By Michael J Edwards
“This is not a service of entertainment only; this is a service of love. And the service itself from the sculptures to the pictures to the painters to the dancers to the novelists; every work of art is the oxygen that humans breathe. If the artists hadn’t been here on this planet since we’ve been here, man would have destroyed himself by now.”
Leon Ware is a very deep, charismatic, thoughtful, sensual, intellectual, gracious, observant, introspective, wise, creative, musical, imaginative, complex and giving individual. The name Leon Ware for most people will forever be entwined with that of soul legend Marvin Gaye, thanks to his 1973 ‘I Want You’ body of work, initially intended solely for himself, but unbeknown to Leon, handed over to his ‘Soul-Mate’ Marvin to become an iconic piece of music folklore.
After taking a self-imposed writing exile soon after this, Leon returned in 1976 with yet another inspired project, the critically acclaimed but poorly promoted ‘Musical Massage,’ a perfect follow-up to the ‘I Want You’ set but this time performed as well as written by LW himself. Way before Prince Rogers Nelson, Leon Ware was and still is the original prolific writing machine. As well as the aforementioned Marvin Gaye, Mr Ware has written for and been sampled by a plethora of artists. The list is as diverse as is impressive – Bobby Womack, Minnie Ripperton , James Ingram, Nancy Wilson, Teena Marie, Donny Hathaway, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, The Main Ingredient, 2 PAC, Father MC, A Tribe Called Quest, Michael Wyckoff, The Miracles, The Jackson Five and copious others.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
In Part One of an in-depth, expansive and extremely informative interview, Michael ’The Dood’ Edwards caught up with a very philosophical and introspective Mr Leon Ware to discuss his thoughts on his lifetime love affair with music; his frustrations with the music industry; his childhood; his parents; Michael Jackson; the Funk Brothers; his encounters with Quincy Jones, Joe Sample and Ike and Tina Turner and a heartfelt message for the creative musical youth of today. Read on to glimpse an insight into the mind of the softly spoken Sensual Minister.
The Dood: Greetings Mr Leon Ware, it’s good to see you.
Leon Ware: It’s good to be seen. I’ll be seventy-three in a week’s time; I like being seen! I always say when somebody says to me it’s good to see you; I reply it’s good to be seen – because time moves forward for all of us and it’s unpredictable, excessively unpredictable. So I savour the moment very preciously; I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve been blessed with doing something I love a hundred percent since 1964. Since then I’ve done nothing else except write songs and produce records. And it’s a life I would wish on anybody that is slightly insane; you have to be slightly insane! (Chuckles softly) You couldn’t be a sane person and do what I do (Laughs wryly)
I’m not actually kidding! The sanity or the insanity is the unpredictableness of all of what this is. As a friend of mine said, I’m in that three percent of the one hundred percent; three percent of the people that do what I do, get to be known and have a few hit records and have a life of music which takes care of them. And I’ve been blessed that that’s been my case and continues to be my case. I’m reminded that a large part of people from the arts or just life itself aren’t as blessed. Again I take it very very seriously, I have three children; my oldest son is forty-eight. I tell him not to tell anyone i’m his father, just tell them you’re my youngest brother. (Chuckles) My daughter passed away nine years ago.
The Dood: I’m sorry to hear that.
Leon Ware: That’s life Michael; life is forever teaching.
The Dood: It was good to see the way you stylishly doffed your hat to the crowd at the end of your London gig last Friday – very smooth.
Leon Ware: I try to remember to do that, it’s in reverence to the crowd.
The Dood: How did you feel about that gig in general, performing with your good friend Bluey and his Incognito band?
Leon Ware: I felt very received. I felt like they were singing every song with me.
The Dood: They were!
Leon Ware: And you can’t want or wish for more from the people you are serving. I don’t think I’ve ever performed in front of a cold crowd… I started on the stage when I was three and a half years old. I won my first contest playing the piano. And i am more at home on stage than I am anywhere else. I’ve been doing this so long, I have such a love for it; and I also know what it creates. It’s not just me being in entertainer, it’s me being a man that’s showing the world I happen to serve my love. Basically, it’s a very simple process. I learned this when I was seventeen years old, getting ready to get on stage to do a show and the MD of the show was a lady; her name was Mrs James. She walked up to me and she could tell that I was extremely nervous – because at that time in my life in 1957 there was such talent around to tell you the truth. There were so many talented people when I was growing up, the people that are on American Idol and the different shows that they have now, they wouldn’t come close.
