of opportunity in the clubs and bars around Los Angeles for musicians to play live. It was out of the transplanted Okie and southern musicians that much of the early west coast Americana emerged. Gram Parsons also hung around with the exiled musicians in his early days. Finally, the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens was made for Okies and descendants of Okies.

Roger Tillison spent his teenage years in the army and developing his love of jazz and horn playing. His time in the army was not his happiest and when he left he headed to art school in Los Angeles where his ears were opened to the emerging folk boom. Returning to Oklahoma, he started playing local gigs and became friends with Tulsa harmonica player and blues singer Jimmy Markham who suggested he move back to Los Angeles as a musician and introduced him to Leon Russell. While in Los Angeles, Roger developed his songwriting, sometimes as co-writer with Leon Russell, and performing skills forming a folk duo with Terrye Newkirk and placing songs with a number of artists including Hearts and Flowers, who included Bernie Leadon, The Kingsmen, Gary Lewis And The Playboys and The Electric Prunes.

His own recordings with Terrye were recorded for World Pacific under the group name Gypsy Trips in a deal arranged by Leon Russell and Snuff Garrett. The single ‘Rock & Roll Gypsies’, backed by ‘Ain’t It Hard’, was recorded at Leon Russell’s Skyhill Studio, arranged by Leon Russell with James Burton on guitar and engineered by J J Cale. Roger Tillison was also involved with the studio group The Leathercoated Minds who recorded ‘A Trip Down The Sunset Strip’ which featured  J J Cale’s production and guitar playing, Leon Russell on keyboards and other assorted Okie musicians with Roger’s lead vocals. It was around this time that Roger started hanging with Levon Helm who had left Bob Dylan and had not yet re-joined his fellow Hawks and Bob Dylan in Woodstock for sessions that would become known as ‘The Basement Tapes‘ and lead to the recording of ‘Music From Big Pink’. Roger then returned to Oklahoma continuing to write songs and perform. He worked as a folk due with Jesse Ed Davis whenever Jesse made periodic returns to his home state to recover from life in Los Angeles.

It was around this time that Okie musicians were beginning to sow the seeds for changing the sound of popular music. Jesse Ed Davis had left Conway Twitty and moved from Oklahoma to California and was now backing Taj Mahal on his first three influential albums playing country, blues and jazz licks as the music demanded. Taj’s band also included fellow Okies Chuck Blackwell on drums, Gary Gilmore on bass and Bill Boatman on guitar. Leon Russell was working with Delaney and Bonnie to get a major record deal for their blend of country, soul and rock’n’roll with primarily Okie musicians as their backing band The Friends.

Roger got a call from Levon Helm to join him in Woodstock and he jumped at the chance. The Woodstock scene at the time took its lead from Dylan and The Band with lots of Americana type music played in the bars by the likes of Happy and Artie Traum, Bobby Charles and now Roger. The worlds of Woodstock and Tulsa eventually joined at the secret recording sessions by The Band in Woodstock, without Robbie Robertson, after the difficult ‘Stage Fright’ album. The sessions involved mainly covers and Rick Danko had got hold a tape of J J Cale’s recordings for his still to be released first album ‘Naturally’ and brought him to the sessions to record ‘They Call Me The Breeze’ with them. For those interested in trivia, this was the first time that Eric Clapton actually met and heard J J Cale’s guitar playing live and it is reasonable to assume that Roger Tillison was the link due to his friendship with both J J Cale and The Band. The joining of the Woodstock and Tulsa sounds was cemented on Roger’s 1971 debut album ‘Roger Tillison’s Album’.

