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  • Writer's pictureErin McCallum

Behind The Curtain SPECIAL EDITION: Teddy Leonard – Revisited

Photo Credit: Harry Dunbar Photography.

As “Behind The Curtain” officially enters its third year, the investigative nature of this article has stayed true to its original intent: striving to uncover something more about the artists at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective by searching beyond the regular press release and bio. This month’s feature has the same principles and methods that are used to achieve that goal, however, it’s different in one noteworthy respect: it is warranted due to popular demand. To provide some context, the very first edition of “Behind the Curtain” (Published October 31st, 2021) featured Master Blues guitarist (singer, songwriter, and producer), Teddy Leonard. Since its publication, that particular feature has been read hundreds of thousands of times, is the most organically shared article to date, and has more organic shares on social media than any other Behind The Curtain edition. The interest in that first feature has not slowed; its ongoing popularity warranted conversation amongst The Sound Café magazine team, discussing what the reasons may be, and, frankly, what to do about it. After months of consideration, two things seem clear – people are interested in learning more about Teddy Leonard, and readers want access to that information. In an effort to provide readers what they are looking for, The Sound Café magazine has decided to take two initiatives in this special edition to satisfy popular demand. In addition to conducting a second objective investigation, The Sound Café magazine will also be providing a direct link to the original article featuring Teddy Leonard via QR code. In every edition of “Behind The Curtain”, readers are encouraged to investigate independently to find out more about the featured artist via other sources. This is still the case, however, this special edition will be focused on looking deeper within the original exclusive that has been so widely received by readers.

It’s a tall order - uncovering more enterprising content, after an investigation has already provided in-depth information in a way that is not time sensitive. Trajectories such as “what’s next”, or providing updated information, do not apply to the intention, structure, or principles of “Behind The Curtain”. With this in mind, the most reasonable approach here is to reexamine the original investigation in search of more objective truth. Although this edition offers independent and enterprising insight, the original feature will serve as a foundation for new discoveries about Teddy Leonard. With access to that first feature from October 2021 via QR code, there is little need to provide the biographical content about Leonard to justify this investigation.

A very brief outline, for readers who need an introduction: Since 1978, Teddy Leonard has been a full-time professional Blues musician, best known for his offerings as a Master Blues guitarist. He has been recognized for his work throughout his career via awards and acknowledgements, and remains a highly sought-after player. Leonard continues to be recognized as a top-tier player; evidence is found in recognitions such as a 2022 Maple Blues Awards (Guitarist of The Year) nomination (complimenting his two Lifetime Achievement awards, JUNO Awards recognition, and more), and, perhaps more importantly, his ongoing performances in both studio and live performance settings. Although recognized via the aforementioned, perhaps the best way to recognize Teddy Leonard is in hearing his playing.

One point that was asserted in the first ‘Behind The Curtain’ article featuring Teddy Leonard, is that his sound is identifiable as Blues, and unmistakeably his. The statement itself has been wholly accepted by listeners and readers, however, there’s merit in exploring it more in-depth; it makes sense to investigate what might be at the nucleus of that intangible identifier via direct conversation. In an effort to understand more about Leonard’s unique yet identifiable guitar playing, the conversation uses this assertion as the foundation of the conversation. Asking the question directly, however, would not provide the objective truth or deep insight readers of this article seek - finding the thread that weaves together the truth via Leonard’s answers to other relevant questions will provide the greatest insight.

To establish a general line of discussion, the conversation started by asking Leonard what keeps him engaged and inspired after over four decades (45 years, considering his professional start in ‘78) of ongoing performance as a full-time professional musician:

“What keeps me inspired and engaged? Trying to play something as good as my heroes, and having interaction between the players that I’m playing with. I enjoy playing just as much now as I did when I first started playing, and being able to have that musical interaction with some of the really great players I get to play with is always inspiring.”

In learning that Leonard draws inspiration from his colleagues and heroes alike – and in considering his own professional record – the opportunity opened to take a more direct approach to the line of questioning. There’s merit in establishing what Leonard thinks are the main components of a signature sound, in relation to a guitarist’s playing style. When asked, he offered:

“It’s all in the hands and the way a player addresses the instrument – and in the way you [ven.] phrase, and the way you approach the song. Approach is important because it’s not about showing off how many notes you can play, or how many licks you can do – there are the same number of notes on every guitar. Get in, say something, and get out – always serve the song.”

