The post-1970 recordings of Marvin Gaye really can't be considered purely soul. There's too much jazz-influenced sophistication in Gaye's delivery and accompanying orchestrations to sum up these albums that simply. Each of Gaye's LPs from this period was a concept album, and Gaye's artistic independence and socio-romantic messages were daring and groundbreaking. Of the eight albums Gaye recorded between 1971 and 1981, the moody successor to his expressive masterpiece What's Going On (1971) is I Want You (1976). The album was composed and produced by Leon Ware, whose own personal experiences illustrate the role that jazz and r&b played in soul's development. [Pictured: Leon Ware]
Like many soul-pop songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, Leon came up in the 1950s, influenced initially by jazz vocalists and street-corner doo-wop harmonies. After years spent singing with jazz artists such as Yusef Lateef, Joe Henderson and others, Leon followed in the footsteps of his childhood friend and songwriter Lamont Dozier. Leon wrote hits for the Isley Brothers (Got to Have You Back), Michael Jackson (I Wanna Be Where You Are), Quincy Jones (Body Heat), the Average White Band (If I Ever Lose This Heaven), the Main Ingredient (Rolling Down a Mountainside) and other soul artists.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Leon, the 69-year-old songwriter-singer talks about a childhood injury that left him blind for two years, singing with jazz artists who came to Detroit in the late 1950s, being pulled in two different directions by jazz and r&b, and why he ultimately chose to become an soul songwriter:
JazzWax: You grew up in Detroit with 10 brothers and sisters? What was it like being the youngest?
Leon Ware: I was the prince of the family. I had six older brothers who made sure I knew how to fight, and they looked after me. My sisters taught me about the ladies. I didn’t really have much parenting. My mother was busy with the local Baptist church, where she played piano. My father worked for Ford Motor Co. on the assembly line. He was a quiet man. And tall. He was six foot six and very peaceful. He was a walking saying.
JW: What do you mean by "walking saying?"
LW: My father didn’t talk a lot, but he would say things that told you what he was thinking. He'd come up with sayings like, "It's a tell-tell world," meaning that if you listened carefully, the world would tell you what's going to happen. Or, "You never have to trust anyone," meaning that whatever someone tells you, it will show itself to be true or false tomorrow anyway.
JW: Did you listen to jazz growing up in the late 1950s?
LW: Very much. I lived in a neighborhood in Detroit that had two bars, one on each corner. One was a blues bar and the other featured jazz. I started singing in the jazz bar when I was 14 years old. I would stand outside and sing along to the music. One day a guy came out and said I had a nice voice. He asked if I wanted to sing. I said, "Sure." He said, “I’ll put you on stage, but we’ll have to kick you out right away.” I sang A Foggy Day, Moonlight in Vermont and Day by Day.
JW: Did you sing with well-known jazz artists?
LW: Yes. Between age 16 in 1956 and 19 in 1959, I sang with saxophonist Yusef Lateef whenever he played Klein’s Show Bar in Detroit. Yusef was like a god to me. He was revered and unaffected, like a priest. Yusef let me sing because he liked my voice. I sang jazz standards—nothing specific. I also sang with Beans Bowles, who played baritone sax. And with Joe Henderson, Kirk Lightsey and Roy Brooks.
JW: Who was your idol?
LW: My first inspiration was Nat King Cole. But I also loved Erroll Garner, whose left hand amazed me. The first album I bought was Erroll’s Concert by the Sea. I also loved Nat’s Too Young, with all those strings. I’ve always loved strings and that romantic sound. Other singing influences were Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine and James Brown, who changed soul music.
JW: Where did you learn to play piano?
LW: Nowhere. I’m gifted. I had the great fortune to play anything I heard. It was magical. So I’m really self-taught. I’ve had three or four different teachers, but their advice was always the same: Don’t take lessons [laughs]. Now, I’m finally going to take some music lessons so I can tell what key I’m in [laughs].
JW: You were blind for two years as a child, weren’t you?
LW: Yes, I let go of the wrong end of slingshot when I was five years old. I was blind in the right eye, but they covered my left eye, too. They worried that if my left eye wasn’t covered, it would be too strong if my right eye regained its vision. So I was totally blind for two years.
JW: What was that like?
LW: As a child, you have remarkable resilience. It didn’t bother me. But I did learn an important lesson about the world in which we live and how to judge people. I learned that you can see who people truly are when you’re not looking at them. To this day I close my eyes when checking out people.
