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Lunch With
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Lunch with Leo Green, Little Italy, London

29 June 2015

He’s played saxophone for Jerry Lee Lewis, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and more, but don’t ask him how it all happened, he’s not quite sure.

I’m meeting Leo Green in Little Italy, a family-run Italian restaurant that has been a Soho mainstay for more than 40 years. In the midst of central London’s often tiringly glitzy restaurant chains it offers a welcome slice of authenticity – a theme that is set to run throughout my afternoon.

Few people would recognise Leo Green. Despite having performed with an illustrious list of stars, he’s skilfully managed to avoid the limelight and actually seems a little puzzled by our interview request, wondering, with genuine perplexity, “Who would want to know about my life?”

Son of Benny Green, a saxophonist, writer and broadcaster, Leo grew up knowing instinctively that music was for him. “Looking back I wasn’t aware that I was getting a musical education, but I suppose I was. I grew up saturated in it.”

Having been lucky enough to see Leo play, I was expecting a wild and flamboyant character, his live performances have been, rather accurately, described by one journalist as “incredible frenzied sax playing, with a pelvis that provides more thrusts than a NASA booster rocket”, but in real life there’s precious little thrusting. He has a calm, unhurried manner and the sonorous voice of a smooth 1950s show tune crooner.

Leo’s musical career followed a remarkably smooth trajectory, despite little help from his illustrious father. “I’d started playing the saxophone because I liked it, then suddenly I was paying my rent and travelling around the world because of it. It happened very naturally. Within a couple of years of getting a sax, I went from playing along with records in my room to performing with Jerry Lee Lewis. I really wish I knew how that happened; if I did I would bottle and sell it.”

What is clear is that his first big break combined a remarkable slice of fortune with the enormous chutzpah required to actually pull it off. Following his passion, an 18-year-old Leo went along to a gig where one of his musical heroes, the legendary rhythm and blues saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, was playing and asked him if he offered saxophone lessons. Big Jay answered no, but invited him to play with the band on stage the next day.

“I arrived at 8 o’clock with my sax. The band came and said, ‘Look, he’s back at the hotel with an airhostess, you’re gonna have to go on with us.’ I just said OK and went on stage. I took it all in my stride, but looking back I don’t know how I managed to be so cool about it. After 20 minutes Jay walked in and saw me playing. I could see that he was nodding, he came up and played along with me. Later on he said, ‘Why don’t you come back and do it again tomorrow night?’”

One gig led to another and before he knew it he was playing regular gigs in London, until one day he got a call from a club owner asking, curiously, whether he “had long hair”.

“I said no. He said, ‘Good, I’ve got someone coming in and he’s looking for a saxophone player. I’m not going to tell you who he is but he doesn’t want anyone with long hair.’ That man turned out to be Jerry Lee Lewis. I was only booked for three nights, but ended up staying with him for two years. travelled the world with Jerry. That was an amazing education: something you can’t get at any college. There was no set list, I just had to follow what he did. He was one of the originators of rock ’n’ roll and it doesn’t get much better than playing Great Balls Of Fire on stage with Jerry Lee Lewis!”

“I think it worked out because I wasn’t conscious of things like career paths, I just wanted to play. It was as simple and as naive as saying I’d love to play with that artist, I’ll go and ask them if I can.” Despite being thrust into the spotlight with legendary artists, Leo certainly didn’t consider himself one of them and, genuinely in awe of Jerry Lee Lewis, would more often than not act like a fan around him.

“Someone gave me a picture of me playing with him once, so after we’d finished a gig I got into the queue with the other fans and waited in line for him to sign it. It’s funny, looking back at it all, I clearly had no idea what I was doing. The first trip I was booked on with Jerry was to Brazil and I remember calling my dad from the Copacabana beach to find out the football results, in a pair of cowboy boots and black trousers, complaining that it was too hot. I literally just went to the airport and got on the plane. I was just so excited to be out there doing gigs, though, that it didn’t matter whether I was going to Rio or Romford.”

After touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, Leo decided he’d like to work with Van Morrison, so simply wrote a letter to Van asking if he could. Van replied in the affirmative. “One of the best things about touring with Van was that he’d always hire obscure legends to open for him. One night in New York he booked a guy called Jimmy Witherspoon, an old blues singer. He was using Van’s band so for half an hour each night I got to play with him. He was very complimentary and I could hardly believe it.”

This was the thing about Leo: despite the list of musical greats he’s played with – Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, James Brown, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, to name but a few – the highlight of his career was meeting and playing on stage with one of his childhood heroes. After touring with Van Morrison for five years, Leo started a family and reassessed his life.

“I realised that touring wasn’t really conducive to parenthood.” At one point I was doing three tours at once and would be in two or three countries in one day. I ended up in hospital. I still love playing but I don’t go off for three months at a time anymore. I miss it sometimes but it’s like going out every day: the idea of it is great but as you get older the reality of it becomes hard schlepping up and down the country isn’t easy. Doing the gigs is fine, it’s the travelling that’s exhausting.”

Perhaps naive in his youth, Leo now seems to have his feet planted firmly on the ground. He avoids boasting about any of his experiences and refuses to indulge me in the idea that there’s anything glamorous or exciting about the life of a musician.

“It’s a weird thing. I know musicians who have a hard time making a living. For them the fantasy is having the ‘real job’. They dream of knowing what they’ll earn every year and of having a paid holiday. Yet if you’re the guy in the bank, going on tour seems so exciting. The grass is always greener.”

Just as his career as a professional touring musician blossomed, seemingly with minimal effort, Leo also moved with ease into his subsequent roles. His wealth of industry contacts made him a perfect fit as an artistic director and one of his biggest coups was booking his old comrade Van Morrison to play a 250-seat gig at the iconic London jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s.

These days he has a foot in many different worlds. He heads out to the office most days to plan his critically acclaimed BBC radio shows and continues to work on his massively successful Bluesfest, a yearly blues festival, which has grown over five years from a small event to a three-day festival at the London O2 Arena. He also has his own band, The Leo Green Experience, and does regular gigs as what he describes as a “gun for hire”.

He also does a bit of comparing, musical arrangement and conducting. Leo pauses as he tries to find the answer to my final question, about the thread that holds together his success in all those different roles. Still like the fearless 18-year-old who tumbled almost unknowingly into the life of a professional musician, he isn’t quite sure how it all happened. “Certain gloves fit you, there’s no rhyme or reason to it, you’ve just got to be open to the possibilities.”

Words: Kaye Martindale / Images: Geoff Brokate

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