In the early ’70s, Leon Russell purchased several properties in his home state of Oklahoma, including a significantly sized stone building on the outskirts of downtown Tulsa.
It was built in 1915 as Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, but Russell had different plans for the space. He swiftly converted it into a recording studio, where it became the home of Shelter Records and hosted the likes of Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, JJ Cale, Tulsa’s Gap Band and many more. When Tom Petty came through town with his early band Mudcrutch, he signed his first record deal with Russell at the diner that’s still located across the street.
Although Russell left Shelter in 1976, he always envisioned Church Studio, called the heart of the “Tulsa Sound,” to serve as an outlet for artists who sought to create the most authentic versions of their work. No one thought of Tulsa as the epicenter of anything music-related, but it didn’t matter to Russell.
“We don’t aspire to be Columbia Records – we just like our music, and that’s mainly what it’s all about,” Russell told Rolling Stone in 1970. “We’re mainly interested in helping people develop themselves in the way that they want to do it.”
After Russell sold the building, it passed through the hands of different owners until 2016, when it was bought by Tulsa entrepreneur Teresa Knox and her husband Ivan Acosta. They renovated the studio using the church’s original wood, had it named on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017 and reopened the space as a fully functioning recording studio.
Upstairs, where recording takes place, sits the famous NEVE 8068 mixing console purchased from producer Daniel Lanois — the same console seen on the cover of Bob Dylan‘s Time Out of Mind. Downstairs, a small but impressive archive of material houses everything from Russell’s bedazzled stage outfits to the diner menu he and Petty were allegedly looking at when they signed the aforementioned record deal. Knox also purchased the plot of land next door and another building across the street, which she plans to turn into, respectively, a park and a restaurant called Leon’s.
In its modern-day mission statement, the studio seeks to “support the understanding, appreciation and advancement of music,” just as Russell did in 1972.
You can see a gallery of photos from inside the Church Studio below.
Leon Russell’s Church Studio
Converted church still hosts recording artists today.