Carl Sonny Leyland - extraordinary blues and rock and roll pianist


Carl Sonny Leyland is a spectacular pianist who specializes in boogie woogie and early rock and roll. He was born January 16, 1965, in Ashford Kent, County of Kent in the south of England, and grew up in the village of Blackfield, near Southampton.

I first heard of him in a dixieland and ragtime newspaper called The Mississippi Rag – my mother was a subscriber and saved the copies for me when I would come home for a visit. In April 2005, I heard him play many times at the Rockin’ 50’s Fest II in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he performed with his own trio, and backed up many legends, including Sid and Billy King, Billy Lee Riley, Freddie Bell, Roy Head, the Bobbettes, the Cadillacs, the Five Keys, Big Jay McNeeley, Roddy Jackson, Rusty York, Joe Clay, Alton Lott, Sleepy La Beef, Hardrock Gunter, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Ray Sharpe, Janis Martin, and Young Jessie. The interview took place at the festival, on April 13, 2005. I have edited it, removing most of my questions.

Carl Sonny Leyland : My dad had records of various different kinds of old music when I was growing up : some traditional jazz, ‘50s rock and roll, and some old-time country records. He had a Jimmy Rodgers record and a Hank Williams record and I listened to all of these things and liked them a lot. When I was a little kid I especially liked the ’50s rock and roll, and then in the ’70s in England there was somewhat of a revival in the mainstream for that and I remember seeing these albums being advertised on TV and hearing the first little sound bytes of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “King Creole” and stuff like that. I loved it but I didn’t play at the time.

I started playing the trumpet in school. My dad didn’t really know what rockabilly was but when he started hearing about it he was curious. So about 1978, when I was 13, he took me to Bournemouth Winter Gardens and we saw a show with Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, and the English group Matchbox. They were very good, that was “killer.” That was the first time I saw Teddy Boys and the early rockabillies.

A couple of years later I started playing the piano ’cause I realized the piano was something I could really work with. I had a friend at school who played it and one day he was trying to learn a boogie woogie piece that he had in a music book. I heard the sound of the left hand – he was playing real slow but I liked the sound of it. I thought, well man I want to try that too. So I started fooling around on the pianos at school, asked my dad if he knew anything about it, and as it happened he did. My dad was old enough to have been in World War II. When he wasn’t at sea in the Merchant Navy he used to go to a pub near where he lived in Preston in the north of England where the black GI’s [American soldiers] would drink. With the segregation, black and white GI’s wouldn’t go and drink together in those years. But apparently the English people were quite welcoming to these black GI’s in this one pub. I believe he said it was called the McKenzie Arms ; I can’t quite remember the little village it was in. He said he saw a guy play the piano in there and he was playing this kind of slow blues and he asked him what it was and he said, “That’s Jimmy Yancey’s style.” These fellows would also bring in records of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and things like that, that he liked a lot. But anyway he knew a few things on the piano. He was actually a drummer, never a professional but a good drummer. We ended up doing some playing together after I started to play. We got a piano in the house and started buying these records. ‘Cause he was telling me who the people were who played it : Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey, and Cripple Clarence Lofton.

There was a good record shop in Southampton called Henry’s Records where the guy was a blues fan and he made a point of having all of that stuff in stock. A lot of it was being reissued at the time in England. There was one fellow called Francis Wilford-Smith, a big blues record collector, and he put out a set of 21 volumes of piano blues, just called the Piano Blues, volume whatever. I was buying them as they were coming out, and that became like my musical bible. They were on a label from Magpie which I think was part of the Fly Right label. He he also had a radio show, a three-part series, where he did the history of boogie woogie. That was where I first heard [Pinetop Smith’s] “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” and [Meade Lux Lewis’s] “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” Big Maceo’s “Chicago Breakdown,” Albert Ammon’s “Boogie Woogie Stomp,” a lot of records that have really stayed with me to this day. Between 15 and 16 I was absorbing this stuff.

