Dr. Music talks with the guitarist and musical director of The Paul Rodgers Band about guitars, Heart, the best guitar player that ever lived, and being a dad.
by Scott "Dr. Music" Itter
The name might only ring a bell to the classic rock “passerby,” but the name Howard Leese is as sacred as the Vatican bells to the educated classic rocker. You’ll almost always hear or see his name followed by the words “of Heart,” due in part to his 22+ years stint with the Wilson sisters, but that isn’t something this ego-free guitar master is bothered by. As he puts it, “Being famous is overrated. People who know the music, know who I am.”
Having the chance to sit down with Howard Leese was a dream come true for me. Ann and Nancy Wilson are always at the forefront of all things Heart related whenever mainstream media covers the band, and this is something that is truly disturbing to me on many levels. Being a student of the School of Liner Notes, I always see Leese credited with everything from mandolin and keyboards to string arrangements. These were elements that acted as the driving force behind so many great Heart songs, and it was the less attractive of the two blonde guitar players (no offense Howard) that was piloting the ship. I’ve always felt like Leese was the brains of the outfit; the glue that held it all together, if you will. And after sitting down with this highly intelligent and extremely inventive man, it turns out my intuition was right on target. We discussed the Heart years. We discussed guitars and the creativity of his unique sound. We talked about working with Paul Rodgers, details of his personal life, and his upcoming solo project (a subject that will be covered exclusively in the second interview) - all in all, there wasn’t much we didn’t talk about.
Having grown up with Heart music and having Leese engrave so many memorable melodies onto my soul, meeting him was an honor. I hold him in very high regard - a musical hero. And for someone you admire so much to be even more than you could ask for as a person, as well as a musician, is something very special. So please, sit down with me as I talk with Howard Leese, and enjoy the many facts and stories this great man has to tell.
The following text is taken from a conversation that took place on April 18th, 2007 before a Paul Rodgers Band concert in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and has been edited. You can hear the interview in its entirety below.
Dr. Music: I’m here with Howard Leese, guitarist and “musical director” for The Paul Rodgers Band.
Howard Leese: "Correct."
DM: What exactly does that entail, “musical director?”
HL: "Paul wants to do something he tells me and I work it out with the band. I prepare the band and make sure everybody knows everything, what we‘re doing, so he doesn‘t have to go to every single person, he just goes to me and I make sure the band knows what‘s going on. I’m basically in charge of making sure the band is ready."
DM: Something we never hear about is your personal life. We never hear about your marriage or family. Do you have a wife and kids?
HL: "Yeah…yeah, I have a wife. I have two young sons, 6 and 7, Michael and Daniel. We live in Malibu. I have an 18-year old daughter, Bonnie, who’s a guitar player as well. She went to Musicians Institute in Hollywood for a couple of years and studied there. Yeah, so when I’m not working that’s what I do, I’m mainly a dad."
DM: Now I’ve seen you in front of your house with your guitars, the infamous picture. How many you got now?
HL: "Oh, I don’t know. That picture was fifty; fifty vintage pieces."
DM: If you could keep one?
HL: "The best guitar I have is here with me tonight. It’s on its way to Dallas for the guitar show. It’s a real early Paul Reed Smith guitar; first one with the Maple top, it’s called the Golden Eagle.
DM: We were talking about the Paul Reed Smith/Dean differential. Early on in your career when you hooked up with Dean Zelinsky.
HL: "Right, yeah. (I) played Deans in the 70’s, right."
DM: He made a lot of guitars for you, didn’t he?
HL: "Uh-huh, some of those are like in the Hard Rock’s. Dean’s from Chicago so I had to put a Dean in the Chicago Hard Rock. It’s still there. My Dean in Chicago’s cool because it’s in between Eric Clapton and Bo Diddley. That’s pretty good. Pretty good spot."
DM: The proverbial desert island disc. What is it for you?
