The Song Remains: Jimmy Karstein 1944 – 2022

One of the architects of the Tulsa sound and lifelong drummer with J J Cale.

Tulsa musicians and fans are in mourning following the death of drummer Jimmy Karstein at his Tulsa home on Sunday, 27th  March, after a long illness.  Karstein was a member of the generation of Tulsa musicians who moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘60s to play sessions and thereby helped spread the Tulsa sound to the whole world, influencing rock & roll, country, alt-country, and americana in the process. He played with Leon Russell, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Buffalo Springfield, Delaney & Bonnie, J J Cale, Joe Cocker, and Eric Clapton, and in later years helped move the sound forward with red dirt music pioneers the Red Dirt Rangers.

As a child, Jimmy Karstein was always musical and his first choice was to play the trumpet. However, he has recounted how he had had major dental work and it was thought that the trumpet would mean he would blow his new bridge work out. While his next choice would have been piano,  the family home wasn’t big enough to house one, and it was drums that finally caught his lifelong attention. The young Jimmy Karstein played regularly with local musicians Leon Russell, J J Cale, and David Gates in and around Tulsa, and joined the Tulsa exodus to Los Angeles following Leon Russell’s move there in 1958. He was part of the nascent Los Angeles music scene, playing places like Pandora’s Box which also featured the Beach Boys before their chart success. For a time he was the drummer with the Playboys, Gary Lewis’s backing group, which featured various Tulsa musicians over the years including bassist Carl Radle thanks to their producer Leon Russell, and he played various other Los Angeles sessions.

Leon Russell was a successful session musician and producer in the ‘60s, and he was able to afford a home in the Hollywood Hills on Sky Hill Drive, where he installed a home studio called Sky Hill Studio. It was here that he recorded his own early solo albums, and albums and tracks by Freddie King, The Crickets, The Moody Blues, Willis Alan Ramsey, and Marc Benno amongst others. Jimmy Karstein lived with Russell at his Sky Hill Drive home in a closet for a time, before moving to musicians haunt The Plantation, celebrated by Leon Russell in his song ‘Shootout On The Plantation’. The opportunistic covers album ‘A Trip Down Sunset Strip’ by the Leathercoated Minds was put together by J J Cale and label boss and producer Snuff Garrett and featured various Tulsa musicians, including Jimmy Karstein on drums. When J J Cale’s career took off in the ‘70s Jimmy Karstein was a regular player on his studio albums and was a member of his touring band, and he is featured in the documentary ‘To Tulsa And Back: On Tour With J J Cale’. His Tulsa connections meant he was invited to be part of the backing band for Eric Clapton’s ‘Rainbow Concert’ in 1973, and staying in the ‘70s, he was a member of Joe Cocker’s band for a couple of years. The Tulsa sound got a bit of a belated boost in the ‘90s with Steve Ripley’s Tractors enjoying chart success with their self-titled debut album which celebrated ‘The Tulsa Shuffle’, and Karstein was one of many featured Tulsa musicians. He continued to guest with the Tractors and he joined the Red Dirt Rangers in 2002 playing on ‘Starin’ Down The Sun’ and ‘Ranger Motel’.  As well as playing with J J Cale until his death in 2013, he also played with Tulsa power-pop legend Dwight Twilley on some of his recent albums.

Jim Keltner may be the most famous Tulsa drummer, but Jimmy  Karstein was also in at the very start of the Tulsa sound and he stayed close to that sound throughout his whole career with his working relationship with J J Cale, and his support of newer acts like the Tractors and the Red Dirt Rangers. This, and his time in Los Angeles when the West Coast sound was being developed, means that most music fans, particularly those of a certain age, owe Jimmy Karstein a debt of thanks for his contribution to the development of the Tulsa shuffle.


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About Martin Johnson 241 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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