At age 75, the Syracuse jazz artist continues to have a busy schedule
By Mary Beth Roach
That’s how local entertainer Ronnie Leigh describes his love for music and performing, a passion that has fueled the 75-year-old for more than 50 years in the business.
His is a career that has had him on stages across the country and in Canada — brought him recognition among his peers and has earned him legions of fans and the respect among many in the entertainment industry.
Leigh has received a SAMMY Award (the Syracuse Area Music Awards) numerous times in the 1990s and early 2000s, including as best jazz vocalist in 1994, 1997 and 2001. He was inducted into the SAMMY Hall of Fame in 2004.
Frank Malfitano, founder and executive director of the Syracuse Jazz Fest, booked Leigh at the first indoor edition of the event in the early 1980s and since then, Leigh has been a part of the festival many times, with Malfitano praising his performances.
“He’s got a distinctive style and sound, looks like a million dollars on stage and he’s steeped in the show business tradition. And then there’s that incredible voice,” he noted. “Be it pop, jazz or soul, Ronnie has all the bases covered. The guy’s a great singer.”
Leigh started singing in Albany, where he would join in with some friends and various school groups. He moved to Syracuse in the mid-1960s after his mom, Pauline Leigh, who had been working for the state at the time, was transferred here. Pauline is now 101.
His professional start began in a former club on South Salina Street called The Thor. Leigh had been working for the state’s department of transportation and one night after work, he ventured into The Thor to listen to some live music. During the band’s break, Leigh said he mustered up his courage and asked the group if he could do a song with them. After a couple of tunes, the band was impressed enough to ask Leigh to join them and would pay him $25 a gig. A short while later, another band that had heard Leigh sing, pursued him. Leigh would be a member of several bands in the 1970s and 1980s, and long-time fans will remember Leigh during his days with the bands Celebration, Sail and The Atlas Linen Company.
But he didn’t quit his day job — or jobs. Over the next several years, Leigh said he had a variety of jobs, working in a mail room and at some local plants, selling cars and even light bulbs over the phone.
When he was in his 20s, he said he actually tried to quit singing — for about 14 days.
“I wanted to live ‘the normal life,’ whatever that is. And I lasted about two weeks,” he said.
He was fine for the first week, but he said “the second week, emotionally and mentally I was just torn up.”
During that week, he was out listening to a band. They asked him to sit in. He did, and he said that he felt relieved.
“At that point I realized ‘this is what you gotta do,’” he said.
Leigh said he was in his 30s before he felt comfortable in becoming a musician full time.
Throughout his five-decade career, Leigh has sung in venues in 38 states and Canada. He’s played at jazz festivals in Syracuse and Rochester and the Apple Jazz Fest at the Little York Pavilion. He’s performed with the local DeSantis Orchestra and Symphoria!, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and the Orlando Jazz Orchestra; and he’s been to Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, as well as the Bonaventure Hotel in Montreal.
He has opened for or played with a range of performers, including David Sanborn, Alliance, The Yellow Jackets, Spiro Gyra, Jon Hendricks, James Moody and Etta Jones.
While he doesn’t care to be pigeon-holed into a specific genre, he acknowledges that his biggest inspirations are from the jazz world — Carmen McRae, Lou Rawls, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
Sustaining such a long career in the entertainment industry, with its ever-changing musical tastes, clubs and festivals and a pandemic, is no small task. But Leigh attributed his longevity to his ability to improvise.
“Some of that comes from sports; some of that comes from jazz improvisation. I think a lot of musicians who made it through this pandemic, maybe not with flying colors; they did that because a lot of them know how to improvise. If you know how to improvise, that’s something that’s part of your life,” he explained. “More than likely, you can do that with any facet of your life.”
Having the ability to improvise is one thing. Having the vocal cords to be able to still be active some 50 years later and do about 200 gigs a year is also critical.
Leigh credited former Syracuse University professor Diane Stradling with helping him maintain his singing voice. She had been affiliated with SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and he met her through one of her students. During one of his first classes with her, he learned the valuable lesson of what he called diaphragmatic breathing. He recalled that Stradling laid on her back on her piano bench and told Leigh to sit on her. Of course, Leigh hesitated, fearing he’d hurt her. She assured him he wouldn’t, so he haltingly agreed.
Stradling began singing and he said she raised him up with her diaphragm, while she still sang.
“I got it immediately. That’s how you breathe,” he said.
Leigh would go on to work with Stradling for three to four years, doing a residency with her vocal jazz choir and when she and her husband relocated to Michigan, she recommended him to take her spot. He worked as an adjunct at SU for seven to eight years.
“She just saved me. She saved my vocal career,” he said.
Away from the stage, Leigh likes bicycling, listening to music, watching some sports on television and golf —` although he joked he doesn’t always like his score.
He also likes Central New York. Despite his traveling, this area remains his home base. He and his wife of 38 years, Barbara, live in Syracuse.
And he certainly loves his fans from this area. He said that while he’s not surprised that he’s still in the business and enjoying it all these years later; it’s his fans that astonish him.
“One of the things that really is amazing to me, and surprising, I guess in some regard, is that, especially here working in Syracuse, people still embrace the work that I try to do. No matter where I go, they come out and give me that same warm embrace. What a blessing it is to be the recipient of that.”
Leigh is far from done. In the future, he hopes to tour more and would love do a local television show focusing on local artists, sharing their stories and their passion.