Remembering Leon Ware
From Gaylords to Gaye, a soulful, spiritual songwriter
The man who helped to create one of Marvin Gaye’s milestones in music was born on this very date – February 16 – on a cold Detroit winter’s day in 1940.
When he died during the same month – on February 23 – last year, Leon Ware had long been resident in California. His was one of many distinguished lives identified with Motown, but he also belonged to a smaller group of people who predated its foundation. “I was with Motown before Motown was Motown,” he once noted. “Berry Gordy was my first producer when I was seventeen.”
Leon told me of those times when I was researching The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. Today seems like a good occasion to revisit the interview, and to be reminded of some of his accomplishments. “I had such a diverse career,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a stand-up singer, a soloist.” In fact, fulfilling that particular goal had to wait until the 1970s; even then, it was temporarily subordinated to the opportunity of working with Marvin.
Waiting was not something which came easily to Ware, especially when Berry was preoccupied during 1957-58 with Jackie Wilson, and with a group signed to Mercury Records, the Gaylords. “I wasn’t a patient teenager,” recalled Leon. “He was very busy with Jackie and this other group, and I walked off.” Among Ware’s other pre-Motown credentials, he said, were the Romeos, whose members included Lamont Dozier and Ty Hunter, but he left by the time the group recorded for Fox Records.
“I didn’t see Berry again until about 1960,” said Leon, “which was when I started back with Motown for a couple of months. Then I left again, and didn’t get back until 1964.”
Even so, his presence at Hitsville wasn’t obvious to the outside world until the release of “Got To Have You Back” by the Isley Brothers. “It was one of the first songs I wrote as a professional writer,” Leon said. “I wrote it with Stephen Bowden. Ivy Hunter heard the song, and loved it.” The Isleys recorded it in late 1966, with Hunter producing. Another song was cut by the group at around the same time: “Catching Up On Time,” composed by Ware with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax. Both appeared on the Isleys’ second album, soul on the rocks, preceded by “Got To Have You Back” as a Tamla single in March 1967.
By this time, however, Ware was working elsewhere. With ex-Motown musician Andrew “Mike” Terry, he co-wrote and produced “Warning” by Pat Lewis and “When I’m In Your Arms” by Terri Bryant, to name but two. Then he joined former Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson in California. Several Ware songs appeared on Stevenson’s own album, Here I Am, released in 1972, although it was not a hit. “I was always very good at getting to first base and second base,” Ware told me. “But coming home was always a series of misconnections.” Among the latter: time spent at Marc Gordon’s Carousel label, where Leon was a staff producer to no discernible effect.
The early ’70s saw the music maker achieve the ambition of his own album, Leon Ware, part of an effort by United Artists Records to crack the R&B market; he also worked with Ike & Tina Turner. Leon Ware included two songs written with Arthur (T-Boy) Ross, their first collaboration. “He was having extreme difficulty in being believed he had talent, because he was Diana’s brother,” said Ware. “I liked him immediately as a person, and he had some great ideas.”
Among other copyrights, the pair teamed up for “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” recorded by Michael Jackson. “I came up with the title,” explained Ware. “T-Boy wrote as much of the lyric as I wrote, and I wrote the music.” The result – Jackson’s third solo hit – was also one of their most popular songs, subsequently recorded by Donnie Elbert, Willie Hutch, Zulema, Jose Feliciano, Melissa Manchester, Thelma Houston and T-Boy himself. Oh, and Marvin Gaye.
At times, Ware’s career chronology is difficult to fathom. This is partly in the nature of songwriting: fragments can be formed, set aside for a while, then recovered later – sometimes much later – to be finished. When we spoke, Ware shed no fresh light on some aspects of his career, including 1974’s The Education Of Sonny Carson. This movie was based on the life of a controversial black activist, and directed by Michael Campus (better known for The Mack). Ware’s voice can be heard on the soundtrack.
After “I Wanna Be There,” Ware and Ross quit collaborating for a couple of years, and the former became involved – as a writer and singer – with other projects, including Quincy Jones’ luminous Body Heat album. Meanwhile, Carol Ware, Leon’s wife, joined Jobete Music, Motown’s publishing unit.
Ware and Ross resumed their partnership around 1975. “I put ‘I Want You’ on a list of songs, with three others, because [T-Boy’s] sister had got him a deal to do a single project on himself,” Leon explained. “His name went on the song because my publishing was with Almo Irving at the time, and he was with Jobete. So in order to keep things even, I said, ‘OK, we’ll put your name on the song, too.’ Which, needless to say, later on I didn’t exactly like – but history is history. It was a lesson well-learned.”
That same year, Ware signed with Motown as an artist, and began working on his own album. Then, it appears that Berry Gordy heard “I Want You” in demo form, and was enthusiastic about the song’s potential for Gaye. “Marvin had his religious retreats and different difficulties,” remembered Leon. “But this was the first thing that had interested him for over two years, and he came into the studio and started working on that song.”
All the while, Ware was busy with his Motown project. “I actually finished the album, strings, my vocals, and everything. In the process…I was at Marvin’s ranch. He was someplace else in the house, and I was playing a piece of my album. He came in and said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘This is an album I’m just about finished with.’ ”
Marvin, as noted in The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, proposed a different plan: “ ‘Leon,’ he says, ‘how about me and you working on my whole album?’ At first I didn’t believe him, because nobody had ever really had a whole album on Marvin Gaye. We had to do it for me to believe it! For him to do that many songs of mine, hey, I didn’t care about me not putting my album out.”
And so Marvin took I Want You on a different path, with Ware as producer, using tracks already laid down. “The music is all mine,” Ware said. “All we did was sit down and rewrite every song on the album. The attitude and the feeling and the lust and the sensuality – our thinking processes were very similar.”
Nor were the instrumental tracks touched, by Leon’s account, although that’s hardly a surprise: the musicians were Los Angeles’ finest, including James Gadson, Wilton Felder, Dennis Coffey, David T. Walker, Sonny Burke, Bobbye Jean Hall, Jerry Peters and Ray Parker Jr. Horns and strings were arranged by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson – the man who had scored The Education Of Sonny Carson. (The most remarkable detail of the album’s making, by the way, can be found in the booklet which accompanied I Want You in its 2003 deluxe reissue, produced by Universal Music’s Harry Weinger.)
“I’ll never forget what Berry said to me at the A&R meeting when we went to play the whole album for the company,” declared Ware, proudly. “He stood up in front of ‘the class,’ and said, ‘I don’t know what you did, Leon, because you must have mesmerised Marvin. No one’s ever got along with Marvin that well. What did you do?’ ”
In later years, Ware worked that magic with many other artists, and made fine albums of his own, including – finally – Musical Massage for Motown. Nonetheless, his legacy is most likely to endure because of I Want You. “That was the most memorable and the most enjoyable time of my whole creative career,” concluded this multi-talented man. “Marvin and I freaked each other out on many, many occasions as to how closely we thought alike, musically and vocally and background-wise. We were spiritually one, for a long time.”