In order to get a sense of Leonard’s process, in an indirect way, it made sense to ask him what advice he would offer to players who are looking to emulate a genre, and develop their own unique sound while doing it. He offered:

“My advice to anyone who is looking to develop their sound is to always search for the people who influenced the people who influenced you. When you’re trying to figure out what you’re looking for with respect to sound, you’re never really satisfied, and you should always keep looking. Always be happy with what you are doing, but never be satisfied that you’ve finished growing.”

In learning what advice Leonard would offer aspiring players, the next curiosity was whether or not his advice is his also his current practice. Following the natural course of the conversation, Leonard was asked if he still listens to his original influences for inspiration. His response:

“Yes. I always find myself going back more than I find myself going forward, with respect to listening. The more you learn, the more perspective there is when you return to the music that originally inspired you to start playing. The further you go – again, finding the players who influenced the players who influenced you – the further you can understand an approach, style, or influence that inspires your playing. There’s always something new to learn, and I am definitely still learning.”

After objectively establishing that revisiting inspiring influences is part of Leonard’s ongoing development as a player, it made sense to investigate the topic further, still. With the continued intention of gaining insight about what it is that has made him so identifiable in his playing, looking for a commonality between Leonard’s influences and his signature sound would provide further understanding. When asked about his musical influences, Leonard readily opened up, naming names, and offering explanations:

“Some of the artists that struck me, the very first time I heard them: B.B. King, of course – absolutely lyrical and expressive, like no other. Hubert Sumlin – its like a bomb going off. James Burton – popping, hopping and rockin’. Amos Garret. Robbie Robertson. Ry Cooder - nobody else sounds like any of them.”

Leonard offered further clarification, sharing some characteristics that left an influencing impression on him as a player - and listener - both on and off the record. For context in this particular feature, Leonard’s explanations about Ry Cooder, Amos Garrett, and Robbie Robertson help define an emerging theme:

“The more I listened to Ry (Cooder), the more I learned, and the more musical I discovered him to be. To listen to where Robbie Robertson’s ideas came from (it should be noted that Leonard has played alongside Robertson) was really something – he’s a really original player. I heard him play on “Do The Do” and “Hidden Charms”, and nobody sounds like him – gnarly, hot, and like a livewire - he’s inimitable. Amos Garrett bends in and out of chords for the most unique and beautiful effect – nobody sounds like him.”

As a commonality in the conversation started to emerge, there was merit in obtaining additional insight by asking Leonard what the most valuable lesson in his career has been, to date. He offered:

“The most valuable lesson? Listening. If you don’t listen, you don’t play good music. There are many accomplished players who have found their strength through supporting the song, and the most important part of that is listening. If you’re up there, paying no attention, just soloing, then, you’re not finding the groove, supporting the song, or playing “in the pocket”. If you’re paying attention to supporting the song – listening - you’re closer to it. If you listen to old Blues songs, yes, there’s a solo, but it’s not out of place; it’s a relevant part of the song.”

In looking to discover what might be at the nucleus of Teddy Leonard’s signature guitar playing, this investigation approached the topic from multiple angles without blatantly asking; as stated at the beginning of this article, a direct question of that nature would not provide the objective truth and insight readers seek. In examining Leonard’s own words that have been put on the record in this instalment, there is a common thread that offers a reasonable conclusion. Although Teddy Leonard directed most of his answers toward finding inspiration by listening to others, and being focused mainly on inspiring influences, it’s reasonable to think that he’s provided a greater truth about himself as a player. In shining the spotlight on others, Leonard has shed some light on that intangible “thing” at the epicentre of his playing. Many of the identifiers that Leonard cites as inspiring to him are ones that could also be used to describe him. Much like his personal take on Ry Cooder, Robbie Robertson, Amos Garrett and B.B. King – nobody sounds like him. It’s a fair conclusion that in his ongoing process, Teddy Leonard has become one of the heroes that he has been inspired by, to those who are inspired by him.

As this 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, and it inspires further investigation. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates these conversations. In Teddy Leonard’s case, there is direct access to the October 2021 edition of “Behind The Curtain” via QR code. This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: Vince Jones.

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 and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres. Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound. Check out the Erin McCallum Blues Legend & Legacy Distinction Read more from Erin ...


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