Interview: Dwight Twilley on the best of his Tulsa Years

Credit: Phil Clarkin

How seeing blue fur in Leon Russell’s basement in the ’70s had a lifelong influence.

Anyone with an interest in ‘70s power pop will have heard of Dwight Twilley and the Dwight Twilley Band,  who landed a hit with ‘I’m On Fire’ in 1975. The Dwight Twilley Band’s debut album ‘Sincerely’ is considered one of the defining albums of power pop and expectations were high for the band. Unfortunately,  the Tulsa band were signed to Leon Russell’s Shelter label just as it was disintegrating due to the breakdown of Russell’s partnership with Denny Cordell. He hit the charts again as a solo artist with ‘Girls’ in 1984 and landed solo albums on the Billboard Album Chart after the Dwight Twilley Band disbanded in 1978. From the late ‘90s he has released his records through his own label, and it is these records that are anthologised on ‘The Best Of Dwight Twilley The Tulsa Years 1999-2016 Volume 1’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Dwight Twilley over Zoom in his Tulsa home studio to discuss the last days of Shelter Records, the lessons he learnt from watching Leon Russell work in the studio and spending time with fellow Shelter artist, Tom Petty. It is clear that Dwight Twilley has enjoyed revisiting his Tulsa years, and that he has followed his own path in his nearly fifty-year career. While he is clearly proud to have dedicated his life to playing rock & roll, he has done it with a wry sense of humour which comes out in the interview.

How are you and where are you?

It is not really my time of day but I’m OK here in my home studio in Tulsa.

We are here to talk about your new compilation ‘Best Of The Tulsa Years 1999-2016 Volume 1’, but can we go back fifty years to when the Dwight Twilley Band, with Big Star in Memphis and Badfinger in the UK, laid the foundations of power pop.

I was just a damn genius when I was young, and I just got stupider and stupider each year afterwards. It was an adventure, you know, a kind of amazing adventure. You are a kid, and all the other musicians in the world are trying to make a record, a little disc with their name on it and their picture on the sleeve and things like that, and trying to get on the radio, and we were able to accomplish that.

You had a big hit with ‘I’m On Fire’, did that possibly happen too soon because your career hadn’t really started at that point?

Absolutely, we were totally confused but what a great way to learn.

How painful was it being caught up with the collapse of Shelter Records at such a key point in The Dwight Twilley Band’s career with your debut album ‘Sincerely’ getting very good reviews and having a hit single?

It didn’t really matter too much to us, you know, because everyone around us in Tulsa was trying to get five minutes with Leon Russell, and it end up with us getting dumped in his home, with Leon, without even trying. He was kind of scary looking if you see pictures of him on his albums, or on the cover of the new  Bill Janovitz biography which has just come out, the shades, the hair, his beard and everything. He opened his home studio up to us, which was very kind of him, and it was an amazing studio. It was in his basement, and there was blue fur on the walls, and everything in there was brand new, if you wadded up a piece of paper and dropped it by the time it hit the floor it was brand new. It was quite an experience and everything sounded great and we didn’t know it at the time, but he was really just giving us a lesson.

Phil Seymour sadly died in 1993. How much of his influence is in your own later music?

Well, almost everyone who was around back then has gone. There are things I will start to do for one second that the back of my brain says don’t do that, even Phil wouldn’t dig that.

You are a very prolific songwriter and recording artist, but your stuff from the first half of your career is across many labels. How frustrating has that been for you?

It was in a way. Coming right into Shelter falling apart was kind of frustrating because we kind of knew what we wanted, we created our own world, our own little boat that we wanted to float but nobody was handing us any oars.

‘The Best Of The Tulsa Years’ is from your own label which you’ve had for about twenty years, I think. How has that stability influenced your music?

This is where I really get screwed up, that’s the thing that proves how long it’s been, but I don’t know how many years it has been. The record says from 1999 to 2016, that’s a long time and I know it sounds bad. It was kind of a magical thing to have my own label, I had a magical relationship with Phil Seymour with so many people around me, even Shelter was a magical place, and it all just happened, there was no explanation for it, and you just had to kind of go with it.

Who selected and sequenced the songs on the new compilation album?

We would have to take responsibility for that. It was kind of just pick your favourites over all those years, all that time and all that work. It was just the highlights to me, all the things that were fun, what do you like the best? That’s what I was doing, I remember that song, and I want that song for sure, some of them I had completely forgotten about, and it is so great to remember it and put it out on a different stage for a bit. Like ‘It’s Hard To Be A Rebel’, I wouldn’t have thought of that at other times in my life unless somebody gave me a whipping. Now I’ve been forced to think about it I’m really proud of that song.

‘The Best Of Dwight Twilley The Tulsa Years 1999-2016 Volume 1’, does that mean there will be a Volume 2?

It might be worth pointing out that on ‘Volume 1’ there are twenty songs, that’s a lot of songs, and ‘Volume 2’ is the second twenty, so there are a total of forty songs in all. That’s a pretty good chunk of somebody’s music, and that’s what you are getting, and it is probably the part they like best so they should be happy and everyone should be happy.

