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Joey Leone: Two truths and a Lie

Photo by Joe Milliken

Editor's note: Two truths and a lie is a popular social icebreaker. Can you pick the lie out of the three statements? The answer will be revealed throughout the story. Look for this profile weekly.

1)    He's a double board certified dialysis technician.   
2)    He grew up in the ghetto.
3)    He's planning to coordinate a town-wide snow dance.


Joey Leone is somewhat of a local legend. He's been playing music in Killington for 17 years; he's organized countless concerts including, most recently, the Killington Benefit Concert; and he still rocks the stage five nights a week during peak season.

You'd never guess he was 54. Except for the fact that his stories necessitate at least that many years.

Leone's music career started in the 1960s when he played violin in the school orchestra, transitioned to the '70s with this first rock and roll band in junior high, moved into the '80s when punk and rock dissolved the music unions and then into the '90s when Leone left the industry, briefly, before moving to Vermont where he picked it back up and made music his lasting career.

THE STRUGGLE: 1960s-'70s

Leone was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn. "I grew up very poor," he said. "I never finished high school. I got a GED years later."

His interest in music, however, started early.

"When I was four years old I knew Westside Story and I'd be up on the tables dancing and singing, doing all the moves." When Leone was old enough, he started to play classical music in his school orchestra on the violin, his first instrument.

In 1971, when he was just 13 years old, Leone started playing in a rock and roll band. "In junior high we were playing in bands, growing our hair, trying to meet girls and pretty much trying to stay outta trouble," he said. 

Since Leone had been classically trained and was able to read music, at age 17 he got his first union permit to play in the music union.

"All gigs in those days were union shop gigs, so you couldn't really get into it unless you were part of a union," he said. "In those days they gave you a test to join the union. So you had to know your music. That was the way it was because there was tremendous commerce being done in music in New York, and in Manhattan, especially."

Music unions lasted from about the 1930s to the late '70s when the climate of music changed. "Within a year we went from being paid scale to basically playing for free. It was unbelievable… And guys like myself were left holding the bag," he said. "Let's just say we had very, very, very energetic discussions at the League. We were there paying dues and now we were left without a living."

But nightclubs had quickly discovered that there were plenty of guys who were willing to play rock and roll for free and bring their friends their families.

"If you're playing rock and roll, you learn three cords and bring in 50 of your friends and they don't have to pay you…. it doesn't take long for a club to says 'wow!' And pretty soon they're bringing in five bands a night," he said.

Leone kept up with the changing music scene through the end of the unions and into the rock era, but had to start traveling great distances for work that paid.

 

Two Truths - Joey Leone 2
"When I was younger I was producing original music, I had a band, I was working to get a record contract," he said. "But at some point I knew I had to start paying the bills if I was truly going to do this… So I got a job in the '70s working in dialysis… I became a double board certified dialysis technician and did that until I was 21 years old.

"I worked in dialysis while music wasn't paying the bill," he continued. "Music is funny that way. Either it pays your bills or you put all your money towards it. There's no middle ground, at least not one I could find."

THE 80's

In the early '80s, Leone decided to give music a real shot and set out to write a hit record. "I always had written my own music, you know, songs, but this time I just figured I'd get a band and a recording contract and write original material. And I did that for a couple years and had some interest and had a production deal with a major label, but never a release in this country."

Leone did have a release in Japan, though, and produced a few independent labels that did very well overseas.

"They never made any money, but it was good to be able to sell the tour to promote the record… I had a pretty good following in Japan. I went to Japan many times. It was pretty cool."

At that time Leone was playing rhythm and blues. "Japanese, during their economic surge in the 1980s loved anything American," he said. If you played authentic rhythm and blues, which he and his band did well, they just loved you.

"These Japanese agents would cruse around the clubs in Manhattan, into the black clubs, and they'd see a band and… they'd set up these tours for you." They mostly wanted bands to play covers, Leone explained, "but I was playing some originals, too…. we had a nice run there."

