Photo by Alan Mercer
Leon Ware could have been world famous. Could have. If only one Marvin Gaye had not 'snatched away' the album that could have given Ware a place in the Pantheon of the world's greatest soul singers. Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" became an instant soul-classic. And Leon Ware? He started work on another LP. Motown saw no bones in the album and Leon Ware's now-classic "Musical Massage" was dwarfed by "I Want You." Now, 25 years after its release, "Musical Massage" at last is available on CD. Finally recognition?
A sensual cry of the heart on vinyl. "Come Live With Me" had everything in it to become a monumental album on impassioned love. The year, 1975, was good for soul music, with "Family Reunion" by the O'Jays and "To Be True" by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes featuring Theodore Pendergrass. From one moment to the other Leon Ware would cross the threshold into the realm of these great soul troubadours. His name and silky voice for once and for all would be associated with the sensual masterpiece he had been allowed to record for Berry Gordy's Motown Record Corporation. From the fact that only a handful of music lovers ever heard of Leon Ware -- except perhaps for the UK -- and that even soul aficionado's know the song "Come Live With Me Angel" solely as the outcry of that other Motown-singer, one may conclude that something went terribly 'wrong' in '75.
The album became a classic beauty indeed, but was released one year later and under a different title --"I Want You" -- and was not Leon Ware's but Marvin Gaye's album. Who is oblivious of Gaye's laudatory poem on passion and the joy of finding a new love? Most 1970's album covers seem dated now, but not "I Want You" with Ernie Barnes' drawings of swinging bodies in a damp basement. Gentlemen swaying their hips towards female thighs. The foreplay: 'I want you. The right way. I want you. But I want you to want me too'. And later on the play itself in "Come Live With Me Angel": 'You can have your way if you decide to stay. This is where all our fantasies end. Let me explore all your treasures. I'll turn you on to all those freakish pleasures'. According to the greatest soul singer of all time I Want You was his best album, but who is aware that Marvin Gaye in fact made a masterly recording of Leon Ware's music? Take a look at the credits on the album. Wherever you look: Leon Ware. The prince of Motown became the king with his utterly sensual"I Want You," and Leon Ware remained the modest and withdrawn singer, composer and producer he still is to this day. But jealousy or rancour is definitely not his style. Ware's style is one of respect and gratitude.
Leon Ware (Detroit, 1940) talks about his time with the late great Marvin Gaye from his home in Marina del Rey in the Los Angeles metropolis: "The beauty of my life in music is that there has not been one human being that intimidated me. I am impressed, I revere and I am motivated, but that is something different. I come from an era where I was around some of the most talented people. I am talking about people who made you think twice about saying 'I can sing'. In my era people had to really be talented. You could not fake it. I will say it until my last breath: working with Marvin was the best musical, collaborative moment in my whole life. It was the best time for a lot of reasons. For instance because of him honouring me the way he did. One writer wrote all the songs, and that was very unusual and it still is. I would have preferred to do many, many more albums with Marvin. At least ten."
We owe it to Motown's honcho Berry Gordy that Leon Ware's "Come Live With Me" was turned into Marvin Gaye's "I Want You." ''It started out with a song I had written called "I Want You." "I Want You" wasn't a song I was even going to sing. It was a song I wrote and that I liked and that happened to be available for a session that I was doing with T-Boy Ross (Diana's brother, eds.) for which we had three songs. We needed four songs. I added "I Want You" and the rest is history", says Ware. "Berry Gordy heard the song and fell in love with it. He sent it to Marvin and he also fell for it." Leon Ware was honoured that Marvin Gaye -- at the height of his popularity but also in search of the ultimate sensual musical fantasy after "Let's Get It On" -- wanted to give himself to Ware's music. He was invited at Marvin's place in Calabasas, California. "I was making an album for Motown at that same time and had actually completed all my tracks. While playing my cassette of the tracks of my album, Marvin heard it through the wall and came out to ask what it was that I was listening to. He turned to me and said: 'I will do the whole album if you give it to me'." The subsequent recordings took thirteen months. Why so long? "It was not merely a question of wiping my vocals off and putting Marvin's vocals on tape. He gave the album his own signature. We were having a lot of fun. Need I say more? We would be playing basketball when we were expected in the studio."
