Leon was coming to town!
This was the closest he had ever been since his visit to the quaint town of Woodbury, TN about an hour outside of Nashville. This was where I first saw him three years earlier (2.23.06) and it was an amazing show... even though the lights had gone out and postponed the show by 40 minutes! I was at a restaurant during lunch and saw that the ad for his show in the local Arts newspaper. I bought my tickets online right away (thanks iPhone!)... now the hard part. Waiting.
Looking at him from the outside, you wouldn’t think that he’d be my favorite artist. He doesn’t really appear in the mainstream, only covers material written in the early 20th century, doesn’t have a refined vocal style, and doesn’t really make too many public appearances outside of touring. Sounds like a winner! I don’t really remember when I was first exposed to him but I’ve known about him for quite a while. He has a simple style that is really unclassifiable... it isn’t blues but it isn’t 100% Tin Pan Alley and it isn’t western and it certainly isn’t jazz and it sounds like a New Orleans type thing at times but not really. Although he’s a solo artist, his albums have had him with a many configurations.. horns, drums, trios, duos, big band, etc. I first time I had seem he was traveling as a trio with piano and cornet.
I knew he was with a new booking agency so I found their website and looked over their roster and staff. Turns out that their Marketing guy was a drummer... well, I’m in Marketing and I’m a drummer sooooooo! I sent him an email to introduce myself and to let him know I would be attending the Nashville show. If it turned into me maybe possibly getting an “in” and potentially getting to meet him... is that so bad? Don’t worry... I finally did get a response from him but it was pretty clear that would be no special treatment for this stalker.
Kelley had gone with me to the first show and it was a learning experience for her... now she was positive she didn’t like his music! I bought two tickets for the upcoming show because surely she’d reconsider since he’s my favorite... wrong. Her first encounter was enough (and she really had other plans) so I ended up inviting my keyboard pal Rick because I figured he’d enjoy the stride style pianist. He agreed to go so the stage was set for a great show. “Hey Derek, it’s Rick. I’ve been feeling bad all day so I’m going to have to bail. Sorry”. Well, that’s just great!
But I was determined to have a good time anyway and not worry about the ticket. Doors were at 7pm so I left work right at 5pm so I could grab a quick bite and change. On the way home, I get a call from Rick “I’m feeling better and good to go...” so now we’re back to Plan A. One hour later, we’re on the way to the theater.
We show up early enough to secure a couple of good seats (4th row middle) and a few minutes later the people started to pour in. After sitting down, I realized that I had forgotten my CD cover for him to autograph.
To take my mind off of it, I started a conversation with the guy sitting to my right. He said he had seen Leon before in the 70’s and was a moderate fan of his. He and his wife had been married for 40+ years and they spent a large amount of their youth (with their children) in a van following the Grateful Dead (and other bands) across the country. They had retired from active “touring duty” some time ago but still enjoyed seeing shows together whenever they could.
After the opening act, Leon came out with his longtime pianist Paul Asaro in tow as tonight they were a duo instead of the usual trio format. His longtime cornetist Scott Black had stopped traveling with him earlier in the year and Paul only joins him on the occasional gig now. Leon was dressed in his typical fashion of late... brown suit, dark glasses, and panama hat. He sat down center stage in a plush chair that wouldn’t be out of place in your grandmother’s living room. A small table with a lamp on his left that barely gave enough light to illuminate the notes he took from his jacket. The vertically creased papers looked as though they had been to every show he had ever done! The first 45 minutes were like a greatest hits package... “Diddy Wah Diddy”, “Champagne Charley”, and “Lazybones” were definite highlights. He transitioned from song to song with many Leon-isms... “We should do a sing-a-long”, “This will be in the people’s key of Bb (raises his hand)”, “The dog ate my notes”, and “This song was written by _____ who was a very fine singer (pause) but has been dead for many many years... but it doesn’t seem to have affected their voice”. The audience was also in rare form (and aside from one loudmouth lady in the back and 1st Row Small Bladder Guy who kept getting up) Leon flirted with the crowd who blurted out song titles.