Leone found it quite challenging to write an American top hit, however.

"Record companies in the '80s loved me and loved my band… but writing a hit record is like trying to win the lottery. You either have that or you don't," he said. "I studied with a lot of great songwriters in those days… They would always say, 'Joey, you're one hit record away from being a great songwriter. You get it, you understand the concept, you just gotta come up with that one thing."

At the time, Leone was working as producer, songwriter, singer and guitar player for his own band. "Doing all those four things, I was like 'who else does this?' The only one I could come up with was Prince. I certainly knew I wasn't as talented as him! So I took a paper and pencil and graded each skillset," Leone explained.

Being a blues and rhythm-blues player scored highest, so he started to focus on those gigs. "Within a few weeks I started getting calls... That's when I got the Chubby Checker job and many others."

Leone has opened up for Stevie Ray Vaughn, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The Coasters, The Commodores, Chaka Kahn, Average White Band, Albert King, Ronnie Wood, Danny Gatton and Natalie Cole (Nat King Cole's daughter).

The Blues Traveller, Living Colour, and The Spin Doctors have opened up for him. He performed onstage with Bruce Willis, Wilson Pickett, Ben E. King, Chaka Kahn, Mick Taylor, Andrew Dice Clay, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Chubby Checker, Jason Bonham, Sam Kinison, Joe Perry and "lots of heavy metal guys back in the '80s at the China Club," he said, listing just those he could remember.

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Leone teamed up with many of these popular musicians many times, but rarely joined a band for an extended length of time. The exception was actor Bruce Willis, who he played with for a couple years as his bandleader and guitar player.

Leone explained these opportunities saying, "a lot of the old blues, rhythm and blues singers wanted a band to come up and do a couple of tunes before they'd bring the main act out. They liked the idea that I could cover the beginning of the show with high-energy rock and roll. I think some people also thought there was some novelty with me being a white guy in an all-black band," he said.

Despite the impressive stage presence, Leone said "I never really looked at myself as successful until I came here. I was always paranoid that the phone wasn't going to ring. I'm still paranoid about that."

He explains: "Here's what it's like: my phone don't ring for a week, I'm nervous. My phone don't ring for two weeks, I'm scared. My phone don't ring for three weeks, I'm really scared. My phone don't ring for a month and I'm paranoid. My phone don't ring for two months, I gotta sell something. My phone don't ring for three months, I gotta think about a change in lifestyle."

That's the true musician lifestyle, Leone says. "I make good money, I do well, I'm well-known, I'm blessed, but to keep it going… you know, I've got nothing on my wall that says 'Joey Leone, Master Emeritus of Music,' so there's always that fear."

THE '90s

Playing gigs with popular bands got Leone through the late '80s up until about 1990.  Then he started to become known, he says, "as a guy who didn't have the tools to become a rock star… but I knew a lot about the mechanism of music and what it took for bands to become rock stars."

So Leone began to take gigs as a freelance talent agent, scouting out new bands.

"Record companies would say, 'Joey we have three bands that we're interested in, can you just go see them and give me an evaluation, listen to their demo and let me know if they're recordable,'" he explained, adding "a lot of bands are good live, but you put them in the studio and they just fall apart. I was pretty good at determining that because I was a band leader, a music director and I had also worked as a producer at that point."

Ironically, Leone says that it was this versatility that ultimately held him back from being among the legends.

"It was always a knock against me in the business because it was like 'he can do everything, but he really doesn't do one thing that you can put your finger on.'"

Coming from a poor background, Leone never felt like he could afford the luxury of specialization.

"I think the necessity to make a living and to work in the business, for me, kind of trumped the idea of being a one-trick-pony… I never really thought I had what it took, I was extremely insecure, like most artists," he said. "When people wanted to pay me, I was like 'alright!' I was in the industry. Which is all I ever really wanted to be."

