Behind The Curtain: Teddy Leonard
By Erin McCallum.
There’s likely not a single serious Blues musician in Canada who does not know who Teddy Leonard is. Immersed in the live Blues scene steadily since 1978, Leonard’s signature sound on the guitar has become woven into the fabric of Canadian Blues music. He’s performed with an endless list of notable Blues artists, and is on many acclaimed recordings. The evidence of his impact could easily be found on the list of awards and recognitions he has received through the decades; however, one might argue that the proof lies solely within his capacity on the guitar. For over 40 years, Teddy Leonard has been delivering a sound that is both identifiable as the Blues, and unmistakably, his.
For Blues fans and listeners, perhaps name recognition need not apply. A guiding philosophy to Leonard’s approach is to serve as a supporting role to whoever takes centre stage – whether it’s Hubert Sumlin alongside Morgan Davis, John Mays of Fathead, or the fresh face who is an “up-and-coming” artist on the scene. Make no mistake though; Leonard can be mercurial in his playing by choice, changing intensities and matching intentions when it serves the song -and the artist - most appropriately in the moment. In this article, Teddy Leonard pairs portions of his musical endeavours with his own words, helping readers understand a little more than they can uncover by simply reading his bio. By no means is this a full account of his career; condensing it within the confines of an article would be an impossible task. More information on Teddy Leonard can be found by searching online, talking to other Blues musicians, or, better yet, learning by listening to his signature style of playing.
With Leonard’s professional record starting, by his account, in 1978, it makes sense to examine what came prior to that time. Let it be noted that as one of 11 children, Leonard was born into a musical family - his mother was a singer in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for 25 years, his father a drum major. Interestingly enough, he was the only one amongst his siblings to forego any formal music lessons, yet is also the only one who chose to carve a career as a professional musician. Although information that can be found indicates his decisions were based on being able to play music of choice rather than taking a broad academic approach, it seems important to look deeper into the nucleus of that decision. When asked what exactly inspired him to play the Blues – specifically the guitar – Teddy Leonard reveals the answer with easy recollection:
“I saw B.B. King performing on a PBS show in 1968. It was called Jazz Casual. As soon as I saw it, it inspired me to want to play guitar.”
When asked about what early influences inspired him to gravitate toward the Blues, he recounts a story that perhaps wrote on the slate of the player he is today:
“My oldest brother used to have parties, and someone had left behind a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee record called Live At The Bunkhouse. I ended up taking it, and listened to it, and I loved it. I’ve listened to it many times. I still have that record too.”
If you’re looking to pinpoint a crucial incident that turned inspiration and interest into ambitions and actions, Leonard can define that moment precisely. Speaking of the first time he set foot on stage and played the guitar for an audience, he says:
“I was at a Saturday matinee jam at The Firehall in London (Ontario). I played guitar with some of the guys I still play with today – Jerry Fletcher (bass), Frank Ridsdale (piano), Dexter Beauregard (drums). I liked the way everyone was communicating on stage through music, and the grooves that developed, and I wanted to do it again.”
After that Saturday matinee, there has been no compromise with the realization that Leonard would go on to cut a path as a professional musician – he’s been actively and consistently been playing guitar within that realm ever since the decision was made.
It’s tough to frame a player like Leonard, who is both a pioneer and an influencer. He remains a highly sought-after guitarist on the very scene that he had a part in nurturing during a time when the Blues was actively developing in a live environment. The first piece of history that comes to mind as evidence is Leonard’s position as guitarist for the Kendall Wall band - which is arguably one of the bands responsible for enabling many artists and fans to enjoy decades of live Blues music on the Toronto Blues scene. Interested readers should consider reading up on Kendall Wall if they want to know about the development of live Blues in Toronto. Listeners can find Kendall Wall tunes with a quick search online too – and multiple tracks feature the guitar sound that remains recognizable as Teddy Leonard’s signature playing today.
There are other notable bands that Leonard’s guitar playing has been a contributing component for success; his 17-year tenure with award winning band Fathead, which headlined countless festivals and events – is a fine example. In bridging the gap between history and current times, Leonard’s resume remains ongoing; he is in his 17th year of being an active member and regular guitarist of the esteemed Maple Blues Band. That example is a fitting segue – the Maple Blues Band is led by Gary Kendall, a founding member of the aforementioned band, Kendall Wall (Gary Kendall is a fine example of an influencer who was instrumental in blazing the trail for the live Blues scene in Toronto – perhaps there’s room for a separate edition of “Behind the Curtain” to examine that history).
In addition to the given examples, Teddy Leonard has shared the stage with numerous acclaimed artists over the course of his career to date – Colin Linden, Robbie Robertson, Snooky Pryor, Hubert Sumlin, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson of The Band come to mind readily. Outside of the live environment, he has also added his expertise to the recorded works of artist such as David Vest, Michael Pickett, Kendall Wall, Fathead, and more. Further evidence of Leonard’s impression as a notable player is revealed in the recognitions within the music industry; a Maple Blues Award (Guitarist of the Year), a JUNO Award (and multiple nominations), and two lifetime achievement awards are among the numerous acknowledgements he has received.
Recognizing that there is no need to search any further for credibility, it makes sense to ask an artist like Teddy Leonard what advice he might offer to aspiring artists who are looking to walk a path that he helped pave.
His advice is simply stated: “Play with as many people as you can, and play as many styles of music as you can.”
That advice falls directly in harmony with Leonard’s next statement; when asked what he thinks has contributed to his longevity in the Blues music industry, he is quick to share credit, saying: “With respect to longevity, it’s been getting to play with great players.”
With that statement, it is a safe bet to proclaim that everyone on stage is in good company.
In uncovering what’s “behind the curtain” with the legendary Canadian Blues guitarist, only one curiosity remained in the conversation; I wanted to know what the difference might be between that first time Teddy Leonard took to the stage with his guitar at that Saturday matinee in London, and when he steps on stage today – after the awards, experiences, and performing professionally for millions of people over the decades.
Leonard’s original inspiration remains unaltered: “I still enjoy playing every bit as much as I did that first day. Maybe the only difference is that I’m definitely not as nervous!”
As the inaugural edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.
Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years.
Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians from across Canada who perform predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.