An Interview with painter/musician Marc Leon: Keep the flame burning - then the Blues will never die

"The main thing I have learned – and am still learning about music and art is, that it is a Never-ending Journey and an on-going Learning Experience.."

Marc Leon: Exhibition colors and notes

Marc Leon is an Artist and Musician, born in Bavaria, Germany and migrated to Australia in 1954, at the age of 12. His birth name is Fred Himmelsbach, but he changed his name to Marc Leon in 1966 at the advice of his then-manager, because the real name was too hard to pronounce. However, he still uses the real name when he signs his artwork. Marc studied Commercial Art at East Sydney Technical College, for four years, but abandoned the studies in 1964, to pursue a career in Music. He became a professional musician in 1968, when joined the Vibrants, a band who had three nation-wide number 1 hits.

 

In 50plus years as a musician, recorded four Albums and nine 45RPM singles. He extensively toured all Australian states, as well as working in SE Asia for six months. His musical credits include: Session musician - playing guitar and singing on TV and Radio jingles and albums featuring well-known entertainers. Appearances on all major Australian TV networks. Supporting International acts such as the Bee Gees, Jose Feliciano, The Kinks and Roberta Flack. Musical director for John Farnham, Colleen Hewett and John St. Peeters. Finalist in the 1976 American Song Festival (Honourable Mention). Finalist in the MBAS Blues Performer of the Year Contest, 1995. He currently performs with my three-piece band MTB, also with The Old Buzzards Medicine Show - and as a soloist on acoustic guitar.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

What do you learn about yourself from the music and art, what does the blues mean to you?

The main thing I have learned – and am still learning about music and art is, that it is a Never-ending Journey and an on-going Learning Experience...there is always something new to try and so much in Life to draw from, in both media. The Blues, to me – is more than just a Genre or Sound...it's a FEELING, it's about expressing what I experience in Life – all the emotions, happy, sad...whatever – and it's important for me to express these emotions in my music, just like telling a story.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and artist?

I think some of what I said in the last answer fits into this as well. The first thing one has to do is achieve some degree of mastery with the chosen instrument – and/or voice. It's like learning the vocabulary, the language...then one is ready to express what one wants to convey. Music is one of the greatest communication media that humans can use – and it's wonderful when it is used effectively, like injecting one's Soul into the music...that's important to me. People have to feel what you're saying, otherwise it's quite meaningless and puerile...like most Pop music.

 

How do you describe Marc Leon sound and progress, what characterize your artistic philosophy?

It's been a long process with me – and it's an on-going one. I have many influences and everything I love to listen to, somehow rubs off on me. I like most styles of Blues – some traditional, like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, – BB, Buddy Guy, etc. But my All-time favourite guitarist is Robben Ford. I love his use of Jazz influence in his Blues playing and I aspire to get a similar result in my playing, without copying him. Derek Trucks had the biggest impact on me over the last seven years ...he just slays me whenever I hear him...of course I can't play slide, but I love his general approach, because he draws from so many styles – Jazz, Blues, Latin, World Music...that's what I'm about too – speak multi-lingual, hahah!! So the philosophy is basically been the same for me for many years, it's just that my Life does evolve in all areas, so new things keep creeping into my music as well. I can hear that when I'm re-recording songs I wrote 20-30 years ago...and how my ideas and sound have matured.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

Definitely BB King – he was the man who inspired me to get serious about guitar playing. The first time I heard him, back in 1965, I said, “What the hell is this guy doing??!!” I mean, he doesn't shred notes....BUT, EVERY note he plays reaches right into the Soul. I instantly liked the idea of not playing too many notes – instead getting the most out of each note played. I love BB's singing too. Other players who influenced me early on were Albert and Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Peter Green...I didn't initially like Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix – I got into them later in 1970. Duane Allman and Dickey Betts were huge influences on me, as was Carlos Santana....Carlos has a LOT of Blues in his playing – and such a distinctive sound! Jazz guys, like Kenny Burrell, and Wes Montgomery also influenced me a lot – and I still draw on those guys a fair bit. Piano players, like Ray Charles, Otis Spann - and also horn players like John Coltrane....I think I probably got more out of those musicians than I did from most guitar players.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

