Oklahoma musician and onetime Woodstock resident Roger Tillison died Dec. 6th in Tulsa, a year after surviving a ruptured brain aneurysm. The singer/songwriter, husband, father, friend to many and lover of all dogs was 72. In his lifetime he was a singer, songwriter, trumpet and guitar player and occasionally, like his famous Oklahoma predecessor Woody Guthrie, a wandering sign painter. He was also arguably a leading edge of the music now called Americana.
In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Tillison performed at several clubs in Woodstock, either solo or with his friend, keyboard player Ken Lauber. Now a successful composer and producer, Lauber was contacted in Europe for this story.
“All’s I can really say about Rog is that I loved him,” Lauber said. “In Woodstock, we played the Sled Hill Café and a place we called the Depresso (not sure of the real name), and we were always jamming at my house. I will always be happy that I spent this period of my life with Roger.”
Woodstock Town Supervisor Jeremy Wilber was a youthful bartender at the Sled Hill when Tillison played there regularly. When informed of his death, he said, “I am very, very sad to hear this. I remember Roger as a dear man, a great talent and a soulful journeyer of the Earth.”
Tillison’s first professional gig was at the VFW club in his hometown of Duncan, Oklahoma. The 15-year-old played trumpet on “Night Train,” “Rock Around the Clock” and “Blue Suede Shoes” with a rockabilly band, Charlie Jones and the Stardusters. A few years later, he quit school to join the army, where his passion for music got him into trouble right away. While training to be a radio operator at Fort Dix, NJ, the music-obsessed teenager skipped school regularly to hang out at the band barracks, trying to join up. His lack of interest in radio school bought him a 14-month hitch painting signs on a missile base in Korea. But while stationed at Ft. Dix, the seventeen-year-old often visited New York City, where he heard the likes of Cozy Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles and other jazz greats at Birdland and the Metropole.
After his stay in the Far East, Tillison returned to Ft. Hood in Texas where hanging around the band barracks finally paid off. He spent his last year in the army in the HQ band, occasionally playing cocktail music at Austin hotels with some of his fellow players.
After his time in the military, Tillison spent time in Dallas absorbing the jazz scene. He briefly played trumpet on a tour of Officers’ Clubs in Sandy Sandifer’s Big Band, before heading to LA to study illustration at the Art Center School. During his two years in art school, he studied jazz trumpet with Jane Sager, who taught Chet Baker and Herb Alpert. About the time the tuition money ran out, a friend from Canada played him some LPs of up-and-coming folk artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, changing his musical direction.
“When I left LA the folk music thing was just getting going,” Tillison said. “I got a guitar, learned a few chords and started playing folk songs in little clubs, first in Dallas and later in Lawton, Oklahoma.” Lawton was an army town in the 60’s and during the Vietnam era was known for its nightlife. Tillison began playing protest songs and other folk music in the Gallerie, Rudy Perez’ coffeehouse and beer club catering to soldiers, bikers, hookers and hippies. In the time-honored troubadour tradition, he also began traveling the country in cars that would often die on the road – hitchhiking when they did. With his buddy – beat poet Art Pruett – he went to New York and LA playing a few clubs, but he always returned to Lawton and the Gallerie, where he also began writing songs. During that time in Lawton, he began his association with Jimmy Markham, who was playing at the Tradewinds blues club with his band, the Scamps. The Tradewinds could be a rough place, as Tillison remembered.
“One night we were playing when Jimmy Markham shouted, ‘Cheese-it guys, he’s got a gun!’ and we all dove off the bandstand and tried to hide behind anything we could to keep from catching a stray bullet as two guys scrambled around on the barroom floor after a pistol one of them had dropped,” he said. “I grabbed my girlfriend Terrye and we both hid beneath the table of a booth, thinking we’d probably be safe there until the fight for the gun, which was being kicked around the dance floor by two off-duty soldiers out for a night on the town on a weekend pass from Ft. Sill and a bellyful of rotgut whiskey. We made it under the table and Terrye suddenly noticed that she had dropped her purse in all the excitement so she decided to retrieve it and was almost back to the dance floor before I could retrieve her. Women have the strangest connection with their purses.”
Back in LA, Markham introduced him to Leon Russell, then a session producer and the nucleus of a group of Oklahoma musicians including drummers Bill Boatman, Jimmy Karstein and Chuck Blackwell as well as other musicians Jim Keltner and J.J. Cale. Tillison also wrote for Russell and his partner, Snuff Garrett. Tillison and his then-girlfriend Terrye Newkirk started cutting records with Snuff Garrett Productions as The Gypsy Trips — eventually signed to Liberty Records. Around this time, he and Newkirk co-wrote a song for Herman’s Hermits that became a hit for Gary Lewis. “You Don’t Have to Paint Me a Picture” reached #10 on the charts.
The nascent songwriter eventually moved to the Villa Carlotta in LA where he participated in bathroom jam sessions with his friends and neighbors — including Rolling Stones tenor saxman Bobby Keys and Levon Helm (drummer for the Hawks-soon to become The Band).
