Leonard Hits High Notes

Published February 27, 2015 in Senior Digest

Before even cutting his first record, little did Pawtucket’s George Leonard realize that he would help set legal precedents for student dress codes as well as ultimately make it into the rock ‘n’ roll history books and now, in 2015, into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF).

When Leonard’s family relocated to nearby Attleboro in 1964, the young high school student was tossed out on the first day of school for having a “Beatle-length” haircut. Already an established professional musician, Leonard filed a freedom of expression lawsuit against the School Department, which dragged on through several appeals and wound up in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Although the court finally sided with the School Department, it was too late.

“This was a landmark case. Students all over the country, following George’s example, began demanding their right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Long hair became the order of the day,” said Rick Bellaire, RIMHOF vice chair and archive director.

The teenager deftly capitalized on the intense interest generated by the internationally publicized lawsuit, which brought his band, Georgie Porgie & The Cry Babies, onto the thriving New York City discotheque scene of the mid-1960s.

The popularity of the band led to two national releases for Jubilee Records. After the Cry Babies ran its course, Leonard composed and produced the controversial rock opera, “Bozo.”   He later, under his alter-ego, “Commander Video,” became a cable TV pioneer on the blossoming performance art scene in New York City in the 1970s.

Although the 67-year-old musician resides in Bristol, he still strongly feels his connections to Pawtucket. “I only perform for my friends these days,” says Leonard, admitting that he enjoys playing jazz much more than rock ‘n’ roll and blues.

Looking back, Leonard says that passion never pushed him into the music business. Practically speaking, “It was always easy for me to play music and I enjoyed writing songs,” he said.

According to Bellaire, Leonard will be inducted into the RIMHOF with The Schemers/Raindogs, Brenda Bennett, Nelson Eddy, George Masso, George Wein, Duke Belaire, Paco Zimmer, The Others and The Ascots (recognizing the great Rhode Island garage bands of the ‘60s along with Leonard), Bob Petteruti, Marty Ballou and Marty Richards (in the new “MVP sideman award” category).

“The Music Hall of Fame initiative,” says Bellaire, “provides a great opportunity to not only acknowledge Rhode Island’s musical greats and celebrate their achievements, but to finally have an organization whose primary goal is to promote and preserve Rhode Island’s rich musical heritage in all its forms. With actual exhibit space, coupled with our online archive, we have in place the tools to curate and showcase the best of Rhode Island’s musical artistry.”

This year, Bellaire said, there will be two induction ceremonies, and 11 more displays will be unveiled to celebrate inductees. Eventually, the museum will have more than 100 displays as well as memorabilia and interactive components.

The induction of jazz musicians will take place on April 20 at 7 p.m. at Bovi’s Tavern, 287 Taunton Ave., East Providence, before the weekly performance by the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra. George Masso, Bob Petteruti and Duke Belaire, the founder of the Bovi’s big band, will be honored.

On April 26, there will be an induction ceremony and concert at The MET and Hall of Fame within Hope Artiste Village, 999 Main St., Pawtucket. An afternoon event will include the unveiling of the inductee exhibits as well as performances by The Schemers, Raindogs, Brenda Bennett, The Ascots, TheOthers and an all-star jam session led by two of this year’s MVP sideman award winners — Ballou and Richards.

The 2 p.m. unveiling is free, but a ticket will be required for entrance to the 3 p.m. concert in the MET. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door and can be purchased atwww.RhodeIslandMusicHallofFame.com

Robert Billington, chair of the RIMHOF, said, “This year’s class of inductees is especially amazing due to the variety of music styles and musical periods that we are recognizing. The thousand Saturday nights that these musicians spent on the road throughout their careers will be recognized this April as their colleagues throughout Rhode Island stand to applaud their successes.

“Our induction ceremony … has become the place for a ‘who’s who in Rhode Island music,” he said. “The Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame Induction ceremony and concert is the place to be and be seen at as we continue to showcase the history of Rhode Island’s musical heroes.”

Bellaire noted, “In past years, we’ve been delighted to induct many senior members of Rhode Island’s music community. For instance, last year The Mark II – Wayne Cogswell and Ray Peterson who are both in their 80s — were on hand to accept their awards and perform, and Rhode Island Philharmonic founder Francis Madeira at 97 came all the way down from Maine to accept his award during a philharmonic performance at The Vets.

“This year, we will be honored to have some of the most senior inductees with us,” he continued, “… all of whom are still active participants on the music scene, including drummer/band leader Duke Belaire (83), bassist/educator Bob Petteruti (85), trombonist/educator George Masso (88), and Newport Jazz and Folk festival founder George Wein (89).”

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based writer. Contact him at hweissri@aol.com.

 

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