My Life in Music has had so many Highs & Lows, it's almost too hard to pick one from either side. One of the WORST moments was in 1971 – we played at a Debutante's Ball in Carnarvon, West Australia too this bunch of wealthy, stuff-shirt snobs who absolutely hated what we did...I was ready to quit the band after that night, no kidding! One of the BEST moments was in 1968, when I turned professional, singing with The Vibrants, a Rock band who had three Number One records...the first month was Awesome, but it kind of went down-hill from there, hahah...I just wasn't cut out to be a Pop Singer, the whole vibe and hype really got to me, so after six months I had enough.

 

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the 60s? 

The thing that sticks out most from the 60s is that the music was generally Up-lifting...it was a happy vibe. Bands seemed to share a Mate-ship...there was no rivalry, well, at least not in Melbourne. Everybody played lots of gigs and it was all very positive, even though the Vietnam War was going on...but people wrote songs of peace with mostly positive messages and the late 60 had the Big Rock Festivals too.

Also, musicians were encouraged to be a lot more creative and individualistic – not like now, where all the Big Record Companies mould young artists into looking and sounding the same....

 

From the musical point of view is there any difference between the Dmen, Halleluja Chorus, Vibrants, Full Hand, Graduate and Impulse?

There were more differences than similarities between all those bands...the D-Men were initially almost a carbon copy of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. A couple of years later, we switched to the British (Mersey) sounds, like the Beatles, Searchers, etc...but that was also the time when my influences came from the Blues and I left the D-Men to try and start a Blues Band and I had my first shot at playing Blues and Soul stuff with The Full Hand, which only lasted a couple of months. The main problem with that band was finding the right players. The Impulse was almost an Aussie Super group, hahah...I had players that came from very well-known Sydney bands and the musical standard was quite high. Halleluya Chorus were a good-sounding Soul/Blues band. I was quite happy with them, but then I got the offer to join the Vibrants and I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to go Pro. The Vibrants were very competent musicians. We played mainly Top 40, but also some Soul. I formed Graduate with two other Ex-Vibrants with the idea to get back into Blues and some Jazz, but our manager persuaded us to include more popular songs, to increase the chances of getting regular work. It was also his idea to get a Female singer. This band went through many line-up changes in its 10 year tenure and we covered many styles...Rock, Blues, Jazz and Latin – even Country, hahah. Graduate's musical standard was always fairly high.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I'm enjoying my most interesting period in Life right now, hahah!! Truly! Musically, I'm now doing exactly what I always wanted to do, writing and performing my own music, playing with a lot of creative musicians, some of them more than a third my age, playing all my favourite Blues and Jazz songs...and they're never played the same from one gig to the next!!

 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

The Music Business has become a Corporate Affair, at least in the Mainstream. The Big Boys dictate what's going to be played on the mainstream stations, what will be recorded, what will be pushed to sell. In some way, it's always been like that, but now it is so evident, it's sickening. Back in the 60s, we had a better chance getting a deal with a Major label...now I wouldn't even bother approaching them. On the positive side though, because of the way things have developed, it's pushed musicians to become more independent. Now everybody can record their own stuff in their bedrooms, or wherever on their PCs and laptops – and create great, professional sounding music. The overall standard of playing has also greatly improved and 'Geniuses' are getting younger all the time, so that's all very encouraging.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

I would focus on encouraging aspiring musicians to work on finding “Their Own Voice”, not copy others. I know, we all go through a stage when we idolise somebody and want to sound like Them, but there's no future in keeping that going for too long.

You gotta learn to speak with music in your own voice; it's the most satisfying aspect of the whole thing.

 

Are there any memories from Bee Gees, Jose Feliciano, The Kinks and Roberta Flack, which you’d like to share with us?

