Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Here's an interview I did in 2006 with Deke Leonard.
I won't make a habit of posting my back-pages but I'm sharing this one because I always loved being around Deke and we had some fun with this interview. He was just the kind of soft-spoken, slightly rogueish, rock & roll obsessive I like. I was possibly in love with him for an hour or two. Read his books - he's a very sparky storyteller.
THE Booker Prize 2006 judges may be agonising over a shortlist of insipid novellas and probing political works, but readers in the know are awaiting just one tome within the next few months. You will be pleased to know the ink is almost dry on Deke Leonard's latest book - an in-depth study of his blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll guitar heroes, entitled The Twang Dynasty.
A sneak preview suggests that the former Man star has cooked up another pithy and authoritative piece of work, leading the reader through the birth of blues, the rock 'n' roll revolution and the hepcats of jazz. It follows the course of the Mississippi, dipping into the history of Jim Crow laws, the Klan, black suffrage, work songs, Diddley Bows, Roy Rogers and jook joints. Leonard's heart belongs to rock 'n' roll, so much care is taken over the contributions of the beat and twang-meisters, and the men who drew up the blueprints for rock 'n' roll guitar-playing, such as Cliff Gallup, Chuck Berry, Hank Garland, Paul Burlison and James Burton. But his soul belongs to loftier pursuits too - so there is a bit of Kafka here and there (the Llanelli education system circa 1959 was clearly a laudable body). As you would expect from the man who gave us the Ealing-Comedy-meets-Carry On- Twanging delights of Maybe I Should've Stayed in Bed, it distills the stories of some of the most important figures and breakthroughs in contemporary music - from the exciting bits, to the emotive and the daft bits.
Like his guitar playing, there is the occasional 20-minute solo but Leonard doesn't leave his audience behind while indulging in some metaphysical musical cloud-hopping. It rattles along in 4/4 time.
He says: "There is a lot of technique in the book. And I've allowed myself to delve into what might appear a bit arcane to some people. Some things might not make a lot of sense if you are not a guitar player. But I've leavened it with humour. There aren't whole chapters on plectrum technique or anything." But The Twang Dynasty allows him to follow the meandering, sometimes diverging, yellow brick roads of rock 'n' roll, blues, jazz and country guitar at will. "Once I started, it got my blood up. Tracing the roots from Chet Atkins, Merle Travis and all of my favourite blues people." And the stories of the remarkable men and women who gave birth to the blues still have the sulphurous fizz of magic about them after all this time. One of the many who can be found in Leonard's effervescent account is WC Handy, the minister's son who was converted to the blues while waiting for a train on Tutwiler Station, watching a local singer accompanying himself by sliding a knife across the strings of his guitar. Handy was inspired to write Memphis Blues, which he first penned as a propagandist vote- catcher for a would-be mayor. "But the next song was the big one - St Louis Blues", says Leonard. A black man with a song wasn't likely to receive the greatest deal from a publishing house in 1917 America, so having taken just $100 for this first, Handy formed his own publishing company and put it out himself. The song was covered by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and it changed Handy's life. For the canny few, music was one way that a poor black man with ambitions could achieve financial emancipation in the Deep South, just as rock 'n' roll freed a young lad from the boredom and neck-ache of weekly wallpapering duties in a Llanelli semi. The fine art of plagiarism was one perfected by blues gods and it makes tracing the history of the blues a gargantuan task. Just as Elvis learned how to sing like a man on fire by listening to Arthur Crudup, and learned to move by watching Jackie Wilson all the supreme innovators of rock knew a good act worth stealing when they saw one.
"When Hendrix came out and started playing with his teeth and behind his head, we all thought yeah, yeah, this is great. But just about every blues artist from the very beginning did that," says Leonard. "Charlie Patton, the first delta blues singer, was famous for it. He was playing barrelhouses and if you were a blues guitarist sitting in the corner you had to attract attention. T-Bone Walker used to play guitar behind his head while doing the splits." Before he was bitten by the blues, Leonard's conversion to the church of rock 'n' roll came with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore and Bo Diddley. Leonard's own electric looks a bit frayed around the edges after years of faithful service. "The Tele is the workhorse. I love its history - and the people who used it, like Paul Burlison. I got mine because of Mick Green (Johnny Kidd and the Pirates) and of course James Burton used it. I've always said it's beautiful - like a bulldog is beautiful. Leo Fender wasn't interested in abalone guitar fill-ins and pearl inlay. All he was interested in was functionality, which was the opposite of Gibsons. They were like artifacts. But Fender made the guitars for would-be rock gods. Even the ads were different. When Gibson put out a guitar, the ads had a well-known guitarist sitting on a stool dressed in a lounge suit in front of a velvet curtain, selling 'Gibson - 50 years of tradition'. Whereas when the Stratocaster came out, their advert was a guy walking into the surf with the Strat over his shoulder and carrying the amp, while scuba diving. The implication was, 'you wouldn't want to go anywhere without yours would you?' And did he know, as a teen hanging around the Ritz in Llanelli, plugging into the electricity surge of Gene Vincent, that he was witnessing the dawn of a new musical era? "I was aware at the time that we were walking with giants. It was like a dream. "You said 'this is amazing, but I'll never be able to do it' but gradually you found yourself doing it and eventually sharing the stage with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. It was magical. Still is." After the embarrassment of guitar-playing riches that were the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Leonard struggles to find guitar heroes on today's scene. "I can't think of many, to be frank. My book stops in 1980. There are great guitar players around now, like Tommy Emmanuel. It still exists but they are usually of pensionable age - Dave Edmunds, Andy Fairweather Low, Micky Gee."
But modern technology and hunger for fame for fame's sake have taken much of the magic out of music as far as he's concerned. "You can make what passes for music today in your bedroom. But no, they are not making magic. Chas Smash (Madness) said the trouble with music today is that it's a career choice. When we joined bands, it was an act of rebellion. It's so obvious that it should be the music that pulls you into it, but these days it isn't." With changes underway at the Patti Pavilion and Leonard finalising plans to sell his Llanelli home and head to Chester, it seems as if the end of an era beckons for South Wales music. But it is far from the final chapter, insists Leonard, who plans to hit the road back to Swansea regularly. He still has a few more stories to tell. The Twang Dynasty, published by Northdown Publishing, will be available in the new year. The next series of Deke's It's Crazy Man, for BBC Radio Wales, will be aired in November and repeated over Christmas.