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Leon and Merle: Rest in Peace

This week the ARChive salutes two fallen heroes: Leon Haywood and Merle Haggard. Each died within a day of each other, Mr. Haywood on the 6th and Mr. Haggard on the 7th of April (his 79th birthday). So in the window we display the covers of early albums by these two gentlemen of music.

Merle Haggard, of course, was a well-known, popular and highly regarded country singer. Leon Haywood was a lesser-known soul music artist who is highly regarded among those who are aware of him. A commonality that these two men have is that they both made their mark in music in California.

Otha Leon Haywood was born in Houston, Texas on February 11, 1942. He learned to play piano as a child and was playing in local groups by the time he was a teenager—even said to have played with the legendary New Orleans blues man Guitar Slim. By 1962, Haywood was in Los Angeles, where he played in R&B saxophonist Big Jay McNeely’s band. McNeely cut two of Haywood’s songs for the Swingin’ label: the ballad “Without a Love” and the raucous “The Squat” (an ARChive favorite) on which Haywood’s organ playing is featured. Haywood then played in Sam Cooke’s touring band until the singer’s death. Haywood recorded for several labels with moderate success in the R&B market for the next dozen years. Many of these records are excellent examples of sixties soul music, though unknown to the casual music lover.

In 1975, Haywood scored with “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You,” a sensual funk number that was a Number 7 R&B hit (Number 15 pop) and has since been sampled by all sorts of hip hop cats. He owned his own Evejim Records, to issued his own records—some of which got picked up by bigger companies. After his run of R&B chart hits in 1984, he devoted more time to the label, recording such blues men as Jimmy McCracken and Buddy Ace as well as rapper Toddy Tee. Leon Haywood was largely unsung in his lifetime, but he left behind a legacy of fine R&B records that reflect the times in which they were made.

Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California. He had a troubled youth, spending time in juvenile detention centers and prison cells. When he was 12, his brother gave him a used guitar that he learned to play. After hearing him sing, Lefty Frizzell encouraged Haggard to sing professionally in the early fifties. Haggard then sang in local Bakersfield clubs, but worked hard day jobs. He also continued a life of petty crime, for which he was eventually imprisoned, and also served time at San Quentin after an attempted escape.

Freed in 1960, he returned to the stages of Bakersfield bars. In 1963, he started his recording career, first recording for the local Tally Records, then Capitol Records. Capitol was able to promote his records, get them on the radio and make him a star. The common man was able to relate to the songs he sang: “Working Man’s Blues,” “Fightin’ Side of Me,” ‘Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home.” From the sixties through the eighties, Haggard scored nearly 40 Number One country hits.

In all, Merle Haggard was one of the most popular country singers of all time; one who personifies integrity, purity and greatness, not just in records sold but also in artistic achievement.

The music world will miss these two men.



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