One year after he released "I Want You," Marvin Gaye married Janis Hunter who was years 17 years his minor and whom he had effectively begged to marry him on Leon Ware's tender music. Critics regarded "I Want You" as merely a Motown version of Barry White's schmaltz, but commercially "I Want You" was a big success. Great for Marvin Gaye but in a strange way not so great for Leon Ware, who released his own album "Musical Massage" in the wake of "I Want You" After "I Want You" there was nothing and "Musical Massage" suffered a short and miserable life in the record stores. Ware looks back on those days: "Motown did not want me to realise the success the album could possibly have had". "Musical Massage" deserved a much better fate. "It paints a picture and creates a mood. Not for 3,5 minutes but an LP long. You have the chance to express some feelings. It is like listening to a classical piece which starts very serene and then takes you into a very intellectual part and then to a passionate part and back. That's how I like to think of "Musical Massage" but also of "I Want You." I wanted to do a different kind of popular music", comments Leon Ware.
"I Want You" and "Musical Massage" may be sensual, they are not vulgar. Sex is sacred to Ware. David Nathan, aka 'British Ambassador of Soul', did an interview with the thirty something Leon Ware in 1977 for Blues & Soul. LA-based Nathan: "I remember vividly interviewing Leon and with the headline 'Leon Wants To Make Sex A Religion', he stated, 'I'd like to be amongst the few people to make sex a religion. You see, it's still not given the preciousness that other religions are accorded -- it's not given the respect either. It's time that people stopped regarding sex as being dirty...' While Leon's wishes may not have been fully realised just yet, his attitude on the sacredness of sex certainly permeated the work he did with Gaye on "I Want You" and his own "Musical Massage" album and even today, the sheer sensuality of the record is immediately evident. A Love Man before the term became fashionable, Leon continues to explore romance and sensuality with his latest work, a fine new album with Don Grusin entitled "Candelight." It could just be that, a quarter of a decade after the initial release of "Musical Massage," Leon Ware is going to receive the critical acclaim he so richly deserves."
In 1976 "Musical Massage" received no critical acclaim. The record buying public bought thousands of copies of "I Want You" but shunned "Musical Massage." Thanks to Berry Gordy's Motown. ""Musical Massage" got minimal support from Motown. I do believe that if I had had the support at the time of "Musical Massage," my career would have been different", Leon Ware says. "Musical Massage" rapidly became a cut-out album -- remember those nostalgic right hand corners cut from your records? -- and now 25 years later the LP is a much sought after relic from a wonderful era in US soul music. A fine 1976 copy of Musical Massage nowadays makes at least $50 at the e-Bay internet auction house. And with good reason. In every way, "Musical Massage" can compete with "I Want You." From the provocative sleeve to the lovers talk and from the arrangements and the musicians to the vocals, Leon Ware's unrecognised "Musical Massage" is similar to Marvin Gaye's celebrated "I Want You" LP. Consider the musicians: James Gadson on drums, Sonny Burke on keyboards, David T. Walker and Ray Parker, Jr. on guitar, Eddie 'Bongo' Brown on conga and Chuck Rainey on bass. Strings and horns arranged by Dave Blumberg and Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson. With songs like "Musical Massage," "Phantom Lover" and "Journey Into You." Any more questions?