By 1971 the sound pioneered in Los Angeles by Okie and like-minded musicians had reached it’s peak of influence. The biggest rock acts of the day had taken it fully to their hearts and soul. The Rolling Stones had taken on Delaney and Bonnie’s horn section, Eric Clapton was recording with  Okie musicians for his first solo album and with Derek And The Dominos. When Bob Dylan was looking for a new sound at the start of the ‘70s it was to Leon Russell that he looked and at sessions in New York he recorded ‘Watching The River Flow’ and ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ with backing by Leon’s band of Okie musicians with Jesse Ed Davis featured prominently on guitar. George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh included various Okie supporting musicians and a staring role for Leon Russell,  Jesse Ed Davis was given the role of covering for a debilitated Eric Clapton still in the deepths of his heroin addiction. Leon Russell had formed Shelter Records with Denny Cordell in 1970 to release his own successful albums and those of other artists. One of the labels first signings was J J Cale and other artists included blues legend Freddie King and later Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. When Jesse Ed Davis left Taj Mahal he started his career as a leading session guitarist and producer, as well as recording three solo albums with like-minded musicians. One of his first production jobs was Gene Clark’s ‘White Light’ together with Roger Tillison’s debut album and he subsequently became the guitarist of choice for George Harrison and John Lennon.

Roger went back to Los Angeles to record the album with Jesse Ed Davis on guitar and production, Dylan’s drummer Sanford Konikoff, Billy Rich bass, Larry Knechtel keyboards, ex Bob Wills fiddler Bobby Bruce, assorted Tulsa friends on background vocals and future Band member and Ronnie Hawkins’ backing musician Stan Szelest on piano. The Woodstock link was maintained by, at the time, three unrelease Band and Bob Dylan songs. The Dylan track is ‘Down In The Flood’ which had its first official release on ‘More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits’ with Dylan backed by Happy Traum. Roger’s version features Jesse Ed Davis’s stringing slide and rolling piano and bears a closer resemblance to The Band’s version issued on the expanded ‘Rock Of Ages’ than Dylan’s own acoustic version. Derek Truck’s had clearly heard Roger’s version when he covered the song on his 2009 album ‘Already Free’. ‘Get Up Jake’ is a Robbie Robertson outtake from the Band’s second album that saw a live release also on ‘Rock Of Ages’. The final Band related song is a cover of The Four Tops ‘ Lovin You (Is Sweeter Than Ever)’, written by Stevie Wonder and Ivory Joe Hunter, and while played live by all versions of The Band it never saw a release until it was included as an unreleased track on the ‘To Kingdom Come’ compilation in 1989 and as a bonus track on the re-released ‘Rock Of Ages’. Roger does himself and his backing musicians proud on all three tracks. The Oklahoma links are reinforced by a cover of Woody Guthrie’s then rare tune ‘ Old Cracked Looking Glass’. The album also includes a cover of Don Nix’s ‘Yazoo City Jail’, with the remaining six tracks being written by Roger himself. These tracks fit seamlessly beside the covers to make a consistent whole.

For some reason Roger decided not to get a band together to tour the album but simply returned to Oklahoma to pursue a roving musician’s life-style similar to that of Woody Guthrie’s. He continued to write and perform songs. His friend J J Cale recorded two of his tunes, ‘Let’s Go To Tahiti’ on ‘5’ and ‘One Step Ahead Of The Blues’ on ‘Grasshopper’, and took him on tour occasionally as a backing musician. He appeared on the first two Tractors’ albums playing guitar and trumpet in the ‘90s and his songs continued to be covered by other artists including Ray Wylie Hubbard. He also worked as an illustrator from time to time and enjoyed life on his ranch.

Surprisingly, Roger maintained a cult following in Japan and he released his second album ‘Mamble Jamble’ there in 2003. He followed it  with a guitar and vocal EP tribute to Woody Guthrie ‘Songs For Woody’ in 2004. While it was released only in Japan, ‘Mamble Jamble’ was recorded in Tulsa with members of The Tractors and other Okie musicians including Jimmy Markham. With the exception of the traditional ‘Pony Blues’, the remaining 10 tracks are written by Roger and while there are over thirty years separating his albums there is a clear continuity of style though ‘Mamble Jamble’ has a much more acoustic feel.

Leon Russell and J J Cale were the most visible and successful artists of the Tulsa Sound, but they were not the only great musicians performing this style of music, which influenced future generations of musicians and, in the best sense, helped define Americana music. Roger Tillison certainly played his part in helping develop the Tulsa Sound thereby becoming an early architect of Americana. Roger died on December 9th 2013 just four months after J J Cale with Leon Russell joining them on December 13th 2016.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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