Leon Everette: Now A Consistent Chart Name
During the past few years a number of new U.S. country acts have continued to bring a contemporary brand of hit titles to the charts—and stayed there. Leon Everette is one of those acts… Alan Cackett presents a profile
In the space of a few short years, Leon Everette has emerged as one of the most exciting and successful new names on the country scene, but the transition from obscurity to overnight fame has not been easy for the rugged, good looking performer. Rejection by the major labels in Nashville led to some frustrating years with small independent labels, and finally a record company formed with the sole intention of establishing Leon Everette as a major name in country music.
Unlike most other country artists, Leon's interest in music came rather late in life. Born in South Carolina and raised in the Queens district of New York, Leon's early interest in music was gained from listening to the radio, but often it was just background noise and didn't instil the youngster with too much enthusiasm. He did not discover a penchant for music until he was grown up and had joined the American Navy in the late 1960s.
He was serving on an aircraft carrier, mainly based around the South Pacific. There were long hours with little to do, and Leon noticed that many of the guys would relieve the tedious hours of boredom by playing guitar, harmonica and various other musical instruments. Whilst on leave in the Philippines he purchased himself a guitar and smuggled the contraband instrument aboard ship, his appetite for music well whetted.
“I'd never had any kind of tuition,” he recalls. “I just watched the other guys and practised as much as I possibly could. I became so hooked on mastering that guitar that I would wish my hours on duty away eager to get back to learning to play.”
Not satisfied with just learning to play guitar, Leon also started to sing along to his own accompaniment, and encouraged by his fellow shipmates he entered a Navy talent contest, which he won. This initial brush with success, mixed with his own extrovert personality, led to him believing that a career in music was what he wanted.
“The first time I got up in front of people and sang I knew that was what I wanted. The applause and cheering just seems to transform me and I get totally wound up in what I'm doing. It's a great feeling, and as I'm getting more successful it just seems to be getting better all the time.”
After his stint in the Navy was completed, Leon returned to the place he calls home, South Carolina, and was ready to settle down. He married a local girl, Kathy, and landed a job at the South Carolina Power and Gas Company. But all the time, nagging at the back of his mind was this dream of fame and fortune as an entertainer,
“Though I went against the wishes of both my family and my wife's family, I just felt that I had to give the singing and entertaining a go. If it didn't work, then that was it, but at least in my own mind I had to be sure whether or not I could make it. And the only way was to go out there and have a shot at it.”
With continual differences of opinion with his boss at the Power Company, Leon packed in his job, invested in a new guitar, put together a band and became a regular in the clubs and honky tonks around South Carolina and Georgia. In 1972 Leon and his band won a talent contest which led to a recording contact with a small Nashville set-up. The other band members were not too keen on the idea of making what they considered to be a fruitless journey to Nashville, so Leon went by himself, and though nothing came out of the recording deal, it did enable him to get a foot into the door of country music.
“I was still working with the band in clubs around South Carolina and Georgia, and after we'd finish the show I'd go home, grab a few hours sleep, then get up early and drive to Nashville for the day. I had various jobs working for small companies, and this enabled me to meet people and try to get them interested in me and my music.”
Eventually Leon's perseverance paid off. He recorded for a small label, Doral Records, in 1976, and released the single Running State Of Mind. At the time he was working in the mailroom of True Records, and when they heard that he could sing they decided to give him a chance.
His first recording session for the label coincided with the death of Elvis Presley, so against his better judgement Leon recorded the tribute song, Goodbye King Of Rock And Roll. The record was released literally hours after Presley's death and began selling rapidly. But once the other labels came out with their tribute records, Leon's tapered off, mainly due to the poor distribution and promotional set-up of True Records.
The label boss was so pleased with the results of Leon's record that immediately plans were made along the same lines for his future fforts—more Elvis rock and roll soundalikes. But Leon and his record company didn't see eye to eye. No more Elvis and no more rock, he told them.
“‘I'm gong country,’” I said”, Leon recalls. “And they said: 'Country ain't selling; pop is where its at.' I said: ‘That's tough. I'm country.' 'You're gonna do pop sessions,' they told me, 'or we're gonna drop you.' So I just let them carry out their threat, and I was left without a label.”
He did score on the country charts whilst with True Records. At the end of 1977 his last record for the company I Love That Woman (Like The Devil Loves Sin), spent a few weeks near the bottom of the charts. Leon re-recorded the song a couple of years later for Orlando and took it much higher on the charts.
Soon after the bust-up at True Records, Leon happened to be spotted by Carroll Fulmer, a well-off Florida businessman, who liked what he saw and heard. It was at a show at Bellevue, Iowa. At the time Leon was convinced it was his last performance. Discouraged and disillusioned by the dealings in Nashville, he had decided to give up his dream of a career in country music and return to some kind of tedious nine to five job.
