Monday, January 7, 2019
– Steve Ripley, the driving force behind The Tractors, died Thursday, Jan. 3at the age of 69. He passed peacefully in his home, surrounded by love and family, according to the band's website.
Most known as the leader of The Tractors and for his 19-year ownership of Tulsa, Okla.'s The Church Studio, Ripley also was also known for being a guitar player, engineer, record producer, songwriter, recording artist, studio owner and radio host. He played guitar with Bob Dylan, produced and/or engineered projects for Leon Russell, JJ Cale, Roy Clark and Johnnie Lee Wills. He had a line of Ripley guitars invented the stereo guitar played by Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder and Dweezil Zappa.
Once, while sitting at George Harrison's recording console at Friar Park, Ringo Starr asked Ripleu, "Do you know how to run this thing?" To which Steve replied, "Well yeah, I guess I do. You know, it's what I do."
Ripley's life-long interest in modern musicology was highlighted by a radio series, Oklahoma Rock & Roll, exploring Oklahoma's contributions to music and American pop culture and most recently, his successful efforts to rescue and preserve the musical archives of his friend and mentor, Leon Russell.
Born Paul Steven Ripley on Jan. 1, 1950, during his parents' brief residency in Idaho, Ripley grew up on the family's Oklahoma Land Run homestead in Pawnee County. On his radio show, he recalled his first musical memory at only three years old: hearing his dad enthusiastically sing along to Bob Wills' "Roly Poly" in the family car. His most impactful musical memory, however, was hearing Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" on his Aunt Babe's radio. Ripley was six. Looking back on that rock and roll epiphany, he said: "It just slayed me. Nothing would ever be the same."
At eight, Ripley saw a performance by a young rockabilly duo, The Collins Kids at the Oklahoma State Fair that revealed to him the sheer power of a live performance. Witnessing the famous Ed Sullivan Show appearance by The Beatles as a young teen showed him the potential for transmitting a performance coast to coast.
Playing in bands from junior high forward, Ripley continued to work nearly full time as a musician while attending Oklahoma State University, earning a degree in communications. He discovered his love for studio recording in 1965 from Gene Sullivan (one half of them1940s country duet act Wiley & Gene), recording in Sullivan's Hi-Fi Recording Studio in Oklahoma City, the same studio where Tulsa musicians J.J.Cale, Leon Russell, and David Gates made some of their first recordings. Ripley opened his first studio, Stillwater Sound, in the early 1970s.
In 1972, Ripley recorded his first record with his band Moses, comprised of Steve and his close Stillwater music friends, who recorded and released a self-titled live album. The name the band chose for their record label, Red Dirt Records, places Ripley at the birth of the Oklahoma style of music that would one day be dubbed Americana.
Ripley was an early inductee into the Oklahoma Red Dirt Hall of Fame. "He was the founder of Red Dirt for the Stillwater guys," says John Cooper of the Oklahoma band Red Dirt Rangers. "Steve had a studio in town for our kind of music...first. Steve had the great Stillwater band that made a record...first. Steve was the guy, who (Red Dirt musicians) Jimmy LaFave, Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Randy Crouch, Gene Williams, Chuck Dunlap, Greg Jacobs...thought of as first generation Red Dirt. He was their hero, the guy they looked up to, the guy who made it."
In April 1976, Ripley married Charlene Grant, who he had met at his Stillwater recording studio when her school band was recording there. He had immediately noticed and soon fell in love with Charlene, the cute girl in overalls, and throughout his life she was his constant companion and partner in all Ripley projects.
After a stint working as a songwriter living in Nashville, Ripley landed a job as a live sound engineer for Leon Russell, which would be the birth of a lifelong friendship/mentorship with Russell.
Ripley then moved back to Oklahoma in the late 1970's, working for the Jim Halsey Company and producing critically acclaimed albums by Roy Clark/Gatemouth Brown (Makin' Music) and Johnnie Lee Wills (Reunion). Following this was a move to Burbank, Cal., where he worked as a studio engineer for Russell's Paradise Records, collaborating on many projects including J.J. Cale and New Grass Revival. Additionally, he played guitar on Cale records and produced an album for the band 20/20.
His California stint also produced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for one of his biggest musical heroes: Bob Dylan. Ripley landed work playing guitar on the Dylan album "Shot of Love" and jetting off on a world tour with the band. Ripley's "Dylan Connection" was his friend, drummer for the stars (and Tulsa native) Jim Keltner, who was also playing with Dylan at the time. Ripley said of Keltner: "He got me the Dylan gigs, introduced me to The Beatles...I'm a lucky farm boy to have such a friend."
Said Keltner: "Steve had so many different talents. Ry Cooder had him customize some very unique gear that eventually became a very cool part of his sound. Steve came aboard Bob Dylan's great gospel band in 1981 and did the last two tours with us. We all had such a good time on the road with Bob. He and the great Fred Tackett, along with my buddy Tim Drummond, all together, playing Bob's music behind him, was something I'll never forget."
