leon ware

*It was a 15 year old Michael Jackson who first introduced me to songwriter/keyboardist Leon Ware, when I was 17. Not literally, as in, Hey, I’d like you to meet Leon but via Jackson’s 1972 debut Motown solo single, “I Wanna Be Where You Are.”

That song (co-penned with Arthur “T-Boy” Ross, younger brother of singer Diana Ross) was the Detroit-born Ware’s commercial breakthrough as a writer. I didn’t know who Leon was when “I Wanna Be Where You Are” wafted out of the AM car radio of best friend Donnie Minnis during our drive through the Oklahoma City Zoo one Sunday afternoon in May in ‘72; didn’t know the difference between a songwriter and the artist performing the song. I only knew I was enchanted.

“I Wanna Be Where You Are,” masquerading as a pop ditty, was something more. Under Michael’s urgent, assured vocal, beneath the verses, was a subtle, downright spooky chord progression.

I didn’t care much for the vocal hook (years later I’d come to respect the craftsmanship involved in making that hook work with those chords), but the dynamic arrangement of James Anthony Carmichael (future longtime producer of the Commodores) and the imaginative production of Hal Davis yielded a remarkably sophisicated sound for the teenage Jackson. And what in the world is that wah-wah guitar doing after each verse? I was immediately smitten.

After that, any songs I came across with Ware’s name on it as writer I gave special consideration to—-Jackson 5 tracks like “Don’t Say Goodbye Again,” “It’s Too Late To Change The Time” and “If I Don’t Love You This Way” were among several titles Ware wrote with faceless, ubiquitous Motown staff writer Pam Sawyer, a white girl from the U.K. long figured to be Black by ardent LP liner note readers simply because she worked for a Black label.

I worshipped at the altar of the Ware songwriting canon: the aforementioned “I Wanna Be Where You Are”; the title track of Quincy Jones’ 1974 album, Body Heat and LP track “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” both of which Ware co-wrote and sang; “Inside My Love” from Minnie Riperton’s 1975 album, Adventures In Paradise and Marvin Gaye’s epic, impassioned 1976 Motown album, I Want You.

That LP’s songs and musical ideas were supposed to be Ware’s own debut Motown album until Gaye and Motown founder Berry Gordy asked that Ware produce the songs on Marvin.

Gaye wasn’t alone in his admiration of Ware’s mellow, chordy genius. There are songwriters whose biggest fans happen to be other great songwriters. Ware, who quietly passed away February 23 at the age of 77, was one of those songwriters.

Gifted with the uncanny, enviable ability to create songs delightfully expansive in structure and melody, Ware was lauded by such renown 20th century composers as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, among others, for his way with deceptively luxurious arrangements that went on to become mainstream hits.

leon ware

During the ‘70s and ‘80s Ware penned solid, memorable tunes the average R&B lover may not know he wrote. Like 1973’s “What Is A Heart Good For” for the Miracles (featuring Billy Griffin, who replaced Smokey), The Main Ingredient’s rollicking 1975 hit, “Rolling Down A Mountainside” (initially recorded at Motown by pop act Third Creation and later, post-Main Ingredient, by Isaac Hayes), Donny Hathaway’s “I Know It’s You” from Hathaway’s 1973 classic, Extensions Of A Man, 1980’s Melissa Manchester/Peabo Bryson duet, “Lovers After All” and Teena Marie’s 1984 tribute to Marvin, “My Dear Mr. Gaye.”

The durability of Ware’s songs inspired Madonna in 1995 to reach back and cover “I Want You”. Ware is also revered in Neo-Soul circles: Maxwell collaborated with him on Maxwell’s 1996 hit, “Sumthin’ Sumthin.’ Indeed, among Neo-Soulers, Riperton’s ethereal “Inside Love” remains required listening.

Ware, able to write alone as easy as he collaborated with lyricists, was one of a group of writers, arrangers and producers, Skip Scarborough, Jerry Peters and Clarence MacDonald among them, who in the ‘70s created cosmopolitan, styized R&B that, no matter whether a ballad, mid or uptempo tune, was /is distinguished by elegant grooves, crafty B-sections and dreamy, outgoing instrumental vamps.

Though his legend was created primarily as a songwriter—-before hitting paydirt in the 1970s, in the ‘60s he wrote songs for artists as disparate as The Righteous Brothers, Johnny Nash, the early Isley Brothers and Martha Reeves and The Vandellas—Ware was himself an artist, releasing some 13 albums on various labels (some of them his own imprints), including 1976’s inspired Musical Massage, the Motown album he wrote, produced and performed after giving those songs he planned to cut on himself to Gaye.

Musical Massage, featuring the mood-altering gems “Learning How To Love You,” “Holiday,” “Phantom Lover” and “Journey Into You” (detect a theme in those titles?)—-along with 2004’s A Kiss In The Sand–is indispensable to anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with Ware’s sultry, romantic penmanship.

Reportedly, Gaye also wanted Massage’s songs–to record as his I Want You follow-up–but Ware, eager to get on with his own singing career, said no.

It’s interesting the unlikely life events that shape personal joy: for me, a highlight of my work as a music journalist was a late ‘70s meeting and subsequent friendship with Ware.

Leon was a reflection of the music he created–soft spoken, good-nurtured, easygoing, funny, introspective, positive, spiritual and curious. He was a sho-nuff lover in the truest sense of the word-—of life, music, his kids and friends. Carol Ware, Leon’s devoted life partner and former music business executive, was by his side from forever, loving him, running the business end of his creativity and patiently, protectively supporting her man’s professional whims and personal journey.

Last time I saw Ware was one Saturday evening about two years ago, at a small reception hosted by songwriter/producer Kashif, who’d invited guests to his place in the Marina to announce his ambitious documentary on the history of R&B (sadly Kashif passed away before its completion).

Leaving the Kashif party, I mentioned to Ware that I was on my way into Hollywood to catch the late show of our mutual friend, singer/songwriter Gary Taylor at the Catalina Grill. “Really? Mannnn, I ought to go with you and get up on stage with him,” mused Ware.

I all but begged Ware to do just that. You won’t even have to drive, Leon; I’ll take you there and then home. Gary would love it, I told him, not knowing if Gary really would, but fuck it, it’s Leon Ware. In the end, Ware was just teasing.

Like most true creators of art, Ware believed he was but a conduit of ideas, that his best songs came to him from somewhere Out There.

Today I imagine Ware’s spirit giddily soaring among the source of all things beautiful and loving, getting off eternally on magnificent, mind-blowing musical sounds that mortal fingers could never find on a musical instrument. But on any given day, Ware came close.

steve ivory (for front page)

Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]

EUR BONUS COVERAGE …

LEON WARE PERFORMS AND SLAYS HIS Marvin Gaye Hit “I Want You” and the Average White Band’s “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” (Recorded Live in Amsterdam):