As a songwriter and producer, Leon Ware has worked with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, Jeffrey Osborne, the Temptations, the Average White Band, Nancy Wilson, the Righteous Brothers, Stanley Turrentine, James Ingram, Ike and Tina Turner, the Miracles, Bobby Womack, and the list goes on.
His schoolmates in Detroit were Aretha Franklin, Lamont Dozier and Smokey Robinson. And in 1965 he had his first commercial success on Motown with “Got To Have You Back” by The Isley Brothers. Quincy Jones featured Leon on his “Body Heat” album where Leon recorded a duet with Minnie Riperton with his own “If I Ever Lose This Heaven”. One of his classic masterpieces. He later recorded “Inside My Love” with her. Another epic piece. And then there was Marvin Gaye‘s 1976 “I Want You” album, the title track being covered a million times up to today. Leon told Blues & Soul magazine in 1987 (issue 498): “Actually it was meant to be my album – the follow up to “Musical Massage” which Motown released in 1976. I played the tapes to Marvin and he fell in love with them so we removed my vocals and Marvin laid down new ones. It was a great honor for me and I figured the songs would do better with a big name like Marvin’s attached to them.” In another interview with the same magazine in 2003, he said about the recording: “We spent 13 months recording it but “I Want You” was the best musical experience I’ve ever had in my life as a collaboration. It was like getting up in the morning and going to have great sex.”
He later produced Melissa Manchester, recorded a few brilliant albums after he left Motown (remember “Rockin’ You Eternally” or “Why I Came To California” with Janis Siegel?) and also worked with UK group Loose Ends. Listen to their magical “Easier Said Than Done” from the “The Real Chuckeeboo” LP. About his own writing, he said in the interview that “I believe in loves, spiritual and physical. My lyrics show that and have sometimes got me into trouble but why are we people so funny about sex? Let’s wake up a little and tell people that sex and sexuality are beautiful things, part of life and not something to get embarrassed or coy about.” It’s that sexuality aspect that resonates with most of his songs. Just listen to “Sure Do Want You Now” from his immortal 1981 LP “Rockin’ You Eternally”.
I remember a long interview I did with Leon in Montreux in 2002 where he kept on talking about this issue. There is also a totally overlooked album on the indie Sling Shot Records which came out in 1987 called “Undercover” which includes one of my all-time favorite tracks: a cover of “Blue Velvet” in the most sexual arrangement you can imagine. Leon kept on recording fantastic albums, like “Taste The Love” in 1995, “Candlelight” with Don Grusin in 2001, “A Kiss In The Sand” from 2004 which feaures Sandro Albert as co-producer and arranger on a wonderful hybrid of Leon’s sensual work with Brazilian input, or the 2008 “Moon Ride” album on the re-vitalized Stax label. And Expansion Records released a brilliant, 19-track compilation in 2009 with his compositions and productions on artists like Al Wilson, Syreeta, El DeBarge, Chuck Jackson, Rockie Robbins, Norman Connors, Shadow, Donny Hathaway, Booker T, Krystol, Vesta Williams, Thelma Jones, Jerry Butler, Michael Wycoff, and more. Leon’s last album is “Sigh” from 2014. Which still doesn’t include all of his amazing work, like “Sumthin’ Sumthin'” for Maxwell in 1996.
“If there’s a thin line between love and hate, there’s also a thin line between failure and success. I’m a winner because I never give up, I just keep on working – and enjoying it. I feel as religious about my work as some people do about god.” Leon died yesterday just one week after his 77th birthday. He will surely rock us eternally.