Celebrated songwriter and performer Leon Ware died Thursday, February 23 at age 77. Ware, a Detroit native and Motown songwriter in his early years, helped pen classic hits for such legendary artists as Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Minnie Riperton, The Isley Brothers and Quincy Jones, to name a few.
In 2008, MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman had an opportunity to speak to Ware. The nearly three-hour conversation covered everything from Ware’s then-new CD Moon Ride to his Detroit roots, and Ware’s memories of working with Riperton and other artists. In honor of Ware’s enduring contributions to soul music, we are republishing the story in print and online. The story, originally published in two parts, has been edited as one story for online publication.
Leon Ware known in U.S. for lyrics, abroad for singing
You already may be familiar with Leon Ware. He wrote three tunes on Quincy Jones’ Body Heat (A&M, 1974): the title track, “One Track Mind” and “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” which brought the late Minnie Riperton to the popular stage. Later he wrote, co-wrote and produced Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” (Motown, 1976).
In the 1980s and ’90s, Ware’s music was discovered by a new generation. He collaborated with neo-soul singer Maxwell on “Sumthin’ Sumthin” in 1996. Ware’s work also has been sampled by the likes of Prince, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, John Legend and Jennifer Lopez, among others.
Ware, one of the music industry’s best kept secrets, is a legendary songwriter and producer. Americans “know my music but they don’t know me,” he admits.
However, outside of the U.S., “I am known all over the world not as Leon Ware the songwriter, but Leon Ware the singer,” says Ware, who has routinely sold out concerts in such places as England over the last decade.
A native of Detroit, Ware started as a teenager playing in local clubs, where he regularly ran into an auto factory worker by day and musician at night — Berry Gordy. “I knew Berry before [he started] Motown,” Ware recalls. “I started out as a young jazz [musician] then became an R&B singer. Both [genres] are part of me – I can’t say that I love one more than the other.”
He began his successful writing career at Motown, where Ware wrote for such artists as Martha & the Vandellas, the Isley Brothers and the Jackson Five. He also wrote for other non-Motown artists, and a collaboration with Ike & Tina Turner at United Artists led to his first solo effort at that label in 1972.
There are several people Ware proudly points to as huge influences on his life, including Gordy and Quincy Jones, who introduced him to a new audience on his Body Heat album. “That was a project that I can say [today] still is one of my favorites,” he notes.
The project also forever linked him to a then little-known singer, Minnie Riperton, who Ware sang duet with on “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.”
“She was like a sister, a friend and a very alluring woman that I had the pleasure of knowing for three years, which was not long enough,” Ware says of Riperton, who lost her battle with cancer in 1979. He, Riperton and her husband Dick Rudolph “started a creative relationship that was timeless,” Ware recalls, who also wrote three songs on her Adventures in Paradise album (Capitol, 1975), including the classic “Inside My Love.”
“In all of my lifetime, in my career, I never had a better, stronger, motivating, spiritual time than what me and Marvin had at that moment.”
Such songs serve as examples of Ware’s musical intentions: “Most of my ideas are double entendre — one’s in the bedroom and the other is in the pulpit.” “Inside My Love” originally came from a sermon Ware once heard as a young man, he says. He jokingly calls himself a “sensual minister.”
A Michael Jackson hit single, “I Wanna to be Where You Are,” and working on a solo project brought together Ware and Marvin Gaye in the late 1970s. “It was two young men: One was a star singer and the other a star as a young songwriter,” he recalls. The Motown star intently listened to what Ware was working on, including a song titled “I Want You.” Gordy also “fell in love with it” as well, adds Ware.
This eventually led to Gaye recording the title cut for I Want You (Motown, 1976), which Ware wrote; he also produced this seminal album.
“In all of my lifetime, in my career, I never had a better, stronger, motivating, spiritual time than what me and Marvin had at that moment,” says Ware.
The time he spent with Gaye and Riperton, both now deceased, was priceless: “My [late] daughter taught me that we never know just how much time we have,” Ware says sadly. “Some times are longer than others, while some are less. As life goes on, we experience some of the worst and some of the happiest moments.”