Tillison and Helm had various adventures together, including one memorable trip to Mexico.
“One day Levon and I decided to run down to Tijuana and catch the bullfights,” Tillison said. “We went down in Levon’s girlfriend Bonnie’s Corvette and had a helluva time getting us all in the car — Levon and Bonnie in the front and Terrye and I in the back, which wasn’t much more than a cubbyhole, just a storage compartment really. We got there just in time to see El Cordobes, the famous bullfighter from Spain in his ‘suit of lights,’ kill a brave bull that was already dead or almost dead before the ‘great matador’ even made his entry into the Corrida. Once the picadors finish their job, the bull is almost finished too. We sat on the sunny side and drank beer and had a good old time by the Mexican band who were, to say the least, loud and funky and out of tune.
“We had a great afternoon and were back at the hotel having a meal and taking a break when someone came up with the idea of trying to find the legendary and much-rumored cabaret show featuring ‘The Woman and the Donkey,’” he said. “I’m not sure who came up with the idea, but I don’t think it was Terrye and I’m certain as hell it wasn’t Bonnie. She really put her foot down on the idea and started saying that we sure as hell weren’t going to be using her car for anything weird like that. I think that’s about the time that Levon suggested that she take the Greyhound bus back to Hollywood and we would taker her car and meet her later back at the Villa Carlotta as soon as the show was over. Well needless to say that never happened and to this day I’ve never met anyone who’s actually seen The Woman and the Donkey.”
“Memory is a funny thing,” Newkirk said. “My recollection is that it was only Levon who wanted to see ‘girlie shows.’ Roger declined, and the idea was stillborn. Of course, it makes a better story Roger’s way, and he was always a great storyteller.
“On the way back to L.A., Roger drove, and Bonnie rode in the back. I was perched on the console, half sharing the passenger seat with Levon. He was playing harp and singing blues, and I was distracted by the fact that he was pressing against me while singing about being ‘in love with another man’s wife.’ I just pretended not to notice.”
In another more perilous escapade, Tillison and Helm and their Villa Carlotta cohorts nearly didn’t return from their one and only formal gig – in a rough neighborhood in Watts only one year after the riots.
“Jim Markham called me one evening and wanted me to play his gig that night because he was sick and couldn’t make it,” Tillison recalled. “So not wanting to let Jimmy down, I said ok and we headed out that evening – me, Levon, Jesse Ed, Gordon Shryrock, and Bobby Keys – to the Watts area in East LA where the year before they had the riots that everyone knew about and we should have known that it was probably no place for a bunch of white cats playing old black Chicago blues to be hanging out, unless you were looking for trouble. And that’s exactly what we found.
“Once we arrived at the club we unloaded our equipment, set up and started playing,” he said. “The small club was pretty much deserted all night, just a few stragglers. The first two sets went ok but on the break after the third set I guy I didn’t know asked me for ‘some of that pot.’ Of course I told him I didn’t have any pot and to ask the other guys, but I was pretty sure they didn’t have any either. That didn’t sit well with him because they could see us smoking in our car on the earlier breaks. The big round booth at the back of the club was ffilled with this guy’s and some other cats drinking beer along with a few of their girlfriends. They jeered and hooted at us all of the last set, and when we were finished and packing up out in the parking lot the excitement started.
“I remember coming out of the side door of the club with my trumpet, looking for the car in that dark, blind-alley lot beside the club. I looked over at the vehicle and saw Bobby Keys with a big fellow astraddle his back beating him on the head with one of our mic stands. Bobby was doing pretty good at staying on his feet when I decided to leap up on the guy’s back and try to help my friend out. We all fell to the ground in a pile and by some stroke of luck I managed to land on top and was about to jack the guy’s jaw when I felt the toe of a boot in my own jaw and heard a bottle break behind me on the brick wall of the club and then I heard somebody holler out, ‘kill the motherfucker.’ I got up and sort of staggered towards the door of the joint but Levon and Ed along with the club owner had it locked and weren’t about to open it. About that time someone hollered ‘cops’ and everybody in the parking lot disappeared except of course those of us who just had the shit kicked out of us. Well, the cops came and I apologized to them for us even being in that area so soon after the riots. They agreed with me and said that we probably needed to head on back home. On the way back to Hollywood and the Villa Carlotta Levon was wondering if we should get his pistol and go back and shoot some of the bastards that beat us up but we finally decided that probably wouldn’t be the best thing after all.”
While on tour with J.J. Cale in Alabama, Tillison also manage to arouse the ire of some country music fans.
“We were on the same bill as Black Oak Arkansas,” he remembered. “Since we were guys in our 30s we figured we were no match for Black Oak so the best thing was to just play our stuff and quickly get off the stage. We soon understood after playing the first couple of songs that those kids were there to see one thing that night and that was Black Oak Arkansas. When the beer cans and cups and various other stuff started coming up on stage at us we knew we should probably get the fuck out of there fast.
