The (Mostly) True Story of the Tulsa Shuffle: Part V & VI
Sunny southern California, with its palm trees and ocean fronts, is a world away from the windblown hills of Eastern Oklahoma. Truly it is a paradise that invites a culture of the laid back.
It is to this backdrop a young Griffin Goldsmith found his footing in the formative years of his teens. Brother to a talented songwriter and guitar player whose ability surpassed his age, Griff set out to stand on his own.
Goldsmith and his brother Taylor would eventually join forces to form the popular band Dawes.
Dawes found success, in part, due to an adopting of the sounds that influenced them as children. The music of their parents. Griff took a minimalist approach to the drums that complemented the craftsmanship of the songs his brother wrote.
“I found myself learning about drummers and studying them. I was surprised to learn that a lot of what I was into came from these Tulsa dudes. I had no idea then once I learned, it all clicked. They're just so prevalent. Especially Jim Keltner.”
I knew in writing this piece that for it to feel complete, I would have to track down Jim Keltner and somehow convince him to partake.
It was not easy.
After an exhaustive amount of detective work, a thorough scouring of the internet and the calling in of favors, I found Keltner’s contact information.
Our first interview had to be rescheduled as the 74 year old legend had accepted some last minute session work. I immediately found respect in the fact that Keltner was still working on a regular basis.
“Man, no one retires from music. You know anyone ever retired from music?”, He commented once we were able to have our conversation.
Jim Keltner's path to a percussive passion and lifelong career rang similar to other stories I'd heard in the pursuit of the root of the rhythm that became the Tulsa Shuffle. Jazz influence. An encouraging father who also played.
A clear memory of Keltner's is that of being a 12 year old boy, watching his father play at the Akdar Shrine, located at the one near the fairgrounds on 21st Street. The sight of his dad playing steered the child.
The elder Keltner purchased his son a drum kit, a beat up, cheap Slingerland set, bought at Dick Gordon's Pawn Shop in a downtown Tulsa that few would recognize now.
That purchase started a ball rolling that would lead Keltner to playing drums on songs like John Lennon’s album “Imagine” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven's Door”, to name just a very few. His resume reads like a best of list. Through his session work, Jim Keltner became the most sought after drummer in the industry.
The two musical influences in his life came from his parents vastly different tastes. His father, a deputy Sheriff by night and commercial painter by day, had a love of jazz while his mother preferred the sounds of Hank Williams, Kitty Hawks, the dancehall magic of Cain’s Ballroom.
“Cain's was not a source of fond memories for me growing up. It caused a division in my parents. My dad would go to work with the sheriff's department and my mom would go dancing.”
Keltner’s first visit back to Cain’s Ballroom came in the form of a tour with Elvis Costello sometime in the 1980’s. While he hadn't been as resident of Oklahoma for sometime, he still felt a connection that could not be defined.
Moving to Pasadena with his family in search of a better life at the age of 13, he took with him a part of Tulsa, in the form of memories and cultural identity.
“It took a long time for me to quit saying ‘back home’”.
He recalls, clearly when the decision was made to stay in California, that going back to Oklahoma wasn't an option.
“We were at the corner of Los Lobo’s and Colorado Blvd in Santa Monica, where Route 66 ends.”
Keltner’s mother challenged his father in a comment suggesting they were never expected to succeed in forging a new life in the Golden State. This set in Keltner’s father a determination that kept Jim a California resident, which he has been most of his life.
But he never forgot.
“The taste of the tap water. It’s like nowhere else on earth. I’ve been everywhere and the tap water in Tulsa is different. The way a burger tasted from the little stand at Pine and Cincinnati. The way the milkshakes tasted. Things about Tulsa I've never found anywhere else.”
More than the flavors, he never forgot the sense of belonging he felt in his connection to Oklahoma. He looked at guys like the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Swampers, how they represented a being of someplace, something bigger than yourself. Jim identified with this. So when Leon Russell, Carl Radle, JJ Cale, Chuck Blackwell were proving themselves a force on a national and international scale, it was a natural connection, an instant identity. By that point, though, Keltner had already made a strong name for himself.
His first taste of success was with a hit by Gary Lewis & The Playboys, though his time in the band was short lived. Looking back Keltner has come to terms with his departure from the group and found a silver lining.
“I always tell these young guys, you wanna be good, you want to work for awhile, get yourself fired at least once. It’ll humble you.”
The firing from Gary Lewis & The Playboys was not the end of the road for Keltner. Not by a mile. He soon found himself sought after by names like George Harrison, Joe Cocker, John Lennon, Bob Dylan. On and On. The list is neverending. Once you think you’ve found it all you learn he played on the song “Kokomo’ by the Beach Boys, despite Uncle Jesse from “Full House” taking credit in the music video.
It seems appropriate, though, that someone would take the credit in a music video. Keltner has always been a side man. In the background, leaving the stardom to someone else. Happy to sit in the background and do his thing, keep the beat going. Content in being the nameless constant.
To illustrate and drive home the point, examine the supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. Names you might recognize. Bob Dylan. Roy Orbison. Tom Petty. Jeff Lynne. George Harrison. And on drums Buster Sidebury. Who is Buster Sidebury? Buster Sidebury is Jim Keltner.
And who is Jim Keltner? A humble man that is arguably nothing short of legendary in his work. A man who loves his work, has no intention of stopping soon and cherishes the memories of his time in Oklahoma.
It cannot be argued that Tulsa shares a special connection with the drums and the people that play them. It has been proven again and again. Paddy Ryan. Chuck Blackwell. Jimmy Karstein. David Teegarden. Jamie Oldaker. Jim Keltner. It keeps going. I can only offer an apology to any I may have missed in my search; there's just so many.
In what has been the most effort I have ever committed to a project, I have found and come to the conclusion that there is no actual Tulsa Shuffle. Not in the proper sense at least. There is no perfect timing, no certain pattern, no definable characteristics. It is a vibe. It is a groove that draws people towards it. It is a beat that will keep going as long as there are people to dance.
A beat born of necessity.
John Wooley brought me as close to an answer as I could get.
“Like all those other Tulsa cats who rose up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the drummers played in a very tight scene, and they all worked with other musicians in other genres beyond rock ’n’ roll, including jazz. If you were a working musician in town then, you had to be able to do it all, or at least fake your way through it with some proficiency. Maybe that has something to do with their style. As I’ve noted before, much of the sound simply goes back to brotherhood and camaraderie.”
The Tulsa Shuffle was born of a place where musical genres range in popularity and influence, jazz and country can live side by side. It was born of Tulsa and it provided the beat to songs that changed the world. Born of men as recognizable as your uncle, or grandfather. Men we all know and see everyday. Tulsa boys, making that Tulsa Shuffle and the toes of the world tap.