It was very much a case of fulfilling a contractual obligation; Leon was accompanied by the band he had worked with initially in South Carolina. They decided to have a last final fling, and really enjoyed themselves. The enthusiasm for what they were doing impressed Fulmer, who, though he had little knowledge about the music industry, approached Leon and offered to support his music career.
At first Leon was naturally reluctant to get involved again, but it didn't take him too long to realise that Fulmer was serious about backing his talent. The combination of Fulmer's bank roll and Leon's musical knowledge led to the formation of Orlando Records. It was to be used primarily to promote Leon Everette, though famous country DJ Ralph Emery gained a release with the label with Daddy Is She As Pretty As Mama in the early month of 1979, and the label has also signed Jeris Ross to a contact.
Leon returned to Nashville in the summer of 1978 to begin arranging recording sessions and finding material to record. He ran into Bill Rice, one-half of the Foster-Rice songwriting team, and a production deal was initiated, which led to the release of several chart singles. The initial release coupled We Let Love Fade Away and Never Ending Crowded Circle, at the beginning of 1979 and resulted in Leon's second chart entry. It was only a minor hit, tempered at the time by Orlando's limited promotion and distribution. The same fate happened to Giving Up Easy, but the third single for Orlando, Don't Feel Like The Lone Ranger, reached the top thirty and both Leon Everette and Orlando Records were on their way.
Described as a hard-headed person who knows just where he's heading, Everette decided that he wanted total control over his recordings, and teaming up with Ronnie Dean, he took over the production. By this time several major labels were becoming interested in this new guy who was bustling around Nashville singing, performing and promotion his own records. But Leon Everette had decided that he would not sign to any major label unless he retained the total control over his recordings and career.
He hit the charts strongly with The Sun Went Down In My World Tonight, a new recording of I Love That Woman (Like The Devil Loves Sin) and I Don't Want To Lose, when RCA began negotiating very seriously for the signature of Leon Everette on one of their recording contracts. In August 1980 Orlando released the album I DON'T WANT TO LOSE, which contained all of his previous hit singles, and Leon was now ready to sign with a major label, but RCA still hesitated.
“We'd been negotiating with RCA for about a year when the album was released,” Leon explained, “And they were wanting to sign me, but they were a little nervous about the production clause. I insisted on total control, but they were hem-hawing around, wanting to sign me, but not wanting to sign me. So when I Don't Want To Lose, fell out of the charts we just started pressing the follow-up, Over You, and within a few weeks it went into the top ten, and then RCA called and said: 'Hey Leon, let's talk.'”
October 1980 was when Leon finally signed with a major label and his first single for RCA, Giving Up Easy, soon shot up the charts. His ability to produce himself was well proven when RCA gave Leon free creative rein which he had held out for. His second RCA single, If I Keep Going Crazy, was another top ten hit and led to the release of an album carrying the same title.
The line-up of songs was only slightly different than the Orlando LP, and it was an impressive collection. Leon handles all the vocals superbly, and can weave from a tender ballad to a country rocker with great ease. The cream of the Nashville songwriters were featured with Foster-Rice providing three songs, Charlie Craig coming up with Champagne Dreams, the up-and-coming Roger Murrah responsible for three of the tracks, and also a fine version of Willie Nelson's It's Not Supposed To Be That Way.
Leon Everette was making quite an impression with his records, and was also whipping up a storm with his live shows. A dynamic stage performer, Leon works hard on his presentation, becoming totally wrapped up in his music and the audience as he moves across the stage and sometimes even leaps into the audience. This has caused him a few problems, including a gash on his arm to remind him of a show at Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he stuck his arm up in the air and straight through a glass panel. Another time, he gashed his leg as he slipped when hopping around the audience from row to row. And several times he has made one of his famous leaps into the crowd—but lost his balance on take-off and ended up in an embarrassing position, usually flat on his back.
But his enthusiasm is never dampened, his philosophy is quite simple: “When you go on stage you should go on with a sober head and know exactly what you're doing. You should give the audience exactly what they paid to see, and that's entertainment.”
His single, Hurricane, a top ten hit last summer, almost sums up the Leon Everette personality. This superb Keith Stegall song became the title track of his second RCA album. Filled with a commercially valid sound without sacrificing originality it proved that Leon Everette was undoubtedly a new name to reckon with on the country scene. He updated the old Stonewall Jackson hit Don't Be Angry, and also came up with some fine new songs, including Keith Stegall's Think It Over and John Schweers' If You're Serious About Cheating, the latter a duet with an un-named lady, who might just be Jeris Ross.
Those two initial albums for RCA were put back to back for one 20-track album for British release under the title THIS IS LEON EVERETTE, and so began the British connection for the dynamic singer and entertainer. He had already appeared on these shores at the Peterborough Country Music Festival in the summer of 1981, and if he can maintain a regular schedule of British visits and record releases, then there's little doubt that his success with American country fans could be repeated with British country fans.