I have more respect for the kids now than some people do because I realise that their talent is being smothered. They are not being challenged and they’re in a society and in a decade where… I think one of the greatest insults that has happened in the past twenty years is when they started making music free. It’s an injustice, it’s an insult and it pollutes the preciousness of art itself; because any artist on the planet from Michelangelo to Bach to Ellington, all the arts from the inside cannot be paid for. You cannot pay an artist for what he does. I would say you can make large donations. Because it’s like the art itself I don’t feel is supposed to be sold.
And in this decade and the decade preceding this is when earthlings started misunderstanding the richness of where art is really placed in their life and what art actually means to humans. And I do believe that in the years to come they’ll be people like myself that will continue to tell the young people: This is not a service of entertainment only; this is a service of love. And the service itself from the sculptures to the pictures to the painters to the dancers to the novelists; every work of art is the oxygen that humans breathe. If the artists hadn’t been here on this planet since we’ve been here, man would have destroyed himself by now.
The Dood: In a couple of weeks you will be three years into your eighth decade on this planet. Is it true then that wisdom comes with age?
Leon Ware: I don’t know if it’s wisdom Michael; because what it is, it’s just a collection of observations. I’ve continued to say over the past 20 years that the older I get the less I know. (Chorkles freely) I’m one of these people that’s confused with the possibility that I actually know something. It’s interesting because most of what we do in the process from year to year is a collection of places and things. And those of us who do study – I don’t read anything, I read people, I read the planet; I’ve never read a book in my life. The only book I have read was a book called The Profit; I read half the book.
The Dood: And you don’t need music either, you feel it?
Leon Ware: No I don’t. It’s not that I don’t respect the writers of the past, present and future; I think it’s me wanting to escape the one thing that I see a lot of humans address. From my mother – time rest her – who was a very religious lady, she would always refer to The Book. At nineteen I asked my mother question and she said, “Are you trying to be clever?” And I said, “No, just answer the question.” And the question was, “Mum, who wrote The Book?” I went to church every day until I was eleven years old; EVERY SINGLE DAY!
The Dood: Because she was a Minister herself wasn’t she?
Leon Ware: Yes. She was so afraid of us going into the Devils world! My sister actually snuck me out of the house when I was three and a half, almost four years old and put me on the stage to have a contest in my neighbourhood. I won the contest; people came to my house the following day. And from that moment on until I was 11 years old she forbade me from playing the piano; she thought my talent was a curse… I could play anything I heard by ear.
The Dood: That’s amazing!
Leon Ware: I don’t think she really thought it was a curse in the sense of the talent itself. She was a lot smarter than a lot of people that I know. She knew that affiliation is assimilation; do you know what I mean? When you associate yourself with a world, you become a part of the world. And that world that I had been associated with is full of the devil – it’s the Devils world. I tell the story on stage briefly that my mother was afraid of me being in the Devils world, because the devil’s world is very wicked and it’s very insincere. There’s no real truth in the Devils world. I said but the anything that my mother didn’t understand is that the devil can be tamed! (Laughs mischievously) You can tame a lion; you can tame the devil too.
What I mean by that in short is that as being a man that has been in the music world most of his life, I’ve learned to say no to certain things. There are certain things I didn’t say no to I would say from 1972 to 1992. In 1972 I met Ike and Tina Turner – I don’t know if I have to say anymore! (Laughs intensely)
The Dood: How was that working relationship?
Leon Ware: My relationship with everybody is always great because I’m doing what I love to do. I’m a writer and when I met Ike couldn’t believe it… He gave me four tracks; I wrote him four lyrics of four tracks in less than two hours and he couldn’t believe it! He said, “How could you do that!” I have friends including myself who are impressed with how prolific I am. But it’s God’s gift. I treat it that way and I give reverence to it. I work with a lot of people from Quincy Jones and a lot of people who are really gifted and very knowledgeable.
