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Spiritual Reawakening

Teresa Knox is breathing new life into The Church Studio that Leon Russell brought to musical prominence in the ‘70s.

G.K. Hizer
Marc Rains
August 28, 2018

Tucked away at the corner of Third Street and Trenton Avenue is a piece of music history that many Tulsans either aren’t aware of or simply know as mere urban legend. The Church Studio, established by Leon Russell in 1972, served as a home for his label (Shelter Records), a recording studio, changed owners and at times sat dormant.

But that status is soon to change, as Teresa Knox, along with her husband Ivan Acosta, helm the renovation of the historic studio.

In the very beginning — circa 1913-15 — it started as Grace Methodist Episcopal Church and was one of the earliest churches built in Tulsa; even later, surviving the race riots of 1921. By 1929, it had become the First United Brethren Church, and remained so until at least 1946. In 1948, it began appearing in city directories as the First Evangelical United Brethren Church until 1961, when it was the First Church of God. Originally a brick church, the current “castle” stone was placed in the mid-1950s.

Leon Russell purchased the church in 1972 , and The Church Studio was conceived.

“I’m a native Tulsan and I’ve always been a fan of Leon Russell, as well as J.J. Cale and David Gates,” says Knox. “I’m a collector of music memorabilia and a small-business owner, and this just kind of let me combine the two.”

When Knox originally saw the building and recognized what it was, she admits it seemed a bit in disrepair. She reached out to the owners, who were initially hesitant to sell. But her persistence and vision paid off as she was not only able to buy the building but get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

“Outside of places like Nashville, Los Angeles and New York, I believe this can be a studio that people can choose to record in, if we develop it properly,” Knox says.

To achieve that dream, she is working with Chad Hailey (who interned with Cale) and Steven Durr, from Nashville, who was also involved in the sound engineering on Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour. Russell was the musical director for that tour, putting the band together and rehearsing them in merely a week after Cocker’s previous group, the Grease Band, abruptly split right before the U.S. tour. That tour went on to produce the double live album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, which helped make Russell a breakout star in the early-‘70s.

According to Knox, it was strategic for her to work with people who held Russell’s work in high esteem and had a national reputation. The goal is to rebuild a world-class analog recording facility that includes digital technology, as well as include equipment for high-definition video recording with possible streaming capabilities to encourage further engagement with the fans.

Additional plans include a small theater in the basement to be used for specially scheduled educational and music related films; a gallery for a rotating display of Knox’s personal memorabilia collection and the Church Studio archives; expanding the south side of the building for a new entrance; and developing the garden area to include a performance stage for small shows.

Additional improvements to the building include the installation of a service elevator, which will not only make loading equipment easier, but bring the building up to American Disabilities Act compliance, as well as adding a professional culinary kitchen with bar and lounge for the studio.

“Leon was a classically trained musician and songwriter, which is what most people know him for, but he was also an entrepreneur,” Knox says. “He had good ideas and was good at executing them. His initial concept and idea for The Church Studio was brilliant. We’re really just executing his business plan.”

According to Knox, Russell’s original concept for the church was to create a casual, collaborative space for singers, songwriters, musicians, and engineers to come together to create music and share ideas. “Ultimately, we are creating a space that anyone can come to and use. We’re working on creating an ergonomic traffic flow, so it can be used as a recording studio, but also toured and used by the public,” she says.

“The Church was kind of untouchable in Leon’s time, but we’re opening it up so it can be rented for personal events or used as an activity center to help inspire this generation of musicians and music fans. We’re really working to honor and propel Leon’s vision and legacy.”

Although initial plans were for the restoration project to be completed in 2018, the details of completing such an elaborate project, combined with the process of getting it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, has delayed progress with completion currently expected near the end of 2019.

The Church Studio
304 S. Trenton Ave. | Tulsa