Tulsa drummer and songwriter Chuck Blackwell began etching his name into pop culture history some 60 years ago, as one of the original guys who headed west from T-Town to enrich the southern California music scene with his locally honed talents. Over the next couple of decades, Blackwell would show up in a variety of key places, from the network-television rock ‘n’ roll series Shindig!, where he drummed for the house band, the Shindogs; to a steady gig with high-profile blues musician Taj Mahal, appearing with him (and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and bassist Gary Gilmore, both fellow Oklahomans) in the landmark concert and music video, The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus; to one of the most famous touring aggregations of the ’70s, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, with Joe Cocker and Blackwell’s longtime musical cohort and friend Leon Russell.
The list of artists Blackwell recorded and/or toured with over his career includes the Everly Brothers, Freddie King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and even Jimi Hendrix, one of Blackwell’s former roommates. Like a lot of top-drawer Tulsa rockers, Blackwell moved back to Tulsa in the ’70s, following Leon Russell’s lead, and stayed to help ignite an incendiary period in Tulsa’s rock ‘n’ roll history.
Blackwell passed away in 2017 at the age of 77, but his influence still hovers over rock music in general and the Tulsa music scene in particular. The latest evidence is a new song called “Highway Shoes,” released digitally by Tulsa’s long-lived Explosive Records. The song features Thom Self cover art, depicting Blackwell during his Mad Dogs & Englishmen period. Subtitled “A Tribute to Chuck Blackwell,” it’s credited to Tulsa-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Paul Benjaman.
The busy Benjaman is known for, among many other things, his work on events related to the classic Tulsa Sound, including live tribute shows to Leon Russell, Steve Pryor and Jimmy Markham. He connected with the Blackwell project via another Tulsan, Scott Hutchison, a songwriter, performer and producer who, like Blackwell, spent some time in the West Coast scene – as did his musician brother, Pride Hutchison, Scott’s Explosive Records partner. Hutchison, however, is considerably younger than Blackwell.
“I met Chuck back in 1972, when I was a real young kid,” recalls Hutchison. “I think I was 16. I knew him through some cousins, and we became friends. And then later, once I was playing in bands, I got to know him better and would get advice from him.”
After spending some time around the early ’90s in L.A., notably with Pryor, Hutchison moved back to Tulsa. Blackwell had stayed in-state since his return in the ‘70s, playing with local bands and running his Broken Arrow-based business, Blackwell’s Stained Glass & Doors, with his wife, Romayne.
“Steve [Pryor] and I had hung with Chuck, done some studio work with him, and when I got back here I started writing with him more,” says Hutchison. “I’d talk to him about all the stuff he did, and what I remember is that he was so humble about it. I mean, [the story of] his life could be a bestseller.
“Chuck and I thought it would be cool to get someone who was a guitar-slinger, a younger singer, to work with him on songs,” he adds, which is how Benjamin got involved.
Out of that combination of artists came “Highway Shoes.”
“Chuck had the basic theme that he wanted, and what ended up being the chorus, down on a piece of paper,” remembers Benjaman. “So basically, it was Scott and me going over that piece of paper and finding verses we could do. I wrote the main riff, the tune, and got some of the verses filled out. Scott did the co-write with me.”
When the song was completed, a half-dozen years ago, Blackwell was still alive. However, his health was failing at the time, and he wasn’t able to contribute as much as he would’ve liked to the recording.
“He was in a recovery home, about three blocks down from where Michael Block had his studio in Bixby,” notes Hutchison, “and they let us come over and pick Chuck up.”
Benjaman adds: “We did that one studio session with Chuck Blackwell, and he got to hear what I’d done, and he was super excited about it, but we never really got to where he could play drums for the entire tune. After he passed away, we had all this work done, and we just felt that it was right to complete the tune.”
Hutchison and Benjaman also felt it was right to bring in Blackwell’s friend and musical partner from their Taj Mahal days, bassist Gary Gilmore – another legendary purveyor of the original Tulsa Sound. Pride Hutchison added drums at what his brother calls “a satellite studio for Explosive Records,” Horse Latitudes Recording Studio in Glendale, California; he was joined there by studio musician and recording artist Lamar “Kronik” Mitchell, who played keyboards for the recording. Hutchison says that some mixing for the disc was also done on the West Coast.
“Then we thought about getting somebody from around here to put on some background vocals,” he adds, “and we came up with Jared Tyler, who’s worked with Paul and Pride and me. We’ve got Paul on guitar, too, and I’m on there playing acoustic. It’s really three generations, almost – Gary Gilmore, then me and Pride, and then Paul and Jared. We all like the same kind of music and it fit together really cool.”
“It seems like we were really bridging a lot of things with the tune,” says Benjaman. “There was the basic blues that Gilmore and Chuck had definitely mastered, and then the later kind of Stonesy thing that influenced Hutchison and Steve Pryor. During the sessions, they were talking a lot about things Steve used to do. So it really does bridge across.”
Those familiar with the ’70s Tulsa Sound will also hear more than a little Leon Russell and JJ Cale influence in the song – the latter in the deep grooves cut by bassist Gilmore and buttressed by the rest of the musicians, the former in Benjaman’s drawly, world-weary vocals, which evoke not only Russell but also Russell’s friend and fellow musician Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack.
The singing, Benjamin agrees, is a bit different for him.
“When I did it, I was just kind of considering the scene,” he says. “I knew that Chuck Blackwell had a long history with musicians – I just learned the other day that he played drums on the club circuit with Jimi Hendrix, and he was good friends with Steve Pryor – so it was me trying to channel something that was a little bit different from what I normally do.
“This seems to be something that’s really special,” he adds. “Knowing Chuck and his history, and the fact that he wanted to work with me on something – I’m just really, really honored.”
The same goes for Scott Hutchison, who’s also a producer of the track.
“It was an honor to know Chuck Blackwell, and to do this tribute,” says Hutchison. “I remember when the Tedeschi Trucks Band was here [in Tulsa]. I went down with Chuck and Romayne to see ‘em, and Chuck was Ringo, you know. He was Ringo Starr to them.”
According to Hutchison, “Highway Shoes” is available as a download via CD Baby.