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Driving Around With Ronnie Leigh

I was at a rehearsal at the Ridge for the Eagles tribute that was to take place the very next evening, back in July. Beautiful evening. If you’re a musician who is familiar with these rehearsals, they can be rather lengthy, so I brought my computer to catch up on some work while I waited my turn; along with some hellos and small chats with the other musicians present. I always felt most comfortable in environments like this.

I’m banging away on a project, head down and focused to the task when I hear, “Hey Chuck, how are you, Man?!”

Ronnie Leigh! 

I know this voice as I look up, delighted to see my friend.

I will begin by saying that in every occasion I’ve encountered this gentleman, I have always felt better while and after doing so. Wonderful quality. And I’m grateful we made friends so easily right off the handshake. Anyway, we hung out together, chatting by ourselves (and with the others as well). It’s always interesting to me how musicians that make it to here – still in the game – how they’ve shared much of the same path; and somehow have completely different scenery along the way. In this case, my conversation with Ronnie was especially enjoyable and insightful indeed. 

Ronnie Leigh is as strong and elegant a mind as much as he is a treasure as a vocalist and pianist. A singer’s singer so-to-speak. Everytime I’m around other singers listening and watching this man sing, we all basically say or are thinking, “I wish I could do that.”

It doesn’t matter how good ya are. Ronnie sings and beauty shows up. We all do that, but Ronnie takes it to another place. Of course you all know this already.

We’ve been trying to get together for this article for about 10 years now. A testament to how busy we can all get. Alas the chance became present when he offered to lend me a ride back into the city, since I happened to need one on this occasion. We left and got about a mile down the road when I realized, “I forgot my guitar!!!”

I pissed him off a little but he tried to hide it by being super cool about it. “I asked you if you had everything, Man….” he calmly assured. I was embarrassed, a little of course. But, it happens to all of us sooner or later, and shucks we were only a mile into the trek. I felt like such a dork.

But where there is dorkiness, there is opportunity, and it struck me that this serves as the perfect moment to interview Mr. Ronnie Leigh.

He turned the car around while I ran in to fetch my axe. He had some jazz on. “Hey man, let’s do this article right now that we’ve been trying to catch up to. I’m going to title it, ‘My Ride with Ronnie Leigh,’ I asserted.

“That sounds great, man, yeah let’s do it.” His brief disappointment for the inconvenience was fading.

I pulled up the iPhone and started recording.

Chuck Schiele: How long have you been playing music, Ronnie?

Ronnie Leigh: Oh man, my whole life. (laughs) That’s a long time.

CS: How would you characterize your music?

RL: Soulful, spiritual. It’s passionate. Whatever it is that day, you’re getting all of it. And I mean it.

CS: In regard to styles, and how you learned music – what did you listen to and how were you introduced to it?

RL: Well, I was introduced to it the way, I think, a lot of African Americans are introduced to it: in Church. A lot of African-Americans are introduced to it in church. That’s how you… that’s how I got it, anyway. Aside from just saying, “Church,” you know it was a gift to me. And a gift to most if not all of my family. Not everybody in my family works as a musician, but everybody does it and is gifted. My parents, my grandparents…cousins…all my relatives…

CS: So music was just a normal part of your routine…your life?

RL: Yes, it was just part of our upbringing. It was just there, you know? You just got after it because it sounded good and it felt good.

CS: When did you start playing piano?

RL:  I dunno…about 20 years ago, I guess? And that happened after…

CS: And you read?

RL: I read. I could read better, but I read…I got into piano when my best friend passed away – Larry Arlotta – and I remember when Hospice was at his house, and we were recounting some adventures cuz, we had worked together for a long while…and he called his son-in-law into the room that we were hanging in. I brought in some lunch, we had calamari and all that stuff…and he told his son, “Son, get my piano and take it over to Ronnie’s house, tomorrow.” So, he gave me his digital piano, Man – which was just a great little axe, man. And he said, “Learn to play, Man. You can do this.” And he told me about a book that I should buy and to work from. So, I went out and I bought the book. Until then I had never really touched the piano for a long while. I did the first lesson a couple of times and I shed the book. I haven’t seen it – I still have it, but I haven’t seen it in a long time. 