In addition to Ware’s songs covered by such luminaries as Bobby Womack, Nancy Wilson, Isaac Hayes, Sergio Mendes and others, since 1972 he also has a compiled a catalog of nine albums: one for United Artists, two for Motown and two albums for Elektra. Ware also wrote, recorded and produced four albums as an independent artist.
“I really wasn’t into being a [solo] artist,” he admits.
The art of songwriting is lost on today’s musicians, says Ware. He recalls a time not too long ago when he stood on stage alongside Sean “Puffy” Combs, receiving a songwriter of the year award. Afterwards, “legitimate” songwriters mercifully teased him when he returned to his seat, asking, “Have they redefined songwriting” Ware remembers.
“For the past 15 or 20 years,” he points out, “you don’t have songs — you have tracks.” Ware quickly adds that he is not totally down on current musical trends, refusing to join many of his contemporaries who want nothing more than to see hip hop die a quick death.
“As long as hip hop is ending [each] year with a larger digit [in record sales] than any [musical] demographic — classical, country, jazz, pop — you can forget it; hip hop [isn’t] going anywhere. I wish no one bad; I wish the best to win.”
One would expect that someone like Ware, who for four decades has been writing songs for legends, would probably know what it takes to write a song. “Being a true composer and a songwriter, I appreciate, respect and understand the [songwriting] process,” he explains. “Some of the songs are just good ideas. Some are really compositions.”
Ware today works with many musicians who are in their 20s and many others twice that age: “Seventy percent of the [musicians] I work with are like my son, who’s 45 years old,” he says. However, too many youngsters aren’t able to pinpoint exactly where their songs originate, notes Ware. They can’t answer a simple question: What inspires and motivates them musically?
“There is not a loss of talent, but what is lost is kids [today] getting inspired,” he points out. “We live in a world where a digit is more important than life, and…music…that embraces everything superficial.”
Since 1995, Ware has been writing, producing and recording as an independent artist, releasing four albums to his credit and increasing his catalog to nine.
In 2006, Ware met with Stax/Concord Records executives, initially on doing a compilation of his work, but it eventually evolved into Moon Ride, which will hit stores August 12.
“I definitely consider it one of my best efforts ever,” he says. The title track reminds listeners of Riperton’s “In My Love,” which Ware wrote for Adventures in Parade (Capitol, 1975).
“Just Take Your Time,” “Hold Tonight” and “Smoovin” are love-filled odes. But Moon Rides’ middle cuts bring to mind Marvin Gaye’s song “I Want You.” This is especially true of “I Never Loved So Much,” which easily would fit Gaye’s repertoire. “There are about six of seven songs in my life as a writer that I didn’t want to record,” Ware admits. “This was one of them.”
Perhaps the album’s best song is “To Serve You (All My Love).” It’s an old-school [but] new-age R&B tune, which begins simply then settles into a nice, mellow groove.
Ware says he was inspired after once visiting South Africa; the featured guitar solo has a feel to it similar to the playing of South African native Jonathan Butler.
“Soon” start off with a slow acoustic guitar that smoothly introduces Ware’s sultry vocals, similarly to Gaye’s “Come Live with Me Angel.”
“A Whisper Away” is Moon Ride’s only tune with a jazzy texture, which could be somewhat autobiographical. “I have been for the past 30 years as an R&B jazz artist [but] I started out as a young jazz [musician] then became an R&B singer,” says Ware.
On Moon Ride, “I wish that many hearts profit, one heart to another,” says Ware.
Along with it, one also suggests listening to “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” on Quincy Jones’ Body Heat (A&M, 1974), Gaye’s “I Want You,” and “Inside My Love,” an underrated classic from the late Riperton. These songs will give new and old fans a true representation of Ware’s legendary songwriting ability.
“I would need at least three lifetimes,” says Ware of his lengthy musical resume. Moon Ride is just another step in his life journey.
“It’s not luck or favors being given to me,” concludes Ware. “I am a student [of music], and I never will stop. I am still at a point where I am still learning.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader comments responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.