I was really browbeaten by people at school that if I didn’t learn classical music I was going to regret it the rest of my life. And so I went and tried for about three months with this old lady who was teaching my friend who I mentioned earlier. It just wasn’t for me. That’s why I would say I’m self taught, because that three months really made no difference. For fingerings I just found my own way. Later on realized that I wasn’t really using very effective fingering and so adjusted it.

I jumped on it pretty quick and after I’d been playing three months I was able to get up in the intermission at a Dixieland gig and I played about four songs. After I’d been playing about six months, we visited with this guy who had a blues band in Southampton. His name was Bob Pierce. It was pretty cool. He was playing like Elmore James style guitar. The guy was really a good blues man. He’s not so active anymore. I talk to him occasionally but he’s in the church now ; he turned away from the devil’s music. I think he sings but I don’t know if he plays the guitar much anymore. I was this green kid but he saw the potential in it and he saw that I was into the right stuff. So he put me in his band—the Bob Pierce Blues Band—at age 16. I worked with him for about four years. In the midst of that, when I got to be about 17, I started dabbling back into the rockabilly thing again. I wanted to get into that and I started playing the guitar on the side. I played some rockabilly guitar, had some groups doing that, got into all the Carl Perkins stuff, revisited that. You know, Johnny Carroll, all the stuff you could get on the compilation LPs then. All the Mercury rockabillies, Johnny Talley, Billy Wallace, Eddie Bond. Fantastic. I went on with that back and forth between the guitar and the piano.

The way I ended up coming to America was through a contact I made in Norway. There wasn’t much happening for me in England, it was tough to make any money, and I started going over there playing in piano bars. I could do a month in each town. I wouldn’t want to do it again but at the time it was a pretty decent way to make a living. In the course of the year that I went back and forward doing that, in one place I was playing an American trio came in from New Orleans, called Johnny Jay and the Hitmen. I became friendly with them and they said if you ever want to come to America, you can come stay with us. You can enjoy yourself and just relax and stay at our place. That was all the invitation I needed. So I came and spent about three months then went back to England. That was 1988, I think it was September.

August 8th, 1988 was a big boogie woogie concert in Hamburg and that was my first break on that European boogie woogie scene, which is especially strong out of Germany. I met a lot of those European boogie woogie guys and got a lot of my contacts. It was a show with Axel Zwingenberger and Vince Weber. I went on directly after Champion Jack Dupree, and it was so cool. I came off and he actually patted me on the shoulder and said, “You’re doing a good thing, son.” I got a picture of me and him from that night.

Craig Morrison : This might seem like an odd question, but how did you get to be so good ?

CSL : Just really a lot of practice. Being obsessed with it. When I first heard that boogie, all I wanted to do was sit at the piano all day and play and listen to records, slow them down to half speed. Even right from the beginning I found I was able to improvise my own stuff. It was my ambition to play just like those guys play. Eventually you get to a point where you can accept your own playing.

CM : So you don’t feel like you can play like those guys ?

CSL : Oh I can, yeah. I certainly can play like them but I think it’s more important for me to have my own voice. Sometimes I’ll do a historical boogie woogie set or I’ll try to give exact examples of how Albert Ammons played and Pete Johnson.

What I wanted to do was play in a manner that was authentic and sounded as if it came from the same time period that the original guys that I admired came from : the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and in some cases, the ’50s, depending on what the particular influence was. But to be able to do that without exactly copying or mimicking them. It’s not always possible to completely avoid Albert Ammons for me because it’s running through my head all the time ; I love that stuff. But eventually you just play and your own thing comes out. I feel that that’s where I’m at now. I can interpret those guys’ music without mimicking them and I can also make my own compositions. I think people accept my individual style now. When I do my jazz gigs they can tell it’s a little different from what some of the guys do. I think that’s why I’ve got some of the attention from the [dixieland publication] Mississippi Rag and those jazz festivals.