JW: Did your love of music suffer during your blindness?
LW: No. I never really stopped being musical. It was a gift. And it was a gift that existed whether I could see or not. You have to remember, I wasn’t allowed to play the piano in my house anyway up until I was 12 years old. My mother was deeply religious and thought the devil had given me my talent. I had this beautiful little voice, but she thought the devil’s disciple was at my door. [Pictured: Leon Ware in 1969]
JW: Your mother was musical, yes?
LW: Yes, my mother played piano in church, and I was there every night between the ages of 7 and 12. During this time, I formed my love for religion and learned why religion is so beautiful. It's the doorway that every human goes through when guided by the love to reach other humans.
JW: When did you mother finally give in?
LW: When I was 12 she finally relinquished her denial about my musical talents. People kept telling her how gifted I was and to let the talent grow. So she did.
JW: How did your vision return at age 7?
LW: I started to see things again and told my mother what was happening. What I had done with the slingshot was tear the retina in my right eye. Over the two-year period that followed, the retina healed, miraculously.
JW: Was doo-wop a big influence on soul?
LW: In some ways. But we didn’t call it doo-wop, back then. We just called it singing. I joined a group called the Romeos in Detroit. Lamont Dozier [pictured] was a member. We sang in alleys because they had a great echo. Then we sang on the corner because people gathered round.
JW: Were the Romeos good?
LW: I guess so. We never had a shoe thrown at us [laughs]. I also sang a lot in the bathroom because it had a good echo.
JW: What was Lamont Dozier like?
LW: Very much like myself: Young, talented, thirsty and naturally driven.
JW: When did the Romeos break up?
LW: In 1957. When we broke up, I didn’t see Lamont for a couple of years. The next time I saw him was in 1960, in Detroit. He was writing songs for Motown, and the label just started having big hits with the Supremes. Lamont was driving a Cadillac. Seeing Lamont for the first time after not seeing him for three years and that he was doing as well as he was motivated me to start writing r&b songs, too.
JW: What were you doing before you saw Dozier?
LW: For the three years I hadn’t seen him I was a pure jazz singer. I loved jazz. It was my concentration. Until I saw Lamont, that is. When he drove away that day in his Cadillac, I watched him disappear and made up my mind that if he had one, I could have one too.
JW: So the money was an influence?
LW: Money was everything for a poor kid. I realized that writing jazz and being a jazz singer wasn’t going to bring me what I wanted. Anyone who loves and plays jazz is a jazz purist. They are music lovers. They love jazz to the point where they dedicate themselves to the art, not the business part.
JW: Did jazz continue to have an influence on you as you wrote r&b and soul songs in the 1960s?
LW: Yes, absolutely. I think jazz has had an influence on many r&b and soul writers, from the writers at Motown, to Stax to Brunswick to Philadelphia International. All of us, from Lamont [Dozier] to Gamble and Huff to Isaac Hayes—all of us were in those ‘hoods where we were influenced by what we heard at corner bars. You have to understand, back then, in the 1950s—whether it was Detroit, Philadelphia, down South, wherever—all neighborhoods had bars, and all of these bars played the blues and jazz.
JW: So the bars with live music playing all day couldn’t help but influence r&b and soul writers coming up?
LW: That’s right. Jazz and blues were prominent. The music has colored the appetites of each individual songwriter. The bars you gravitated toward wound up shaping your insights and musical tastes. And as a songwriter, I had that music playing in my mind all the time. I could have easily been a blues singer if I favored the blues bar over the jazz bar.
Tomorrow, Leon talks about why so many young r&b songwriters in the early 1960s went into soul, and the making of Marvin' Gaye's classic I Want You.
JazzWax tracks: In the 1970s, Leon Ware pioneered a soul sound that took a sensitive, caring male vocal and combined it with glossy strings, a pulse-like beat and jazzy horns. The result was seductive, slow-dance love songs that appealed equally to men and women. You can hear this sound on two albums by Leon—Musical Massage and his latest album, Moon Ride. Both are available at iTunes and online retailers.
JazzWax thanks: 1960 red Cadillac photo above © Copyright 2009 James C. Ritchie / www.JCRitchie.com.
JazzWax clip: Here's Leon singing his composition I Want You in 2001, which Marvin Gaye recorded in 1976...