Sunday, 28 August 2011

Lets Do Sumthin' Sumthin - Leon Ware Interview

The name Leon Ware is the true soul brother handshake. You could meet a stranger for the first time and when the conversation turns to music ask “so what kind of music are you into?” It’s not uncommon for the response to be “I like a bit of everything; you know Soul, Pop, Motown – Aretha Franklin, that kind of thing.” Which is all cool, but if that person says “I like Soul, you know artists like Leon Ware.” Your reply is just a nod of appreciation. Instantly, you know the person you’re talking to is someone who knows their onions. They didn’t even have to tickle the palm of your hand with their index finger, mason style. 
Because whilst most of us soulheds know Leon Ware brought out a slew of alluring, romantic sultry soul albums, produced Marvin Gaye’s seminal I Want You and wrote the classics I Wanna Be Where You Are (Michael Jackson), Inside My Love (Minnie Riperton), Body Heat (Quincy Jones), Sumthin Sumthin (Maxwell) & I Know It’s You (Donny Hathaway), very few members of the great British public - most of whom mistake Aretha Franklin for being on Motown - could pick him out in a Never Mind The Buzzcocks line up.

Now, that’s not to say our new mate would have necessarily been aware of Leon’s latest album ‘Moon Ride’, his major label comeback which slipped out via Stax/Concord (Universal), because even Leon feels, Moon Ride was eclipsed by a lack of label promo.  “You know I listened to the label,” says Ware, from his home in Los Angeles, “because originally I was gonna call (the album) Urban Nights but after getting a few comments I decided changed it to Moon Ride but still I’m disappointed with the amount of machine and passion that Concord put into the record – that’s the reason I signed with them and they failed to do that. I’ve had the pleasure of being a recipient of a lot of well received work but if the company doesn’t do their part the work could be ever so good but it seem like its not there. So with the new project I’m basically doing it myself because independent is just as strong as being with a label if you know the right people to call.”

We’re with you Leon. Stick it to the man, you can do it yourself … you don’t need them do you? “Err, no I really prefer having somebody with a lot of money behind me!” Leon laughs, “A biiiig pocketbook … this is an issue I’ve had over the last 15 years - I’ve done some projects that I feel I haven’t really finished. Not like Musical Massage (Leon’s 2nd album, his best and first for Motown), which I had a budget for and it was done exactly how I wanted it. But even with the Moon Ride CD the (budget) was cut off in the last few months when the company and A&R man were having some differences that bled into my process. Getting the write engineers or what have you. I didn’t have a deadline issue it was a dead mind! I then realized there really wasn’t any conversation I could have with a place that wasn’t talking and I wasn’t getting the answers, then the record was on its way out. The only thing I could do was watch a lot of inactivity.”

Not that Leon just sat on his hands the whole time. A couple of tracks due to be released this year by Expansion Records (to help commemorate their 25 year anniversary) are testament to that. Both Ware originals, Step By Step & On The Beach would have been standouts, had they been included on the Stax set. He’s also been working with Sheree Brown.
“I was in London for a show recently (at the Indigo2) with Sheree Brown, and she told me about a book she was writing called Messages From The Heart that she wanted to do a song for and believe me it’s turned out to be a really beautiful piece of work.” 
Before that comes out, Leon is hoping to release his next project titled Street Party.
“It’s a nine song CD. But listen, I’m never going stop (making records) because it is a fertile time and atmosphere and as long as God and space allows me some more time I’m gonna be around doing exactly what I do because firstly I love doing it and secondly I’m extremely good at it…” Leon laughs, adding “I’m only repeating what I’ve been told more than once so you know … its ok.”

One of the first people who mentioned that to Leon was none other than Mr. Berry Gordy who told the young writer, “I’m gonna make you a star.”
“Stepping into Hitsville was extremely exciting and very motivating, to be around some unbelievably talented people. I wish that atmosphere on any writer starting out, as it would give them the endless rich basis and appreciation for the art. Meeting Berry Gordy was inspiring.”

Having begun working at Hitsville on a writers contract (notably penning the Isley’s Brothers Got To Have You Back & Gladys Knight & The Pips If I Were Your Woman), Ware would then leave to go and get his debut off the ground at United Artists in ’72. Returning to Motown to submit the song I Wanna Be Where You Are for Michael Jackson, co-written by Diana’s brother T-Boy Ross (says Leon “ he was a very talented man and had time granted him more before he transitioned, he could have realized a lot more of his potential.”) who would also collaborate with Ware on his follow up solo project I Want You – the rest is well known in soul folklore: Berry Gordy heard it, loved it and felt it would be perfect to jolt Marvin out of his recording rut.
“Lets just say Marvin Gaye had 3 very strong albums in his career (the others being What’s Going On & Lets Get It On) and mine is generally considered one of the 3.  Wherever people put it, it’s just a joy knowing I Want You is a profound part of his life, that in itself means as much to me. And I remember when me and Marvin had the meeting to discuss working on the project. I had already completed the album, but the change from my solo album to Marvin’s made a real good album what it is – a timeless piece of work.”
Was it hard relinquishing his baby? 
“No it wasn’t.” Says Leon with a full stop, before adding: “Because I Want You was written at a time when I was so prolific, between 1972 & 1982, that at least 2 out of every 3 songs were at least recorded by somebody. It wasn’t hard at all.”
Another song Leon wrote, and would eventually go on to record himself, was ‘Inside My love’ made famous by Minnie Riperton. Whose version is the best?
“Hers, it’s the ultimate one .... Imagine the best human being, the best circumstances and the most important thing – LOVE, and you've got it.” 

Bobby Womack, Main Ingredient, Syreeta, Thelma Houston have all used Leon Ware’s material, but arguably, Donny Hathaway’s reading of I Know Its You stands as one of the best interpretations of a Leon Ware composition. 
“I was connecting with a lot of people and that song, which I originally wrote for my mother, was taken by (Atlantic founder) Ahmet Ertegun and producer Jerry Wexler and well, Donny just fell in love with it. I found out walking across the lot at A&M, when somebody shouted “hey Leon, Donny Hathaway just did your song!” so I walked back to the office and it really blew me away – I didn’t have a clue. You know publisher reps are really sneaky, they send out songs to people that writers and staff aren’t aware of. So my guy had played it for Atlantic, and the next thing I know they’ve recorded it. I was blown away because needless to say I was a Donny Hathaway fan. Same way I was with Marvin –I just wish I had met Donny because I’m sure I could have wound up with a lot more songs with him. Unfortunately we never actually met.  Life has its many unforeseen, missed opportunities and non successes for all of us you know?”
Leon pauses, talking about Hathaway has made him pensive.
“I have totally outlived my life expectancy and I am grateful for that. I’ve looked at life as beautiful from day one you know? The one thing I’m short of is real honest support for my heartfelt work which is intended to motivate and inspire others. Now I’m on Facebook I’m gonna start putting some notes up asking who is really interested in being involved in some endless, timeless, classic pieces of work? You can help, let’s do something with this … Turn ‘em on man!”

Originally published in Manifesto Magazine June 2011

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