Graduating To Greater Things
“At our 20 year anniversary, I was going to sell the colleges, and then I just chickened out. I panicked. I thought about it, prayed about it and went to bed one night to awaken with the decision to make the organization a non-profit. It made sense. We employed the most generous team, hadn’t raised tuition in over a decade, gave millions away in scholarships, and I really felt like we were running a mission at the campus,” Knox said. It took two years to make the change, but upon completion, she stepped down as CEO, moved out of operations and voted on to become a board member. She had been tied to the schools for over 20 years, and now they would no longer be a part of her daily life. She found herself in a “funk” and realized that she was going through the grieving process. She also realized that the future was waiting with open arms.
She was already enjoying commercial real estate development but wanted to expand that business and pursue her love of historical preservation. She first purchased a property near the historic Circle Cinema in Tulsa and began restoring that with a friend. Soon to follow was various properties in the Pearl District including the Church Studio. Her love of Leon Russell’s music would be the hook, and the studio would be her greatest historical catch.
Finding A New Church
“First off, I am a huge Leon Russell fan. He was so talented, and I don’t think a lot of people truly realize the talent that he was. He wasn’t just a singer but a brilliant songwriter, composer, and entrepreneur. He was a top musician in the country in 1972 and could have gone anywhere. But, he chose to come back to his hometown. That alone is incredible,” she said. For her, it was as though she was drawn to The Church Studio as almost hearing Russell’s melody of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ beckoning her to turn the forgotten stranger into a new friend. With a nudge from her big brother, Larry-another huge Leon Russell fan—she found herself driving past it and even picking up the garbage that drifted onto the property. She sought out the owner and bought the studio without even going inside.
“At that point, I wanted it so badly! I wanted to bring it back to its original glory. I wanted it to be a positive reflection on Leon Russell.” He hadn’t passed away at that time but did a couple of months later. Russell had turned the church into a studio in the spring of 1972. It was also home office to Shelter Records. Russell closed the studio in 1976, and it was eventually sold. Knox purchased the studio in August of 2016 and decided to breathe new life into a withering landmark. She did not know Russell and was “purely a fan” but held his legacy in high regard as someone who mentored and propelled so many artists including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Dwight Twilley, and the Gap Band to stardom and for developing the “Tulsa Sound” with Tulsa native singer/songwriter J.J. Cale. Famed guitarist Eric Clapton would pick up this sound and record Cale’s songs ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Cocaine.’ Lynyrd Skynyrd would also record his song ‘Call Me The Breeze.’ Leon’s magnetism and the other Tulsa Sound musicians like Walt Richmond, David Teegarden, Carl Radle, Jamie Oldaker, Jimmy Markham, and Chuck Blackwell to name a few also attracted greats to Oklahoma such as Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Peter Tosh, Freddy King, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Kansas, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt.
“I not only want to honor Leon’s legacy but have a place that inspires a younger generation of musicians and is an incubation center for these artists. I am very excited about this and believe the studio will be a destination for veteran musicians and new talent alike,” she said. The studio will be an analog, and digital state-of-the-art recording studio after the restoration is complete next year. She has hopes to make The Church Studio a beautiful and functional facility that can compete with the major studios around the world. In addition, Knox has also been able to get the studio listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is making it the home to the Church Studio Archive, a 4,000 piece collection associated with Leon Russell, The Tulsa Sound, Shelter Records, and the historic church.