Ripley also became friends with Eddie Van Halen, with whom he collaborated on his stereo guitar design and started the Ripley Guitars company. The two forged a lifelong friendship and mutual love that lasted until Ripley's final days.
"For more than 35 years I've been fortunate to call Steve Ripley one of my true friends," said Eddie. "Steve is many things: part genius, part musician, part inventor, and many other great things. But my favorite thing about Steve is the wonderful, kind, humble human being he is and always will be! I love Steve with all my heart and am proud to know him."
In 1987, the Ripley family moved again to Tulsa where he acquired the recording facility The Church Studio which had once been owned by Leon Russell in the 1970s.
After filling the studio with Steinway pianos, Hammond organs, Leslie speakers, and vintage guitars, amplifiers, drums, microphones and high end recording gear, The Church would become Ripley's second home and the hub for his larger body of creative work: seven albums from The Tractors, and one solo album simply titled "Ripley." The latter leaned towards roots-Americana.
In 1994, The Tractors were a left of center band, but they scored with its self-titled CD.
The disc combined the western swing of Bob Wills and traditional country stylings of Hank Williams, to the emergence of Chuck Berry and what Ripley called, "The Elvis Thing."
In 1994, The Tractors debut record went Platinum faster than any debut album by a country group in history, eventually achieving double-platinum status. Tim DuBois, president of The Tractors' label at that time, said of his first impression: "I remember dropping a tape into the machine and the first thing I heard was 'The Tulsa Shuffle' - and I was hooked immediately."
The debut album garnered two Grammy nominations, won CMT Video of the Year for its hit single, "Baby Likes to Rock It," and is to this day the top-selling record of all time for a work recorded in Oklahoma.
"Steve was truly a creative genius," says DuBois. "He and I had known each other since the late sixties when we both attended Oklahoma State. Our musical careers took us down different paths, but when they crossed again in the early '90s, I was running Arista Nashville, and he and a group of his Tulsa friends were building The Tractors. The music wasn't exactly country, but it was exactly great. Somehow we managed to get it on country radio, the CMA show, and sell over 2 million albums."
Ripley sold both the studio and his Tulsa home in 2005, and he and Charlene moved back out to the Pawnee County farm where he was raised, quickly expanding it beyond the small farmhouse to a compound of sorts: a guitar shop, recording studio, a second house for hosting innumerable parties and friends, a studio simply dubbed The Farm. He continued recording music, including a collaboration with the Red Dirt Rangers, "Ripley and the Rangers."
In 2007, the Oklahoma Historical Society reached out to Ripley during the development of an exhibit on the history of Rock and Roll, called Another Hot Oklahoma Night. As part of the public programming for the exhibit, the OHS contracted with Steve to host 20 one-hour radio shows that were broadcast on all of the NPR affiliates in Oklahoma
In 2013, Ripley was hired as an audio archivist,and worked with OKPOP Executive Director Jeff Moore to engineer a collection of unreleased Bob Wills recordings, which was later released on vinyl. In 2016, OKPOP acquired the Leon Russell Archive and Ripley became the official Curator of the Leon Russell Collection. Through his illness he carefully cleaned, stabilized and digitized hundreds of songs recorded by Russell.
"Steve was such an inspiration to all of us at the OHS, his vision and dedication to the OKPOP project has been invaluable," said Moore. "He truly loved Oklahoma. He introduced us to so many of his friends and colleagues in the music industry. We will always be indebted to him. His passion and energy will continue to live through everything we do in OKPOP."
Ripley also was involved in the "Stand (Let Your Voice Be Heard)" session, a song and music video project in 2014 benefiting the Red Dirt Relief Fund. The production and engineering of the music was tasked to Ripley
In 2017, Ripley was given the opportunity to re-visit two of the great passions of his life: his role as a band-leader and his love of all things Dylan, when he was asked by the George Kaiser Family Foundation to create a live musical event celebrating the arrival of the Dylan archives, which were acquired and relocated to Tulsa, and will soon be housed in the Bob Dylan Center.
Ripley's final recording is a composition written and recorded for his grandson Mickey, titled: "Mickey and Grandpa (A Day In the Life)." He blended a gently spoken-word narrative with a Ripley guitar presence plus a chorus and a musical bridge borrowed from one of his earliest musical heroes, The Beatles.
Ripley is survived by his wife, Charlene, his son Elvis Ripley and girlfriend Paige Turlington, his daughter Angelene Ripley Wright, son-in-law Jonny Wright, grandson Mickey Wilder Ripley Wright, and brothers Scott Ripley and Bobby Ripley and their families.
The family will announce a memorial service at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Red Dirt Relief Fund, which provides a safety net of critical assistance to Red Dirt music people in times of need.