"It's like the old joke," he continued, "about a guy walking behind the elephant in the circus. He's sweeping up the feces, you know the elephant turds, and a man goes 'why would you do this job? You could get something else' and he answers 'what, and leave show business?'"

Leone was truly that dedicated to music. When he met his current wife, Kathy, he was living in New Jersey acting, doing stand up comedy, and "all kinds of things to stay in the business," in addition to working full-time in dialysis.

But one day, Leone and his wife were having a conversation with her dad and mentioned that they wanted to leave the city.

"I had pretty much given up the music business by that point, I was working in dialysis as the chief tech at a big dialysis company…. But it was always my dream to live in the country, it was always my dad's dream, when he was alive."

Then, out of the blue, Kathy's dad mentioned that he had a house in Vermont.

"So I went to a book, looked up Vermont, and said 'tell him we'll go.' And we resigned from our positions the next day and left with about $400 bucks in our pocket and two little kids," Leone said. "He thought we were only going to last six months up here because no one lasted up here. He was like 'no one makes it in Vermont, at least no one from New Jersey or New York.'"

VERMONT: 1994-Present

Leone proved his father-in-law wrong. He got a job his second day in Vermont working at an old folks home in Windsor as a medication technician.  But music was on his mind. He only had one guitar left, so he took it out and started talking to folks about a band. Soon word got out about who he'd played with and he started getting phone calls.

Not long after there was a benefit in Killington scheduled for Donny Gray, "a beloved musician here in Killington. He had had a skiing accident and had had a stroke because of that accident, so they had an annual benefit concert and in 1996 or '97, I was asked to play," Leone recalled.

"Donnie and I became friends because he was a bit of a music historian like I was…  and one day he said to me 'you know you would do really well up here.' But I didn't know because the music that I was playing at the time was kind of esoteric," he said, explaining "it was blues and rhythm-and-blues and ski resorts always wanted Margaritaville and Jimmy Buffett, Sweet Caroline and American pie."

Leone didn't think he was going to fit. But he started to get more work in the Killington area,  and soon he started to get a feel for the local vibe.

"There was this place called Mother Shapiro's, where Sushi Yoshi is now," Leone said. "Jay Shapiro was an old Killington guy who had a fantastic place… He brought me in as the house band for two years. And people started talking about me. There was a buzz in town… I started to realize that people in the ski areas didn't necessarily need to hear Sweet Caroline, they just wanted to hear something they recognized."

That was a huge epiphany for Joey and he started to ask: What can I play that I'll enjoy playing? "Because if I don't enjoy it, I can't play it. I'm one of those guys, I'm very selfish and will just not do anything I don't like," he said jokingly, but with more than a little truth.

His answer was classic rock. 

Right around that time, Frank Chase, who Leone describes as "a legendary musician who is probably the greatest musician to ever play Killington," decided to leave his gig at the Sante Fe. Chase told the owner (Casey) that there was only one guy that could take the Sante Fe room over and that was Joey Leone.

"So Casey called me up… That was a key moment for me as far as my association with Killington," he said. Before that, Leone had been playing all the ski towns without a commitment to any one place.

"So I went into the Santa Fe with this big loud band - people just could believe how loud - and we had horn sections, loud guitars," he said. "Frank had been in there with piano and drums and here I am bringing the big stadium show to this little stage," Leone continued.

"Casey, by some miracle, let me do whatever the hell I wanted to do. So that was when I started the five nights, five different styles of music, which was always my dream. I love blues, I love jazz, I love playing acoustic, I love classic rock and I love funk, rhythm and blues," Leone said.

Every night he had a totally different set list.

"You can ask anybody in town, it was a legendary three years," Leone said, guessing that that would have been about 10 years ago.

KILLINGTON STAGES

Today, Leone preforms mostly at the Outback on Killington's access road, but also works as a private contractor for Killington booking bands for the Wobbly Barn.