If the Dwight Twilley from the ‘70s listened to the compilation what would he think of the music?

I’m proud of it now, so I think he would be happy.

You’ve written a lot of songs, how easy do you find songwriting songs?

I did when I was a kid, and I guess I still do. We are still recording, and we are on the edge of starting another album very soon, and it will just be another one. We’ll spit it out and see how it hits the floor.

You are often included in the Tulsa Sound in various media articles. Do you agree with that?

I certainly do not, I think nobody at the time knew what the Tulsa Sound was. It was a big mystery, everyone was running around, where’s that Tulsa Sound at, and nobody knew. Tulsa has always been known for having great musicians, real strong musical figures came out of Tulsa, and not the least being Leon Russell. So, it’s always been well known for the music coming from this city.

You spent some time in Los Angeles, but you’ve been largely Tulsa based.

LA was just a place to go because most of the business was there. That’s where the offices of Shelter Records were, but of course, they had offices here in Tulsa as well, but there was a lot of business to do in LA, so you just ended up out there just doing things in LA. It was then just easier for us to come back and build our own studio here, a home studio so any time of day you woke up and fancied recording in the studio, you could do that.

Did Leon influence you in taking that course of action?

Yes. I remember when we first met him we were amazed because he came by the Church Studio, which is the one he built here in town in Tulsa, and someone said, “Look, that’s Leon back there.”, and everybody here in Tulsa was always looking for Leon, he was a mystical character in this town, for sure. It was like five in the evening or something, and someone said he’d just woke up, and we were like, what, five in the evening and he’s just woke up, hell, it’s nearly night. And you know what, two or three weeks after that, we were just waking up at five in the evening. Because you had to work all night, nobody wanted to record during the day if they could help it. You would record all night, and roundabout morning you would start thinking about going to sleep.

You were at Shelter Records with Tom Petty, who influenced who at the time?

Yes, and I think we were both stumbling around trying to find our way. We did favours for each other, he did a couple of TV shows with The Dwight Twilley Band, and some recording. Then there were the Shelter Studios in LA, and either Tom or I or somebody else would be working in that studio at night. So you always had something to do, you could just drive by at night and see what was happening over at Shelter, which meant Shelter in LA. I remember at one point he wanted to play me a song, something new he had, and a lot of times he would sing or play something and we became part of it in some way. I remember one time there was this little guitar lick, Mike Campbell’s guitar lick, and I remember telling Tom that that sounds like a hook, right there, so that guitar part became part of the song right there. That’s just how it was back then.

Who are your personal influences?

The Beatles were my first main influence, seeing them on black and white television on the old ‘Ed Sullivan Show’, and they were just so impressive. The songs were so great, the voices were great, they looked great and then they had all these chicks screaming at them so I was like, that looks like a good job. Of course, Elvis just goes without saying, and then it just goes down from there, a lot of great people. Obviously, I was in love with rock & roll

Have you any plans to come to the UK and Europe?

We have several times, we get over every four or five years, and plonk around doing one thing and another, and it’s always great to come over. At the moment we don’t have any firm plans though.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Well, to be honest, right now I’m listing to the new compilation album.

What’s it like listening to yourself?

It is pretty easy to be divorced from it, you have a standard that you kind of expect it to sound like. I’ve never gone looking for things to listen to, and it always seems like if there was something I needed to hear it was right here in front of my face, bang, it would just be there. It always seemed it would be that way, and it was and it has.

What you are saying is you’ve followed the same template throughout your career, and it seems to have served you well for fifty years.

Yeah, so far so good.

Is there a release date for the second volume of ‘The Tulsa Years’?

It will probably take about a year. There are so many backlogs because vinyl recordings are so popular now, and it takes them so long to process it, master it, and do all the technical things that need to happen before you end up with a disc in your hand.

Are you playing any shows around the new album?

No not really. We had a thing called “Look Ma No Band” one or two years ago where we had no band, and we went across the country twice, coast to coast, and we just played everywhere. We would just show up and people would feed us, and pay us some money, and we would play, just me and an acoustic guitar. We didn’t know if anyone would care, and it turned out to be a really interesting and rewarding experience because we found out that if we showed up in someone’s city with my acoustic guitar people wanted to hear us, and they remembered the songs and they were very happy. It is nice to be able to drive around the country and make people really happy, and you get fed and paid.

So, rock & roll isn’t so bad.

No, it’s not. I can’t complain about my life and the way my life has gone. It has been pretty enjoyable.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I’d really like to come over and do a “Look Ma No Band” thing, we’ve talked about it a few times. I think people will appreciate this album if they want something to listen to, if they know my career they probably should enjoy it, and if they don’t know me it is a pretty good calling card from some wacky people in Tulsa, USA, still cranking out rock & roll music. I’m glad to say hello to everybody, and I’m really glad I’m still here to say hello to anybody.

Dwight Twilley’s ‘The Best Of Dwight Twilley The Tulsa Years 1999-2016 Volume 1’ is out now on Paramour Records.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
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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