A Lasting Legend
More than a year after his death, Oklahoma drummer Jamie Oldaker’s legacy is holding strong
Jamie Oldaker is arguably best known for playing with rock legends Eric Clapton, Ace Frehley, Peter Frampton and more. h But the renowned drummer had a passion for all kinds of music — and all kinds of people who love making it, from up-and-coming players learning the craft to fellow Oklahomans working on the indie scene.
“He wasn’t a strictly a rock player; he played country, he played bluegrass, he played heavy metal. He played blues, jazz, and he was good at all of them. And he was very adamant in his feelings about being a musician and understanding all the different types of music — and playing them well,” said Mary Oldaker, the Tulsa native’s widow.
“I think some people probably saw him as maybe a little tough. But Jamie felt like if you’re serious about that type of career, you need to be really serious and you need to play it all and you need to understand it.”
More than a year after his death from cancer on July 16, 2020, in his hometown Oldaker’s influence lives on, from the plans for the under-construction Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture to the credits on the latest album from pal and fellow Oklahoman Mike Hosty.
“I think of Jamie every day. Every time I go into a meeting with the architects or the construction manager or whoever I’m working with, I’m thinking, ‘OK, what’s Jamie gonna say about this?’” said Jeff Moore, executive director of the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, aka OKPOP, which is set to open in Tulsa in 2022.
“He was involved in a lot of ways.”
Although he is best known for playing with Clapton and other rockers, Oldaker also performed with fellow Oklahomans Leon Russell, J.J. Cale and the GAP Band, helped former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn start his country music career and was a founding member of the Grammynominated country band The Tractors.
Born Sept. 5, 1951, in Oakland, California, to Dee Dee and Carl Robert Oldaker, Jamie moved as a child to Tulsa, where his father, a former drummer, inspired him to take up percussion.
“He started out at a very young age ... and they were not like your typical parents,” his widow said. “They actually would let the kids practice at their house at all hours of the night. Dee Dee would take Jamie to gigs late at night when he was really young. The other kids would be asleep in the car, and she’d drop him off, she’d pick him up at 2 in the morning with the kids asleep in the car, and take him back home.”
In 1971, Oldaker joined Bob Seger’s band and worked with him through 1974, when he joined Clapton’s band — which included fellow Oklahomans Carl Radle on bass and Dick Sims on keys — during the sessions for Clapton’s comeback album “461 Ocean Boulevard,” which marked the music star’s return to the studio after a hiatus while battling heroin addiction.
“Eric Clapton’s band in the ’70s was basically core Oklahoma guys,” Moore said.
Oldaker remained with Clapton’s band through 1980 and joined for a second stint from 1983 to 1986. The drummer died at age 68 just a few days after the 35th anniversary of the legendary Live Aid concert, where Oldaker gave an electrifying performance of “Layla” and other assorted songs with Clapton and Phil Collins on July 13, 1985.
“When he left Leon Russell and joined Eric Clapton, he absolutely embraced every bit of the international touring rock star lifestyle. He just loved
to travel; he loved airplanes,” Moore said. “He always was interested in making friends with all the people along the way, not just the rock stars, but the roadies or the flight attendants.”
Getting everybody’s story
The 2010 Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame inductee met with legislators to garner support for the OKPOP, and once worked started on the project, Oldaker and Moore often met for a meal to talk out ideas for the Oklahoma Historical Society museum.
“He always challenged me, ‘We’ve got to get everybody’s story; it’s not just the big names. It’s not just Leon and Cale.’ He introduced me to Walt Richmond and Jimmy Byfield, some of the other Tulsa Sound guys ... and he made friends with the new Tulsa music guys, the Jacob Tovars and the John Fullbrights and the Paul Benjamans,” Moore said.
“He was always providing advice and providing insight into how to make this something that’s great, something special, and at the end of the day, something that Oklahoma deserves. It’s something he wanted to be proud of.”
Although OKPOP won’t open until next year, the Jamie Oldaker Roots Music Series already is planned for the space as well as for academic settings. Conceived by Oldaker’s widow, the series is designed to help the public more fully appreciate the music they love by delving into how various genres have come to be.
“A couple of months after Jamie died, I was just typing away on my laptop — I was trying to put down everything about Jamie I could think of; I didn’t want to forget anything — and it suddenly hit me, the one thing he was adamant about was education and music. He also was adamant that young people especially understand where their music came from,” said Mary Oldaker, who married the drummer in 2016.
“The one thing I promised Jamie — and I didn’t need to promise it, I would have done it no matter what — is that I would never let his legacy not be attended to ... because he certainly left his mark.”
In particular, she is working on completing a book her husband started, as well as making some of his music available for streaming, particularly his 2005 all-star album “Mad Dogs & Okies,” which featured Clapton, Frampton, Cale, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and more.
“It was really fun when he met Mary, because it was a great love story between the two,” Hosty said. “For me, that was the coolest thing to see, when your friend falls in love again.”
Honoring the Tulsa way
Hosty said he met Oldaker in 1999, and they played together when the drummer lived in Norman.
“It was funny, sometimes we’d go somewhere, and I’d go like, ‘Jamie, we’re not playing Live Aid. No one’s gonna bring us towels.’ And he’s like ‘Oh, oh, yeah,’” Hosty recalled with a chuckle. “He was just great, and I think his legacy really is helping people.”
Oldaker played on Hosty’s bluesy new album, “Which Way to Tulsa,” along with fellow Tulsa Sound pioneers Byfield on guitar and Gary Gilmore of Taj Mahal fame on bass. Hosty capped the album — which includes a spiffy new version of his signature song “Oklahoma Breakdown,” which has been covered by Okie stars like Stoney LaRue and Toby Keith — at eight tracks when Oldaker as well as Tulsan Jerry Garland, who helped organize and finance the project, both died of cancer during the recording process.
“I learned to play guitar watching an Eric Clapton live in Hartford, Connecticut, VHS tape, and Jamie was the drummer. So, he was one of my idols, and then I met him and he became my friend. Then, he became a mentor, and then he was a bandmate to me. And then, towards the end, he was a dear friend,” Hosty said.
“He really imparted on me that there’s a weird part of your career where everybody kind of forgets about you ... and doing this album was bringing that recognition to these artists who are so influential who don’t get always get the attention they deserve.”