And that’s how I got into piano. I’m basically self-taught with the help of that book I bought. It showed me some basic theory, and I just got at it.

CS: Nice! Who are your favorite artists?

RL: Aww, I don’t know…

CS: …and what do you like to listen to?

RL: Oh, I listen to everything, see. I listen to all sorts of things. I listen to R&B. I listen to jazz. I listen to smooth jazz. I listen to the Great American songbook. I listen to traditional jazz. I listen to classical music. I like some operatic things, you know? So, I mean I listen to everything. Hey, there’s only 12 notes, man, so…

CS: Right!

RL: …So, whatever has that soul and spirit that can move me, that’s what I listen to.

CS: Saaaaame here. Yeah. That’s cool. What are you working on now, what’s in the near future?

RL: I’m just preparing for some shows coming up. You know the general business of it. I’m pretty much the librarian of it so I need to get material for the players and write the program, and those kinds of things. Getting ready for the winter. I’d like to get back down into Florida a little bit.

CS: What do you do in Florida?

RL: I work the state.

CS: Meaning you drive all over Florida playing music?

RL: North, south, east, west, central. It works out because it helps me take care of my Mom.

CS: When you’re on the road are you with a band, on your own name…?

RL: Well, I’ve been on the road in several situations. I was in a band called Sail. We traveled through most of the states in the US…all through Canada…all through Vegas, all those casinos…we got to work some pretty high-end places, you know. It was six of us all from Syracuse. When I was back here in Syracuse I met the cats from here, and started working here.

Larry Arlotta and I put a band together called Atlas Linen Company.

CS: Is that the group that we now know as Atlas?

RL: Yes. But it was a totally different thing back then. We were headed more toward concert venues with original music.

CS: So, you’ve written songs?

RL: Yeah, man, I’ve written stuff…yeah, we all did. Larry Arlotta, George Feltman, NIcky Russo,…so I did that. Then I put together an octet called Ronnie Leigh & Alliance. I did that for several years…got out of that, and then started blowing some jazz, man, cuz that’s my heart, anyway…

CS: eeYeah…

RL: …That’s my soul…But! 

That’s not all I do!  People have this tendency that when they hear you, or see you – they think that’s all you’re capable of.

CS: Correct…Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. It’s easier for them to label you.

RL: Yeah, man!

CS: Than to actually get to know you…

RL: YEAH!! Exactly, man. I was just at the Turning Stone playing solo and I saw some people…these people said: “Are you Ronnie Leigh?”

I said, “Yes.”

They were like, “Wow this is great, we didn’t know you could do this…we never knew you played piano…,” stuff like that. (Laughs) I’m fortunate to be able to do a few little things. It’s a gas man.

So, that’s it, I’ve traveled, but I still work here in Syracuse. I‘ve worked and recorded with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra when they were alive and well. I did Pops concerts in the midwest. I’ve worked with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Orlando Jazz Orchestra. I’m a student of so many things. I worked with a group called the Brand New Drifters.

Now I just do what I do.

CS: Well, that is one heck of a story. I certainly appreciate you sharing it with us. We all certainly appreciate you sharing it. I’ve been in this music scene for almost 14 years. If there’s one thing I’ve noted, it is that you and your music are loved and integral to our community, by way of a very positive and unanimous nod. I’m glad we’ve made friends. And I’m very appreciative for the ride and, lol, for you doing this interview. Thank you for your time, Sir. 

RL: Thank you, Chuck. It’s been my pleasure. Think nothing of it about the ride. 

Normally the interview ends here. But he’s dropping me off at the Maplewood to visit other music pals who are hanging into the evening.

CS: You know…Dave Porter is sitting in that room, right now with a few other people you know. Wanna come in for a nightcap?

RL: Dave Porter is in there?

CS: Yep.

RL: Well, yeah…maybe I will come in for one.

Now the interview is over.

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is a lifelong, award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member Quatrocollective.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.