HL: "Wow…….desert island disc……(carefully thinking)
I would probably take the first Hendrix album, because it’s got heavy stuff, it’s got beautiful stuff, it’s good all around. “Third Stone From the Sun” - if I had only one track I’d probably take that, that’s a good song. That’s a tough one though because some classical music would be good, a good blues record would be great. But hopefully that situation won’t arise (laughs) - picking just one record for the rest of your life - because whatever you pick would make you sick after awhile."
DM: Would only one guitar get irritating?
HL: "No, one guitar’s all you need. You can only play one at a time."
DM: Is there any new talent you see coming up?
HL: "We saw a band in England that we like called The Black Keys, pretty cool band. My favorite guy I would mention would probably be Eric Johnson. Not enough people know him, and he’s the best guitar player that ever lived. Oh my God, what a great player. Well rounded, can play anything - he’s fantastic."
DM: What is your most memorable moment with Heart?
HL: "The time the stage collapsed on us in Kyoto from the rain and we almost got killed. That was very memorable. My parents heard on the radio that we were killed. They didn’t hear from me for another day or so, so for a day they thought we were done. Because it looked like we were dead from the audience. But, yeah, your first number one - when they call and say your record’s number one, that’s a big day."
Leese and the other members of Heart received one of those calls when their 1985 self-titled record reached #1 on the Billboard charts. But prior to the release of that record, Leese and the band were experiencing very lean times. The two records prior to ’85’s self-titled record, “Private Audition” and “Passionworks,” failed to live up to sales expectations. “Private Audition” saw the original lineup dissolve, while “Passionworks” was released before the new lineup had time to gel. Leese and I began to talk about this crucial time in the band’s history.
HL: "The girls called me one day and said the band is broken, fix it. They gave me complete control over hiring the two new guys." (Denny Carmassi, Mark Andes)
DM: The “musical director” thing! (laughs)
HL: "The “musical director” thing….yep. One of my things I’m most proud of is putting that particular band together, because that band was bigger than the original band. We were very successful, and I felt that choosing those guys was real key to how that band sounded and how we did."
DM: Did you know that you were back on track during the recording process?
HL: "Well, I thought musically we were back on track, but career wise we were at pretty much our lowest point. And what was great about that record was, it was a do or die thing. It was like, this record’s not a hit the label’s gonna drop us, we won’t have a deal, we’ll be back to playing clubs. A lot of things changed. Our style of recording changed, and our modus operandi changed, and I think having the new enthusiasm of the people that we brought in really helped. We just entered like a new phase and sort of reinvented ourselves."
DM: It worked out pretty well.
HL: "Our biggest record ever, yeah."
DM: Is there any particular song that you always love to play live?
HL: "Yeah, “Barracuda” is fun. Because it’s physically fun to play. And all the funny math."
DM: Heart’s being honored at the VH1 Rock Honors. You’ll be there?
HL: "No. Don’t think so."
DM: That’s a crime.
HL: "I know. It stinks, doesn’t it? They’re having their current road band play, none of which had anything to do with any of those records. So all the fans are crying foul, they think it stinks. I think it stinks. I’m disappointed. I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed. The VH1 thing this is fine, but they dare not try that to get in the Hall of Fame…..then I’m gonna bitch. But yeah, it stinks, and so does their new band. So….there you have it."
DM: You’re always Howard Leese of Heart. Did you ever wish you had more of the spotlight?
HL: "One of my potential album titles for my record’s called “Secret Weapon,” because that’s what they always used to call me in the press. The thing with that, I never really did personally. We were so famous, that it was plenty. I’m plenty famous. But Ann & Nancy really never gave the band much credit. You never heard them speak about the band members, they were always talking about something they were doing. They never really appreciated or gave the band its due, I thought. They never really promoted us at all. All the press and stuff was always focused on them, which is fine because it worked. But it was a little bit funky, especially in the 80’s when the band was really the driving force behind it and the girls really weren‘t the leadership at that time. We had a lot to do with how successful we were then, (we) really kind of guided the whole thing for a while there. So yeah, it irks me a little bit. Personally I don’t really care. I think being famous is overrated. But, on a musical level, it kind of bothered me that the band never got the credit; how important the band was to the whole overall thing. Let’s just say I had a bigger percentage of the money than I had of the spotlight - I was fine with that."