There’s not really any guys on that scene that are coming out of quite the same influences that I do. There’s guys who come from strictly a ragtime background. There’s a lot of guys that are crazy about Jelly Roll Morton and their style is based out of there, or the Chicago guys like Earl Hines, Jess Stacey, and Joe Sullivan. There’s one or two guys who are really good at that. But even when I play jazz I’m still coming from the primitive blues pianists. Even if I try to get into something sophisticated I think there’s still that earthy kind of feeling in there.

At some point I started to think of music and understand it in a spiritual sense, as an expression of the human soul and spirit. I think when you get to a point where you’re aware that there’s a channel there, you can open it. It’s not easy to open it ’cause there’s a lot of distractions. It’s really an art form to just get past those distractions of different noises that are going on and things that happen and the audience, whatever, different musicians around you. But if you can just get to where you’re not thinking, it’s just happening, it’s just coming out, it’s you.

CM : You become a channel – you place yourself in the tradition and you absorb it until you are inside the tradition. Then the channel comes through you so it’s your expression in the tradition.

CSL : Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. A big step for me was getting over the desire to entertain people. Not so much the desire to entertain people, but falling into the trap of feeling that being a performer you have to do that. Because all I ever heard when I started playing was “you’ve got to give people what they want.” Nobody ever said to me, “you have an individual voice and you can express that. You can be an artist.” I spent probably about 10 or 15 years of playing before I started making that transition into – “you know what, I’m just going to play what I feel and if I can make a living, alright, and if I can’t, I’ll just do it for myself.” Ironically, since I made that decision I’ve done a lot better. I get more work and found different avenues for my music.

I like anybody that’s got something to say. That’s the great thing about music, whether it be jazz or blues or rock and roll. There’s room for Art Tatum and Jimmy Yancey and they’ve both got something to say that’s valid. There’s always going to be people who frown on something because it’s primitive, or frown on something because it’s sophisticated. There’s values in either of them, as long as there’s a sincere feeling behind it. The root of everything I do is the early blues pianists and the boogie woogie men that followed, so from Cow Cow Davenport through Ammons, Johnson, and Lewis. I like a lot of the guys from the Chicago blues : Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann, and Roosevelt Sykes, a big favourite, a guy whose career went from the 1920s to the 1980s. What can you say about a guy like that ?

When I first started to practice that walking octave bass, I would just go until my wrist got tired, and do it again. I think it helps build up that stamina when you’re growing. All of my stuff other than what I figured out for myself in my style, I learned from slowing the records down to half-speed. I had a shorthand way that I would write things out. Looking back on it, I got things from a lot of the people I played with. The first guy, Bob Pierce, really meant a lot to me, he turned me onto a lot of great music. He already had an excellent record collection.

CM : How would you like to be remembered ?

CSL : Well, before I’m done in this, I’d like to be thought of as a great musician, somebody who was always approachable and was willing to help people with music and such. I think that some people do think of me as a great musician, but I always hear something new that I want and something that’s beyond what I’m doing stylistically. We can all listen to Art Tatum and say, “Hey, technically that’s the moon.”

CM : What are you most proud of ?

Freddie Bell (of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys) at Green Bay, Wisconsin, 2005, obviously delighted by Leyland’s contributions to his set - photo : Craig Morrison

CSL : I don’t know. I don’t know if I am proud, really. I guess I’m kind of proud of the work that I’ve put into it in order to get where I am with my playing. I certainly feel happy about the people I’ve had a chance to play with. At this point I’ve played with quite a lot of great rockabilly artists and great blues artists too. It is kind of weird when I think back to when I first had Billy Lee Riley records when I was maybe 13 and there I end up playing with the guy, being on stage with him, shaking his hand, and thinking, “This guy really appreciates me.” That one meant a lot to me. Gene Summers : I really enjoyed playing with him. I played with Jerry McCain ; that was really cool. I was really touched by Hardrock Gunter today. That was really cool. I find I get something from all of them. It’s crazy when you think about it. There I am in England. It’s like in a sense your dreams do come true

I’m going to always keep moving on and finding something new. I think the essence of what I do is – I’m always looking for something new, but I don’t forget what I had before. I’m not fickle about it. What I loved when I was 15 I still love now. What I add to it, I’m adding to that. I’m not throwing something away for something new.

