Thu, Feb 27, 2014 07:28 PM
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
1) He's a double board certified dialysis
2) He grew up in the ghetto.
3) He's planning to coordinate a town-wide snow
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
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
"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
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.
"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."
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,
"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
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
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
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,"
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
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."
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
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
"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.'"
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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."