Danny Leake, Stevie Wonder’s longtime sound engineer, Lane Tech grad, dead at 69
He grew up in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, taught himself the guitar, toured with The Five Stairsteps and broke racial barriers as a top sound engineer.
Danny Leake was doing a live gig with the Queen of Soul when she pronounced that something sounded off.
“This,” Aretha Franklin said, “is not gonna work.”
Mr. Leake waited. Franklin probably didn’t realize the breadth of his career as a sound engineer. How he’d worked 27 years for Stevie Wonder, who called him “a professional perfectionist.” How he’d remixed or recorded Natalie Cole, Dennis DeYoung, Janet Jackson, Ramsey Lewis, Brian McKnight, Diana Ross, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, the Police and Diana Ross.
“Aretha thought he couldn’t possibly know what he was talking about,” said his wife Fran Allen-Leake. “He very quietly said to her, ‘Would you like to hear the playback?’ ’’
The diva assoluta snapped back: “Yeah, I want to hear the damn playback!”
“She listens to it, and her face just totally changed,” said Mr. Leake’s wife, who was at the performance. “She realized this guy knows what the hell he’s doing.”
Nothing seemed to ruffle Mr. Leake, a former Army sharpshooter. Sound effects artist Lorita de la Cerna said that whenever the screaming started in recording studios, Mr. Leake would just sip his endless cups of coffee.
“I was a sniper in the Vietnam war,” he’d say. “This is nothing.”
Services were held last month for Mr. Leake, 69, a resident of the Tri-Taylor neighborhood on the Near West Side, who died of a heart attack en route to a kidney dialysis appointment.
He broke racial barriers to become a top sound engineer and founder of his own mastering studio, Urban Guerrilla Engineers, and was a mentor to many others who went on to careers in sound.
“At one point, he was one of the only black sound engineers in Chicago,” said audio engineer Chris “Godxilla” Taylor. “He was my sensei.”
“He taught me how to listen,” said Vaughn Halyard, chief of the StoryLounge Media production company.
“Close your eyes,” Halyard said Mr. Leake would tell proteges. “Stop looking at the needle. If it’s wrong, you should be able to hear it.”
From 1991 to 2018, he toured with Wonder as his “front of house” engineer. Each show meant integrating more than 50 audio sources, from the star to an ever-changing cast of accompanists.
“It’s like you’re mixing a new record every night,” Halyard said, “and every song is a new single in real time.”
Wonder paid tribute to him in a memorial video, saying: “I’m so thankful that in my life I met a man with the brains of Danny Leake, a man who spent so much of his life giving to others. Such a kind human being, gentle spirit, never heard him raise his voice.”
Wonder added: “I know the brains that he had, only because of the color of his skin, he didn’t go as far as he needed to go, and that’s completely unacceptable. But you motivated so many people, Danny, in your life.”
Wonder “trusted him,” said his famed bass guitarist Nathan Watts. “Danny was one of the best engineers. He made my bass sound so good.”
Mr. Leake could joke with the Motown legend as if they were family. At one show, Halyard said, a local mayor climbed onstage and launched into an awkward dance while clapping offbeat, and Mr. Leake radioed a message to Wonder, who is blind:
“Steve, you should be glad you can’t see this.”
Young Danny was about 3 when he and his parents Lessie Ruth and Preston Leake left their home in Sardis, Mississippi, and moved to Chicago. He grew up in public housing in the Henry Horner Homes and attended Manley grade school and Lane Technical High School.
Around 14, he picked up an uncle’s guitar and taught himself the basics. He became good enough to be invited on the road with The Five Stairsteps of “Ooh Child” fame. When he told his mom he’d have to miss his 1969 Lane Tech graduation to go on tour, she put her foot down.
“You can do anything you want to after,” she said, “but today you’re going to be at that graduation.”
He went to the ceremony, then drove to catch up with The Five Stairsteps.
While serving in the Army in Vietnam, he and other soldiers formed a funky music group they called 100% Pure Poison that became popular in Europe.
“Danny still gets royalties” from the band’s songs, according to his wife.
When his Army hitch was up, she said, he visited Abbey Road Studios, taking a course at the Beatles shrine.
Returning to Chicago, he got a bachelor’s degree in music studies from Roosevelt University.
“There weren’t really any black engineers in Chicago floating around at that time,” Mr. Leake recalled in a 2020 article for prosoundnetwork.com, which also quoted a 2007 interview he did with Pro Sound News. “So I’d say, ‘Hey, how do you get into that?’ Everybody would laugh and walk away, and I’m, like, ‘Damn, what’s so funny?’ ’’
He paid his bills by becoming a sought-after session guitarist. All the while, he watched and listened, “learning the engineering craft,” his wife said.
He landed his first engineering job at P.S. Recording Studios, 323 E. 23rd St. In the late 1970s, he moved on to Chicago’s Universal Recording, a legendary studio known for its early use of echo chambers and reverb.
When Universal closed, he struck out on a 1990 tour with Johnny Gill of New Edition, where he learned how to do live sound.
“Well, the first gig was at the Tokyo Dome. It was a festival with Hall and Oates, the Doobie Brothers, Sheila E.,” he told prosoundnetwork.com. “There were 63,000 people. I’d never seen a speaker that big in my life.”
When the crowd roared, “I got addicted to the audience,” he said in the interview. “I had never experienced that before — 63,000 people all getting their vibe through me.”
Mr. Leake worked the Montreux Jazz Festival, Bonnaroo, Rock Over Rio and English festivals Including Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. And he became president of the Engineering and Recording Society of Chicago — EARS.
He kept his “Be cool, everything’s gonna be all right” demeanor even when he was the go-between for a pressure-filled satellite transfer between Wonder and super-producer Quincy Jones, according to record executive Jun Mhoon.
“Quincy was in California, and Stevie actually housed his synthesizer with Danny,” said Mhoon, who compiled the tribute video. “He spliced the music together.”
In 1995, Mr. Leake asked producer-promoter Francesca Allen out. They saw “Apollo 13.” After she returned home that night, “We sat and talked on the phone about the movie for the next four hours,” she said. “Books, movies and music — that was our thing. And we did it for the next 25 years.”
In addition to his wife and mother, Mr. Leake is survived by daughter Nicole Rogers, son Christopher, brother Preston Sims and eight grandchildren.
At his funeral, his treasured guitars were on display, including a red Les Paul he bought from “Pops” Staple of the Staple Singers.
Wonder said he believes souls travel after death. “I’m hoping that Danny will travel, his soul will travel,” he said, “and he will be on this earth when it’s more heaven-like.”