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New Oklahoma monument is Leon Russell’s final resting place

November 13, 2018

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Leon Russell is home.

Russell, a Tulsa music legend, died in 2016.

Hundreds braved frigid temperatures earlier this month at Memorial Park Cemetery for the unveiling and dedication of a Russell monument. They also were treated to a homecoming.

Steve Todoroff, who along with wife Kathy co-chaired a monument committee, told this story during a welcome address: He said he and his wife, after attending two memorial services for Russell, scouted Memorial Park Cemetery because they thought it would be nice to have a permanent monument — a place where people can pay respects to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer — in Tulsa.

And maybe, recalled Todoroff, the site could be Russell’s resting place.

Todoroff told those who gathered for the dedication that he picked up Russell’s remains from family.

“At 7:30 this morning, they did an interment and Leon is resting here at this monument,” Todoroff said, telling the bundled-up-in-layers crowd that he was happy to make the announcement. The news was met with applause.

Afterward, Todoroff said Russell’s remains had been kept at a funeral home in Sarasota, Florida.

Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton in 1942, Russell was a graduate of Will Rogers High School in Tulsa.

“Leon loved Tulsa,” Todoroff told the Tulsa World . “He always ended up back here. Even when he was successful in (Los Angeles), he would travel back to Tulsa. The last few years he talked about (getting) an apartment at the Mayo to have a permanent place to come back to. It just seemed proper to have his final resting place in Tulsa.”

The monument dedication came a few days shy of the second anniversary of Russell’s death. He died, at age 74, on Nov. 13, 2016.

Asked if the dedication was planned to be near the anniversary of Russell’s death or merely coincidence, Todoroff replied, “Both.”

“It just worked out that way and we went with it,” he said. “We didn’t know it would take two years to raise the money and get the monument built. But we definitely had an eye on that anniversary.”

Elton John, who contributed $5,000, was among donors to the Leon Russell Monument fund.

An image of a young, hat-wearing Russell, arms folded and sitting backward in a chair, is the dominant feature of the monument, which also displays a simulated piano keyboard and lyrics from Russell’s “A Song for You:”

“And when my life is over/ Remember when we were together/ We were alone and I was singing this song for you.”

The 30-minute dedication ceremony featured a series of speakers, including Richard Pfenniger, a Russell fan who traveled from Florida.

Pfenniger talked about his connection to Russell and his music, indicating that he’s sure many others have their own connection. He expressed confidence that everyone at the ceremony knew what he was talking about.

“That’s because just about everyone here is a Leon lifer,” he said.

Though Russell is no longer among the living, Pfenniger said Russell’s music “will always be here.”

“And, as a result, there are still people who will find it and be drawn to its power,” he said. “The point is there are more lifers to come, and that includes young people who haven’t yet been properly exposed to his music, but they are out there.”

City official Nick Doctor, speaking on behalf of Mayor G.T. Bynum about Russell, referred to Russell as Tulsa’s mayor of rock and roll. Doctor said Russell put Tulsa on the map in ways the city is still benefiting from and that Russell inspired generations of musicians that will continue to keep the Tulsa Sound alive for years to come.

Jeff Moore, representing the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, said Russell (“the master of space and time”) was all about love. He didn’t just give it. He has received it from people like the Todoroffs and Steve and Charlene Ripley and Teresa Knox, restorer of Russell’s Church Studio.

The new monument and Church Studio are reminders of Russell’s legacy. Russell will be among Oklahoma creatives whose contributions to popular culture will be acknowledged when OPOP opens in downtown Tulsa.

“People will come from all over the world to learn about Leon Russell and that love will continue to grow and spread for years to come,” Moore said.

Tulsa-based music impresario Jim Halsey, referencing the weather, told the crowd their collective love for Russell “has warmed us all up today.”

Halsey, whose company once represented Russell, said, “Every so often, the stars and the planets align to give us some special event or person. The creator did that with Leon. The stars were aligned and here came Leon Russell. He changed lives with his persona and his music. People that never knew him personally were affected by the depth and seriousness of his music. ... God bless Leon and what he has brought to us.”

Pfenniger began his remarks by thanking Todoroff for his work in spearheading the monument project.

“None of this would exist would today without Steve’s tireless efforts,” he said.

After the unveiling of the monument, someone from the crowd yelled “Thank you, Steve!” and the words were followed by applause.

Todoroff said Russell had an affinity for singers and musicians from Tulsa and thought they were a notch ahead of music artists from other places. Russell once shared these words with Todoroff, who read them to the crowd:

“If every U.N. delegation and every band in the world had a singer or musician from Tulsa, the world would be a more harmonious place, they’d have perfect timing and the world would be a lot more soulful.”

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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