"I try not to book myself… I think Joey Leone is a great commodity for the Wobbly, occasionally, and for the right night, but I wouldn't put myself there on a mid-season weekend night because I can bring in a Jersey Shore cover band with an attractive lead singer and a guy that looks like Ashton Kutcher and people will come in and go 'oh great, a party band,'" he said.

"I have to book what's good for the room and a ski crowd wants to party. They want to dance. They want to have a good time. They don't want to be educated musically… When you're a musician you have to be careful of your ego. You have to have a big ego to want to get up on stage, but you also have to know that you're not the right person for everything."

In retrospect, Leone's grateful for his move to Vermont years ago and to have made a career out of music in Killington.

"This is a very unique place because there are such good musicians here," he said. "There is such diversity here. There are so many different venues here. You can't go to any other ski town, and I've been to many other ski towns, that have a fifth of the music scene that Killington has."

When he performs live jazz on Monday nights during the ski season there may only be 30-40 people in the crowd, but they're stoked. "There's live jazz in Killington," he gushes enthusiastically, "and I bring it there… Truthfully, I don't go to the bank that night, but I bring jazz and I bring real jazz musicians from all over the East Coast. Great jazz musicians… I think on some kind of karmic level I owe that to the music.

"First, you must serve the music," he continued, "because you can't serve the public until you make good music. And you have to be true and authentic, it's not just a way for me to be on stage and preen around like Mick Jagger, although I may do that, but I want to make sure that while I'm doing it the music's really good."

BENEFIT CONCERTS

Leone has been involved in over 30 benefit concerts in the area. Leone recently played a benefit concert with Joey Perry (from Aerosmith) in Woodstock on September 18. And at Okemo's "Vermont Will Rise Again" benefit concert, September 2.

But it was The Killinton Benefit Concert that he is most proud of. He orchestrated it for October 2 to benefit flood victims and says it grew so much faster than he could ever have expected. By the end he had 15 bands, three stages and 25 restaurants participating. Leone and the volunteers together raised $40,000 in one day.

"I was the organizer, I made the first 500 phone calls, but everybody, I mean everybody, was on board," he said.

The impetus for the Killington Benefit Concert was Donny Gray's benefit in 1997, he said. That was the event that brought him to Killington for the first time. "I came here and saw this tremendous community… it just stayed with me," he said. Because of Gray's benefit, Leone had the confidence to pull off this one. "Donny also gave me the strength to call up Chris Car and say, 'Look, Chris, I need you involved,' and he was like, 'Joey, I'm there, whatever you need, I'm working for you that day,' and he volunteered to park cars," Leone said, still taken aback by everyone's generosity.

UNLIKELY LESSONS

Leone's career, however, didn't always go smoothly.

"When you grow up in the ghetto, in the inner city like I did, you have a survival mode," he says, which is how he says he got through some hard times.

Leone once worked at a strip club, playing music right behind the dancers and he learned an unlikely lesson from one of the girls.

"One of them was an alcoholic, one of them was a drug addict and one of them was saving money to get her masters," Leone said. "When she wasn't on stage stripping, she was in the books… she was going to MIT and the only reason she was doing this was because her family had no money and she wanted to go to school. She was sober and clean and that was a big lesson." Leone has now been sober for 30 years.

"I have to be sober, I have to be reticent, I have to be professional - that's the way it works for me…some people can function well under the influence of substances, but not me," he said.

It's been a formula for has worked well for Leone.

"People come up to me all the time and say, 'Joey I love what you're doing, how do I do what you're doing?' and I say, 'You got 30 years to live in the basement?' I'm joking, but it just doesn't happen overnight, at least for me it didn't."

But what he got to do was play music in 22 countries and 39 states and made a life for himself and his family in Killington.

"I always thought I was the lucky one, you know at the end of the night," he said. "I get paid to play music. I'll never, ever loose that. I never take that for granted."

Tagged: Joey Leone, Two Truths and a Lie