The Dood: Wasn’t it Quincy Jones who suggested to you not to take theory classes because you had a natural gift?
Leon Ware: Yes, he didn’t want me to destroy it. He said, “What I do by not knowing makes me the Leon Ware that I am.” He walked up to me, I was playing the keyboard; he said, “Leon, if you knew what you were doing you would scare yourself!” Absolutely incredible! And there’s a very good friend of mine named Joe Sample. Joe was the first keyboard player I worked with in 1967 when I moved to California. And Joe walked over to me in this very dark room, it was a studio; I was over in this corner playing the piano – because I don’t really use my eyes when I play the piano because of my blindness – he walked up to me and he says, “Don’t beat the piano up..!” because I was playing so hard. He said, “Don’t beat the piano at; give the piano a break!” (Chuckles)
I explained to him that I’m from Detroit, Madison and you will find that most Detroiters for instance if it’s a guitar player, he’ll go like this – (Leon stamps out a firm beat on the floor with his foot) – If it’s a keyboard player he’ll go like this – (Leon stamps out a similar beat with his foot) We always had this i.e. the stamping of the beat going on. This was automatic in most of our training of being a writer. The two things were first, have a good solid beat – the first eight bars were the most important; because if you couldn’t interest or get a person in the first eight bars the rest of it was trash. In my world and in most worlds, like the Holland Dozier Holland’s etc, all of us learned a sequence of events that happen in your writing. The first eight bars, and then your verse, and then the most important thing of all is your hook! You have to have a hook. It was always said; the hook had to be so potent that if you couldn’t sing, you could whistle it.
The Dood: Is this why people hear a tune briefly and say that sounds familiar?
Leon Ware: Well, that’s the idea. The idea of the great composition is that you can whistle, you can hum, you can feel in so many different ways – because that’s what great composers want; from Beethoven to Bach to Stravinsky; all the greats. And I listen to more classical music than I do anything. I probably would have been a classical musician of a sort had I really studied.
The Dood: How do you think? Do you think more classical thoughts?
Leon Ware: My thoughts are very musical.
The Dood: And where does your love of Jazz fit in?
Leon Ware: I would put my love of music in the following sequence: Jazz, R&B, Pop; and then after that it’s almost any kind of music – Classical for sure! And in the past twenty years of my life when I get in my car and the car turns on, it could be Bach, it could be anybody but it’s Classical music.
The Dood: It’s all good music or Louis Armstrong said, “There are two kinds of music, good and bad, I’m into good.” Do you concur?
Leon Ware: Well, actually to add to that as a quote, I think it’s just like Soul. I think that music that comes from your soul is all good. Your liking or disliking of anything is the old fable; beauty is in the eye of the beholder… because we can fool ourselves as to what one thing is or another…If everybody loves something, the likelihood is that you’ll like it too. As I said to my son, the most important thing is we go through life with all the choices we have to make and those choices being influenced by so many things. As my father said to me on his deathbed, one thing that is seldom clouded is your heart; your heart is always clear. We sometimes don’t like to listen to our heart, because sometimes the heart says no when you want to say yes; or sometimes your heart says yes and you want to say no. We have a battle with the heart, but the heart is usually nine times out of ten your best leader.
Because as your life goes on and you get to be my age; it’s like my father said to me – I was twenty-two years old by his deathbed – He said, “Follow your heart not you’re smart!” Meaning this (Leon points to his head)… He was sixty-six when he died, I’m seventy-three. I say to people what he meant was – and I see it clearly – when I look into the mirror being seventy-two going on seventy-three, I smile! I’ve made what I would consider maybe a couple of drastic mistakes in my life. I look in the mirror and I say I fucked up there and I didn’t make the right decision there, but I was following my heart. I have it a lot, my decision being swayed by friends, loved ones, lovers or whatever; but it’s always been me saying to myself, “How do you feel about this from here.” (Leon points to his heart)
There’s a saying, “The mind can be tricky at?” The one thing that I consider myself free of, because I’m still very much a seven and a half year old kid; I maintain my childhood.
The Dood: Yes, one can be childlike but with adult responsibilities.