Oh Yeah, hahah!! I have some beauties! I knew the Bee Gees when I was with The D-Men. Our manager was good friends with mum & dad Gibbs - and the family frequently came to his parties. I remember one night, when the Twins (who were only about 14yrs old at the time) got absolutely rotten from some booze they secretly got their hands on at the party, while mum and dad were busy chatting to people. They were falling all over the place and eventually were reprimanded by their parents and sent to bed in one of our manager's bedrooms. The Kinks concert we played at was surreal, when the stage was knocked down in the storm and we had to move the whole rig to another location (see attached notes). Supporting Jose was fantastic! We got a Standing Ovation and Encore, which was very rare for a Support Band to get, so we were stoked! Jose was a really cool guy, friendly...and a Master Musician! Roberta, on the other hand was stand-offish, ignored us – but her band and road crew were fabulous. We used to end up in a Jam Session with them almost every night after the show.

 

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Jamming with Roberta's musicians was pretty special. A couple of those guys were session players and I had Jazz records that they've played on, so I was in awe! The Jose Feliciano gig was definitely very memorable. Another time we played at a concert in Melbourne to a crowd of over 120,000...that was SCARY!!!

 

When it all began for the blues in Australia? Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene and why?

Τhe first wave of the Blues was introduced into Australia in 1964/65 via “The British Invasion” - groups like the Rolling Stones, Animals, Them and Manfred Mann....etc., who played covers of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and other American Bluesmen. The British groups let it be known who their influences were – and so, people who were interested in hearing more Blues, started seeking out the original artists. The second wave was not as strong nor lasted very long, but it came in about 1984/85 with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Moore and Robert Cray being the major players. There seems to be some interest in Blues now, at this time – quite a lot of towns around Australia have regular Annual Blues Festivals and they draw fairly good crowds. Wineries also seem to be popular venues for Blues. I would say that the most interesting period for Blues in Australia – and the rest of the world for that matter was 1966 to 1970, started by the British bands and perpetuated by the Hippie groups, plus Jimi Hendrix, Cream, John Mayall, early Fleetwood Mac, Paul Butterfield and lots of others. It probably reached it's peak with Woodstock...and then slowly faded...

 

Do you think the younger generations in Australia are interested for the blues?

There is definitely a small percentage of the young generation who like the Blues – and they are usually from the audience who seek out Independent music, away from the mainstream Pop stuff. I have found that youngsters who are into Heavy Metal and Alternative styles often also like Blues.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Music styles that become fads are generally “Media-driven”, financed by the Corporate so- called Music Moguls, who know absolutely NOTHING about music. The more outrageous the act, the more they hone in on them. In those cases, music ALWAYS takes a Back-seat, like it's not important at all. Whereas with the Blues – from my experience, anyway – most people who play the Blues want to “Keep It Real”, meaning a minimum of gimmicks - if any at all, “Tell The Truth” with the songs, you know, most Blues songs are about peoples' Everyday Lives...the Blues is a strand of Folk Music – it's about the People. My wish for the Blues is – that there will always be a percentage of young people who want to keep the Flame burning – then the Blues will never die.

 

Painting art and music, can these two arts confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?

To me, both of those media are totally liberating...being inspired to create a painting or play music lifts the Spirit and sets the mind free.

 

What kind of music you hear when you painting? Make a quick review of your art?

When I paint, I usually listen to very “Meditative” kind of music, like Ambient, free-flowing sounds, mainly instrumental, with maybe just some soft vocals in the background. That music inspires me, when I paint in my studio. When I paint landscapes on Location, out in the open, the music I hear is from Nature – the birds, the crickets, the rustling of the trees, sounds of water....

 

What is your painting and music DREAM?

Sorry, Mike, I wasn't sure how to answer that one, not sure what you meant, like whether you meant Dream as in the way Aborigines refer to “Dream Time” - or something else...in any case, I've never looked at painting or music as a way of using them in a Dream – I just do it and it happens.

 

What would you ask Crazy Horse and Geronimo? How you would spend a day with BB King and John Coltrane?

Oh Boy! I think I'd be too scared to ask those guys anything, hahah!!! Thinking about when Crazy Horse and Geronimo lived and the circumstances that surrounded them, I doubt very much if they would have even considered talking to a White Man – can't say I blame them either....now, if I had the opportunity to spend a day with BB and Coltrane, I would hope that we'd be getting absorbed in playing lots of music and jamming....

 

Marc Leon - Musician and Artist - Home

 

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