"Musical Massage"'s foreplay: 'You are a song surrounding me. Sweet melody that I see. Your hands caress me and make me calm. A symphony wrapped in your arms'. The 38-minute 'successor' to "I Want You" rounds off with "Turn Out The Light," written by Ware and Minnie Riperton. 'You can't go. Turn out the light. I want some more tonight. What we have here may never come again in a million years'. Leon Ware is no imitator on "Musical Massage," although an unsuspecting record-buyer might think so. Leon Ware on the similarities between him and Marvin Gaye: "Our voices are similar. Marvin had a richer tone and more charisma. We talked about that. Before we met we had heard from friends that we were so much alike. Both vocally and as people -- speaking voice, attitude, you know. We were uncanningly similar as men and creators. But I am no Marvin Gaye. I'm very glad I'm not. I am Leon Ware. I am intentionally a low profile man. I've been very good at deceiving myself. But I have cheated myself to a point. I have not allowed the talent that lives in me to be totally smothered." Perhaps we must be glad that Ware is a 'low profile' man. Marvin Gaye and Arthur T-Boy Ross both were high-profile people ravaged by drugs and both were gunned down.
"Musical Massage" would remain a rare and vintage wine forever, known only to a small group of connoisseurs until London based Expansion Records decided to try and re-release the album. Universal/Motown snapped at it and there it is: "Musical Massage" on CD. Draw the curtains, put some glasses on the table, light a candle and start putting the electrical blanket on ON. The treasure has been unlocked. The joy reaches its crescendo when you discover that the digital "Musical Massage" features five bonus tracks (the album is also available on 2-LP). Motown let go of never before released songs from the "I Want You "/"Musical Massage" sessions. Among them: "Comfort (Come Live With Me Angel)" performed by Leon Ware and Minnie Riperton (the fans at the Minnie Riperton website are going crazy) and Leon Ware's version of "I Wanna Be Where You Are," a song that Marvin Gaye put on "I Want You" for a a mere 1 minute and 18 seconds to declare his love to his family and to Janis. A nice 'weekender' -- a phenomenon known to Brits only -- is "Long Time No See." A great orchestra and lovely lyrics. Incredible that it never saw the light of day -- until now that is.
"Musical Massage has stood the test of time", Leon Ware says, clearly overjoyed by the imminent recognition of his own masterpiece. "I've heard from many of my following over the years who wanted to share this music with others and I have been frustrated for not being able to provide it. Motown played an interesting trick on me and I played one on myself. By lack of knowledge but is was not uncommon. They had me on contract as writer, producer, artist, arranger. It wasn't well thought out. I was one of those people who were taken advantage of and cheated. I was denied the respect and support I really should have gotten from Motown. I remember very well walking into Suzanne DePasse's office (Berry Gordy's business-partner, eds.) and thought that she was going to tell me how much she loved "Musical Massage" and how Motown was going to set up a really big campaign to do the Leon Ware thing. It was just the opposite. She said: 'Well, Berry and me decided that the album sounds like the follow-up to Marvin's "I Want You." I was dumbfounded. That was my last move for Motown. I walked away."
The guy who 'relieved' Motown from the Ware album they never wanted, Expansion boss Ralph Tee, can't believe his luck. Tee: "For me "Musical Massage" is a definitive album from my own favourite period in soul music, the mid 70's. At a time that major label artists were allowed to be individual and experimental, Leon pioneered a style that was so good he would have to give it up to Marvin Gaye! Had this not happened, "Musical Massage" -- or "I Want You," as it may well have been -- was the album that may have changed Leon's destiny and put him in the front line of major recording artists. The songs, musicianship are all outstanding here, despite the hurry to replace songs taken by Marvin. The combination of Leon's voice with lush arrangements is always irresistible, and never more so here. I fear music like this may never be made again."
Leon Ware Discography includes: 1972 Leon Ware (United Artists) 1976 Musical Massage (Gordy/Motown) 1979 Inside Is Love (Fabulous/TK) 1981 Rockin' You Eternally (Elektra) 1982 Leon Ware (Elektra) 1987 Undercover (Slingshot Records) 1995 Taste The Love (Kitchen Records) 2001 Candlelight (Bad Dog/Leon Ware Music)
This article first appeared in the Dutch pop magazine Heaven and later in the UK soul magazine Soulin'.
Martijn Delaere is chief of the foreign desk of the Haagsche Courant in The Hague, The Netherlands.
Martijn Delaere is chief of the foreign desk of the Haagsche Courant in The Hague. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org