Leon Ware: There’s a kid in me; there’s a kid inside this grown man. I say to the world you will not take that away from me! I treasure it. I said to my mum when I was seven and a half years old, “Mum I don’t want to grow up.” She said, “What!” I said, “I don’t want to, because grown-ups don’t have fun!” (Laughs) And my life is so simple Michael.
The Dood: Michael Jackson was the same way.
Leon Ware: In mentioning him, he’s one of the greatest artists I’ve known in my lifetime. I empathise with him for the issues that he had while he was here. It’s a bitch to be accused of something that you’re not guilty of, because to paraphrase a man’s words who was getting ready to be executed, he said, “It’s a bitch to be accused of something when you will never be able to prove your innocence.” But quote, “Accusation is as bad as having done it!!” Earthlings are very quick to judge and if you got ten people that said yes you did it and only two who said you didn’t, they’re going with the ten.
Unfortunately on our planet, firstly we haven’t learnt how to embrace each other. We started fucking up when we started looking at our skin… I don’t have a real religion, but God had a reason why he made us black, white, yellow; all different colours, it’s like a rainbow he was creating. And if men really understood the beauty of his intent, they wouldn’t be intimidated, they wouldn’t misunderstand him. Especially as Martin Luther King said, “Judge me for the content of my character, not the colour of my skin.” I’ve said before about ignorant people, they call them bigots I call them little-lets. (Laughs) There’s nothing big about that Michael!
So my life in being a musician, I love it because music speaks every language on the planet. I look into many crowds from Japan to Holland to France; the various countries i’ve been to… Fortunately my music has been to just about every country on earth. Myself, I’ve only been to about twelve to fifteen different countries. And I’ve never performed in Africa.
The Dood: Dennis Coffey and The Funk Brothers, the in-house band Motown; were a then the entire time you were writing as well?
Leon Ware: I knew of Dennis (guitar), I knew of Earl Van Dyke (piano & organ), I knew of Robert White (guitar), I knew of Benny Benjamin (drums), I knew of James Jamerson (bass). Ninety-nine percent of all the hits were played by these guys. And I’m glad that fifty years later somebody decided to give them a little bit of what they deserved.
The business has become so much the focus of the arts… As I said earlier the kids of this era are living out their dreams. This is a conversation I’ve been having for the past two weeks with different interviewers hoping that some of the kids will hear this, because the kids of this era don’t get the respect that they deserve if as young musicians. Because this era so full of quick this; quick that and the idea of the reverence that you’re supposed to give the arts is gone. They’ve trivialised it, they’ve misrepresented it and – I like this part – as Quincy said, “There’s lots of ways the success; loads of ways to be rich; there’s one way to be skilful.” You cannot wish it, you can’t sell it, and you can’t trip up on it. And everything that I am is because of thirty years of sitting at a piano and doing nothing but writing. My love for it accompanied my talent. I love what I do so much that if I had my way I wouldn’t sell it, I’d give it away.
I don’t think that art is supposed to be sold, but we are earthlings and earthlings sell themselves… And unfortunately in America as in this country (UK) and around the world there were things/items, both sentimental and otherwise that were created that were not for sale – you could not buy them. I would go back only maybe fifty years – because if you go beyond fifty years there were still these items that were not for sale. Come up fifty years to this day and everything is for sale; even sentiment and religion and the true causes that we have on this planet is for sale. And I hate it! I cry about it, I a lot! (Leon’s voice becomes a whisper)
It’s the tears of – they’re not sadness, it’s the tears of a man who sees his world and wants to say do something in that world that makes a difference. I would say that, if there is a tombstone, the only thing that it should read is, “I only wanted to say something that made a difference.” I don’t stand for anything else. I consider myself a knowledgeable individual. The books that people want me to write, I tell them that there would only be a book of observations. I’m simple.
Michael J Edwards
A Big Mike and ukvibe thank you to Diane Dunkley from RM2 Music for arranging quality time with Mr Ware.
NB* In Part Two, Leon Ware talks about his extensive body of work; his Motown years, including the full intriguing story behind Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’ album and Leon’s subsequent Musical Massage masterpiece; his ‘Taste of Love’ release on Ralph Tee’s Expansion label and his views on UK artists such as Omar and Incognito.