CM : What do you think is the essence of boogie woogie ?

CSL : I think it’s got to have the blues in it. When boogie woogie became a craze a lot the big bands were making these arrangements of classical pieces. Not to say that that can’t be amusing, but when it boils down to it, the guys that I really want to hear are the ones who are on the south side of Chicago or came up from Alabama.

CM : What do you think about what some people see as the limitations of the blues structure ?

CSL : It does have limitations. There’s no sense in trying to pretend that it doesn’t. And I think if naturally your own musical parameters fall in line with the blues then that’s fine. I think if you’re purposely trying to dumb yourself down in order to fit into some preconceived notion then you’re making a big mistake. For me, I wouldn’t want to be in a strict straight blues band anymore. I’ve done that. And I do find it limiting. It’s not that I don’t love that music. I do. I can listen to it until the cows come home. But when I play I need to be able to express myself through all the avenues that are available.

It’s a shame what’s happened to blues because even if you look at those records by Elmore James and some of the earlier ones, there’s really a lot of passing tones and chords going on that people have taken out of it. Somewhere in the ’60s or ’70s it was all formularized into, turned into, this strict three-chord, no-passing-notes cardboard box of a form that was really easy for people to play but very difficult for people to actually say anything. Rockabilly can be be a bit dogmatic, but I like hearing some of these kids. They really have that fire and they’re young and they’re just going for it.

There’s a sort of general trend these days in the media. It’s like nothing from white culture can be cool anymore in the media, anything related to like Elvis or hillbilly type stuff. It’s like it’s automatically a figure of fun. That ain’t right, because we’re all human beings and there’s a lot of soul in a great country record just like there’s a lot of soul in a great blues record.

Carl Sonny Leyland, from his website

But even now, nobody acknowledges the piano traditions. You get all this stuff about Robert Johnson and deservedly so ; he was a giant. But all this stuff about Texas blues guitar. Well, you know what ? There’s a school of Texas blues piano but let me hear anybody that can actually name any of those pianists who played it. I got a song I wrote about this guy Buster Pickens ; it’s called “The Last of the Sawmill Piano Men.” It’s just a shame these guys have never really gotten the credit. After that, electric guitar really took off and the piano was finished. It’s kind of amazing that Jerry Lee [Lewis] was able to do what he did ’cause when you think about it, that is the only real rock and roll piano. Those records were driven by the piano : it’s a very small band. Some of them don’t even have bass on them : drums and piano ; drums, piano and guitar, and no bass. Don’t get me wrong, obviously the Little Richard records are phenomenal, and Fats [Domino] and all that, but they’re not driven by the left hand of the piano. There are saxes and drums and guitars. Jerry Lee’s thing is really a phenomenon ; you’ve got to give the guy a ton of credit for what he did. He was actually playing a solid 8-to-the-bar left hand where a lot of the guys coming out of the hillbilly and going into the rockabilly were still playing a four-beat bass rather than an 8-to-the-bar boogie. On this scene in rockabilly it’s somewhat of an afterthought. It’s not a necessity in rockabilly and hillbilly.

Piano’s a different instrument. I’ve had people come and take lessons from me. By the end of the day, it’s a really hard instrument to play properly. It doesn’t come easy. You’ve got to really be determined. A lot of people don’t have the mental fortitude or determination. I’m not trying to imply that somebody doesn’t have the intelligence, but the persistence. It’s great when kids are excited about it. You can tell they’re really excited about the way you play it. That makes you feel great, obviously.

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I have posted interviews with many veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006