Remembering Leon Ware, Hit R&B Songwriter and Marvin Gaye Collaborator
The man who co-wrote and co-produced Gaye’s ‘I Want You’ album recently passed away.
Leon Ware, the Detroit-born songwriter who collaborated with and wrote R&B hits for such artists as Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, died on February 23 at the age of 77, according to his manager, NPR reported. Ware was perhaps best known as the co-writer and co-producer of Gaye’s 1976 classic album I Want You, which includes the famous title track (later covered by Madonna and Robert Palmer) and “After the Dance.” Ware later co-wrote with Maxwell “Sumthin’ Sumthin,’” which appeared on the latter’s 1996 album Urban Hang Suite, and his music has also been sampled by hip-hop acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur, according to his bio. He was also a recording artist who released several albums of his own, including 1976’s Musical Massage and 2008’s Moon Ride.
In 2003, I interviewed Ware around the time of the reissue of Gaye’s I Want You as an expanded edition, along with Ware’s own Musical Massage from 1976. This gregarious and outgoing man kindly shared his thoughts about Gaye and his own career. The following is a slightly edited version of that interview, which now serves a remembrance for a soul music legend.
If Leon Ware had his way, sensualism would be a worldwide religion that all of us would have no inner conflict with. His reputation as a connoisseur of love is well warranted throughout his long career as a singer, songwriter, and producer. He has penned lush, romantic songs such as “Body Heat,” “Inside My Love,” and “I Wanna Be Where You Are” for Quincy Jones, Minnie Riperton, and Michael Jackson respectively.
But perhaps his greatest contribution to soul music was co-writing one of Marvin Gaye’s biggest hits “I Want You,” as well as producing and writing the album of the same name. Ironically, the songs that would appear on Gaye’s album were originally going to be used for Ware’s album called Comfort. When Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records heard the tracks, he felt that Marvin Gaye was better suited for them — Ware had no problem yielding his work to the Prince of Motown. Simultaneously as he was producing and working with Gaye, Ware resumed writing and recording for his own album. The result was Musical Massage, a sensual musical journey on a par with I Want You. However, Musical Massage never got the acknowledgement it deserved at the time and got lost in the shuffle.
Perhaps now the public will give Musical Massage a chance almost 30 years later since its release. That record and Gaye’s I Want You were both recently reissued by Motown/UMe with extra bonus tracks recorded during both recording sessions. These restored albums put into perspective the magic weaved by Ware: silky grooves, exquisite production, and velvety vocals by both Gaye and Ware.
Ware hasn’t stopped making music (which he was doing since he was three). He continues to record and perform live. And he is also passing the soul music torch to another generation. He had co-wrote “Sumthin’ Sumthin’ “ for Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, and also co-wrote the title track for Keb Mo’s album The Door. At a youthful 63, Ware had recently released his latest album Love’s Drippin’, offering the same delicious romantic soul. He also runs a ministry and is penning a song called “Soldier of Love.”
This cheerful, spiritually-minded person discussed the making behind I Want You and Musical Massage, while reflecting on his career and views on life and love.
What are your feelings now about the re-release of I Want You and Musical Massage?
I’m just thrilled that it’s getting the chance to be reissued and reintroduced to this particular generation who presently really needs to hear some genuine, authentic sexy music that is sensual without being tacky.
How did I Want You start out from being your own album to being Marvin’s record? What was the chemistry like?
All the songs that were on the I Want You album were Comfort except for “I Want You.” Berry came in, heard the song, fell in love with it, took it Marvin, and the rest is history. One evening, me and Marvin got into a discussion. He listened to something through the wall and came in and asked, “What was that?” I said, “That’s my album.” So we spent all night listening to it over and over. Then he looked at me and said, “I’ll do this for you if you give me the whole album.”
I’d play the piano and he’d walk in and sing the melody I’m thinking of on more than one occasion. It was the most telepathic — it was like being read and reading without anything being said. I worked with quite a few people over the last 30 years nothing like Marvin.
Were you unhappy that you had to turn over the songs that you wrote and recorded to another artist?
We were floored. Marvin’s second in my line of the greatest singers: Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra.
You finally were able to record your own album titled Musical Massage but it never got the proper recognition it deserved.
Looking back, the album was really never released. Motown really wanted me to give that album to Marvin. I probably would have but I didn’t agree on how it was presented to me. I said Marvin, “When I finish this, I want to start working on my music and I don’t want anybody to get in the way.” Marvin even sang on a couple of tracks.
Were you upset with Motown and the result, although you really didn’t want to grab the spotlight?
I respected Motown’s position. I can’t say I like it but I respected it though. They definitely wanted it for Marvin. I could have taken the album to be my platform for my artistry. The beauty of it again is that the work still sounds really great.
Someone wrote an article that acknowledged how little acknowledgment I had. I’ve been pretty responsible for that because I intentionally have been a low profile individual.
What were the main ingredients that made Musical Massage sound so lush?
It’s all the things you can think of: spirit, love, and atmosphere that will hopefully bring people together.
What do you prefer doing: singing, writing, or producing?
I am a better writer more than anything. I love singing and writing as much.
Someone asked me which of my songs is my favorite, and I looked at her and said, “I’m gonna take the position that I heard Picasso make in an interview. A lady asked him which of his paintings did he like, and he opened his hands and said, ‘You have to ask which of my fingers did I like the best.’”
What do you think of the current crop of young soul singers like Maxwell and D’Angelo?
Those two singers I can say are really the torchbearers of this generation from the old generation., and done a wonderful job. I feel that Max has a wonderful future ahead of him and the same goes for D’Angelo.
You have been performing for so long since your young days as a Motown artist, and you are still doing this. What keeps you going?
The spirit. I’ve been performing for years and I still feel just like that three year-old that got onstage.
There’s nothing like the magic that you have served or you have displayed and shared something with 1 or 100 or 100,000 people as they love it enough to stand up and say, ‘Yeah!’
What in your opinion makes I Want You still hold up after nearly 30 years?
What we did were from our hearts. They are still rich and alive and I only hope this particular era and any era to come will appreciate the spirit and atmosphere of love in that piece of work. There’s a part of me that says I like the idea of giving a piece of work a new light. [Then] Art Stewart [I Want You’s engineer] said, “There’s a reason why they never accepted a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
It’s a masterpiece that retains its richness throughout all the times. It does not age.
What’s your philosophy on sex and romance?
My religion is sensualism. Sensualism is what made us. There has been a taboo about sex and sensualism. However, the messages and the spirit and the platform for all these love songs now have been validated as being part of my religion. I will spread this in my music and makes this as honorable as Catholicism, Buddhism, and all the other -isms.
Sex is always good. But sex and love is magic.