We talked about the beginnings and the early Heart years as well. Seeing Leese smile with joy when I mentioned The Zoo, his first band formed with early Heart producer Mike Flicker, was something very special. Our discussion of the relationships between the Wilson sisters and the Fisher brothers brought us to questions about Leese’s thoughts through all of that inner turmoil.
DM: The early Fisher-Wilson relationships, did that ever threaten the future of the band?
HL: "Well yeah, sure. Yeah, that definitely just about destroyed the band. That’s when that whole support system fell apart and that’s when the girls came to me and said reinvent the band, let’s get a new band, let’s not give up, let’s not stop now, let’s move forward and see if we can regain our former glory."
DM: You never thought about leaving at that point?
HL: "No….I never did."
DM: Any point? After “Private Audition” or “Passionworks?”
HL: "Nah. Nah, because we had been so successful that even when we were doing shitty we were still doing better than most bands. So, we still had it going on pretty well. And I always believe in the talent of the band; the Wilson girls are very talented, and Ann’s one of the best singers ever. And, you know, all we needed was the right songs and the right kind of approach."DM: Here’s my favorite question, and one of the last. Put yourself in Paul Rodgers shoes. Brian May passes away, Freddie Mercury is alive and asks you to take Brian’s spot. Do you take that job?Here’s my favorite question, and one of the last. Put yourself in Paul Rodgers shoes. Brian May passes away, Freddie Mercury is alive and asks you to take Brian’s spot. Do you take that job?
HL: (long pause) "Brian’s got such a unique sound, a unique style, it would be challenging."
DM: …..like Freddie.
HL: (in agreement) ".....like Freddie.
But, yeah, I could do it because I like the music. I love the songs, some really good songs. So, if you like the music then…..
But I love Brian. I’ve known Brian since ‘76, so I can’t even imagine that. But, that would be a tough one to do, he’s got such a unique sound. But I had to get my Kossoff thing together to do this gig. Free is my favorite band of all time and so I had a pretty good grip on it, but when I found out I was gonna work with Paul I specifically went back and went through all the songs, and learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know, so it’s been great for me because I love that band."
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - “We’re comin’. The thing is for me, who gets there first - me or Paul? (laughs) He’s way overdue. We’re comin’, I know we’ll get in, but Paul’s more overdue than I am."
Fans - "Lifeblood of the whole thing. Without the fans you’re just playing in your garage. Can’t do it without the fans."
Dick Dale - "Dick Dale! Good friend of mine. The first guy I saw live that killed me. Came out with that Metal Flake Strat upside down and went ‘grrrrr’ on the low string, and you go oh oh….something’s tingling! (laughs) Yeah, a big influence on me."
Retirement - "When I got finished playing with Heart and I did a couple of tours with Ann Wilson and we stopped doing that, I thought, ‘Cool, I’m done!’; I never wanted to play live much anyway, I was always a studio guy. I was gonna retire then, then I got this call. Jeff (current drummer for the Paul Rodgers band) goes, ‘If you could play with anybody in the world, who would you want to play with?’ And I go, ‘Paul Rodgers.” He goes, ‘BINGO!’ So, anybody else than Paul I would’ve said no…..anybody else. Elton John Band, I don’t care. But Paul asked me to do it. And I’ve told him many times, when he’s done I’m done. This is my last gig, I’m not gonna play after this."
I would like to send an extra special thanks to Howard Leese for his time and candidness, as well as his kindness and hospitality. It was an honor to be in his presence.
I would also like to thank Kristy at Black Star Records for her hard work and kind consideration, without it this interview would not have been possible.
And finally, a huge thank you to Paul Rodgers; not only for his extraordinary musical talents, but for keeping a classic rock icon like Howard Leese out of retirement. And, although it will be a devastating blow to the music world when Paul and Howard decide to step down, it is a comfort to know that millions of fans around the world will always have Paul Rodgers to Free them and Howard Leese burning in their Heart.