“I was playing trumpet with Bill Boatman on tenor sax and if needed, I would be announced as a guest artist. I’d strap on my guitar that was laying up on one of the speakers and go up and play a couple of tunes for the folks. Well, suddenly I was needed. Cale introduced me and I was on my way to the microphone when J.J. slyly slipped out of the spotlight and headed for the shadows to play guitar behind me. The kids were so noisy and crazy on beer and pot and whatever else that they never heard my name or what I was going to play but when I started to sing an old song that I had put to a rock beat called ‘I Never Felt More Like Singing the Blues,’ they suddenly exploded. I mean the roof came off the coliseum there in Shreveport. I didn’t realize it, but by pure chance I had played Black Oak’s latest release. They were so fucked up and excited they thought somehow I must be part of Black Oak’s outfit and they loved it and went wild. All we knew is that it looked like a good time to get outa Dodge so we grabbed our instruments and headed for the safety of the dressing rooms. My head was blown up hugely for the rest of the tour, I thought I had actually gone and knocked their lights out until a friend of mine said, ‘hell yes they liked it! That was Black Oak’s new hit.”
Roger soon returned to Lawton, where he and Jesse Ed Davis had a standing gig as a folk rock duo at the Gallerie for eight months or so.
“We’d work there for 2 or 3 months at a time doing folk-rock, blues and whatever else we could fit in that we like to play when we were not in LA recording,” Tillison said. “We’d wrap it up around 1 or 2 am on Friday and Saturday nights, then go around town clubhopping, sitting-in, or just listening. One Saturday night we decided to go over on ‘the hill’ and catch Little Johnny Taylor, a famous rhythm and blues singer. He had the joint rockin’. A couple hundred people really getting down around their Saturday night fun, dancing to Little Johnny. I think Jesse asked one of the musicians if we could sit in, because the next thing I knew we were on stage playing. Man, those folks really like to dance and celebrate life when they’re on the dance floor and Jesse and I were proud to be up there playing for them and being a part of all that. We must have played for an hour and a half straight. Little Johnny left the bandstand to take a break but we kept right on cookin’…Jesse Ed and me with Little Johnny’s rhythm section. There was something about that night that I’ll never forget. Playing there just stamped it for us: from then on, we were bluesmen.”
Through his association with Levon Helm, Tillison moved to Woodstock, NY, for a time, playing at the Sled Hill Café and hanging out with the other members of The Band – Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. During this period, Roger also played with other various musicians, including Paul Butterfield and Rod Hicks, and at benefits for the Hudson River Cleanup Project with Odetta and Pete Seeger. He also traveled with Ken Lauber.
“We did a road tour together as a duet — piano and guitar — and performed only Dylan and Band songs,” Lauber said. “Harmony was what we were reaching for although often it was mostly unison howling. Most of the gigs we played were in some Hells Angels clubs/caves. We survived just fine even though the pianos were always out of tune and the pay was very much out of tune. But we didn’t give a hoot, we just rocked and drove and rolled and ate mostly donuts and coffee at Phillips gas station stores. When we got to Duncan to Doc’s (Roger’s dad) house of course we slept for days, ate some fine home– cooked meals and then went out again for a few months”.
In December, 1971 Jesse Ed Davis called Tillison back out to LA to record Roger Tillison’s Album for Atlantic Records, produced by Davis. Also featured on the album were Stan Szeleste, Sandy Konikoff, Larry Knechtel, Billy Rich, Don Preston, Joey Cooper and Jim Keltner. The record, now considered a classic of its time, featured original songs as well as covers of others by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Stevie Wonder. After declining to tour without his band as proposed by his record label, Tillison went back to Lawton. By this time, the Gallerie was catering to a younger crowd and the folk era was over. In true Woody Guthrie style, he continued to travel around the country doing what work he could. He worked for a couple of years as an Illustrator for the U.S. Army at Ft. Sill, Ok. At another time he lived above Bob’s General Store in Eagle Nest, New Mexico while helping to build the country’s first memorial to Vietnam vets in nearby Angel Fire, New Mexico.
J.J. Cale covered one of Tillison’s songs, “One Step Ahead of the Blues.” They toured together in Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee in the early ‘80s. Tillison also wrote songs and played with Tulsa musicians Walt Richmond, Jamie Oldaker and Steve Ripley who eventually formed The Tractors. Tillison played trumpet on the first Tractors CD.
For most of his life, Tillison lived in Tulsa where he wrote and recorded with some of the many players he associated with over the years. For the past 15 years, he lived on a ranch in Mounds, Oklahoma with his wife Jackie and their dogs and horses. His last record, Mamble-Jamble, was released in Japan on Dreamsville records and he toured in Japan to support it in 2002.
“He was very big in Japan,” said Tillson’s friend Rocky Frisco, J.J. Cale’s longtime keyboard player. “Rather like the way Jerry Lewis and J.J. Cale were near-worshipped in France, Japan just loved Roger. Long after his career had begun to fade here in North America, he was still touring in Japan very successfully. Roger had a remarkable, whimsical sense of humor; when I remember him, he’s always smiling.”