Leon: “Now they’re calling me names!”
Audience: “I Want To Be Seduced”
Leon: “Sorry but I don’t do that king of thing”
Audience: “Sheik Of Araby”
Leon: “Sorry but I haven’t talked to him in a while”
He even went off the map and performed some obscure songs before wrapping up with two encores. A fantastic show... but remember I was determined to meet him this time. The theater starts to empty but then I see Mike The Soundguy. He and I had worked together a ton of times in the late 90's/early 2000's. We had chatted briefly before I went into the theater and he said that Leon had been easy to work with at soundcheck. Certainly Mike could get me backstage, right?
Wrong. We talked about the show for a short bit until he said that he had to start wrapping up his equipment. Inside the theater is me, Rick, Mike, and about four crew members... now it’s looking like it isn’t going to happen.
But then, I hear voice in the lobby say “Paul, it’s so good to have you in Nashville!” Could it be Paul the Pianist?!? I poke my head out of the door and lo and behold... I’ve found the way in! I give Rick my quickly formulated battle plan while we wait for him to finish his conversation in the lobby. A couple of minutes later we approach him and talked to him about tonight’s show, Leon’s tour schedule, how the songs are chosen, the fate of the cornetist, and his other gigs outside of Leon. This lasted for a while until we felt it was time to move on or throw caution to the wind. “Is there any chance we can meet Leon before you guys take off?” Paul pauses. Then he looks to his right with the furrowed brow and says... “If you help me carry this box of CDs to the back, I’ll introduce you.”
Rick and I head to the back where Leon is holding court with a few people. He’s talking about a vaudeville act who used to balance a piano made of balsa wood on his foot while singing. Standing next to us is a girl who has three posters that were made for tonight’s show. She asks Rick if he would like one and now we’re set with something to autograph. YES! With guitar case in hand, Leon excuses himself from the crowd because he is ready to go. Paul motions for us to follow and we head to the parking lot. Leon opens the back of the utility vehicle and spends a few minutes finding the perfect place for his case, then turns to me and says “Just put that box right there in the front. Thanks a lot.” Wow. I told him that I really enjoyed the show and he was my number one favorite artist. Although he had probably heard that statement a million times, his gracious response didn’t seem practiced or without care.
After Poster Girl had her autographs, Rick handed him his (my!) copy and Leon asks “Who should I make it out to?” Rick responds “There’s no need to cause your signature is enough”. WHAT! I say “How about we make it out to Derek?” It takes Rick a half second and then he says with a smile “Oh yeah.. of course.. make it out to Derek please”. He signs his name and writes To D-E-R-... the pauses. “So what’s left?” he mumbles. Not sure if he’s joking, I answer “After E-K I think you’ll be OK”. He quickly scribbles a mysterious letter-E-K and says loudly “Yes!” and then writes YES! next to his name with the year. He hands it over and I ask if it was possible to take a picture with him and he reaches for my camera and says “Sure, I’ll take a picture of you two.” (Another Leon-ism) We laugh and then he looks around and picks a spot against the outside theater wall. I handed the camera to Rick and he took aim... really close to us. I took a step forward and was in mid-sentence to ask Rick to take a step backward when... FLASH! He took the picture. My only chance with my favorite artist was just blown.
Then Leon says “You don’t need to use the flash with a digital camera, try it again”. Yes! We pose again and this time history was made. I turned to Leon and said thanks again and he said “No problem”. I walk over to Paul and thank him again for the opportunity... and we’re gone. I did notice 1st Row Small Bladder Guy with his Leon album walking toward the parking lot hoping to catch him... figures.
My mission was complete. I saw a great show and got to meet The Man himself.
I just learned that Leon passed away today so it was good to read this memory again... he was the absolute coolest and the original Man Out Of Time.