Seeing Ronald "Rondo" Leewright under the lights onstage, it was hard to tell if he was black, brown or white. But when he sang, what came out was always the blues.
As lead singer for the Soulard Blues Band and later his own group Rondo's Blues Deluxe, Leewright helped reinvigorate St. Louis' live blues scene in the early 1980s. His booming voice and exuberant showmanship made him a popular attraction here for the next 25 years, until mounting health concerns slowed his performance schedule. He died of cardiac arrest at age 65 in the early hours of Friday, September 9.
Known for exhorting crowds with the signature phrase "Somebody say yeah," Leewright was a devotee of classic blues in the manner of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. He also admired the uninhibited performances of Joe Cocker and incorporated a bit of all three men's styles into his own work.
"For my money, he was the last of the great blues singers," says Steve Waldman, long-time guitarist for Rondo's Blues Deluxe and a friend for more than 30 years. "He did it like nobody else, and he did it 100 percent every night."
Blues fans who flocked to see Rondo may have been too busy enjoying his music to give more than passing thought to his background. But for Leewright, questions of race and identity loomed large throughout his life, and the pain they brought him fueled his music.
Born December 18, 1945, in Brockton, Massachusetts, as Ronald Paul Norris, Leewright had a birth certificate naming his parents as Anna Norris, née De Cost, and Alfred Norris, a career military man, both white. The truth was more complicated. His biological father actually was Clyde Jones, an African American singer and musician who performed throughout the Northeast as part of a trio called the Jones Brothers.
How Ronnie Norris eventually came to be adopted by Esther and Louis Leewright of Robertson — a small, mostly African American enclave near Lambert St. Louis International Airport — may be best explained by a letter from Monsignor Patrick J. Malloy, the pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Robertson from 1949 to 1955.
The letter, dated February 18, 1988, and written to help Leewright obtain a passport so that he could tour overseas, is one of a number of documents and family photos that he shared publicly on his Facebook page during the past year. In it, Msgr. Malloy wrote:
On VJ Day, Mrs. Norris went out to celebrate with her husband's sister in Boston. Perhaps drinking too much, she went out with a member of the band and conceived that night. For a year, Sgt. Norris did not know that Ronald was not his child. When Mrs. Norris confessed what had happened, her husband forgave her and tried to accept the child. Then he was sent with his family to segregated Selma, Alabama. The band member was black. In Selma, Ronald was not able to go to school with the other Norris children and also to the movies. The social pressure drove Sgt. Norris to drink. His superior officer was sympathetic to his problem. It was decided for the peace of the family and the good of the child to seek a black family to adopt Ronald. The Leewright family was willing to accept Ronald. Sgt. Norris brought him to St. Louis, gave him to me, and I brought him to the Leewrights.
Fortunately, the Leewrights, a childless couple in their forties, proved to be loving parents. "I never heard him speak anything but love and respect for Louis and Esther," says Michael Kuelker, a long-time friend. Kuelker is a professor of English at St. Charles Community College who, in 1990, directed the documentary Rondo — Living the Blues, and more recently was working with Leewright on a memoir. Nevertheless, Kuelker says the circumstances of the adoption left a lasting mark. "I think that moment was a real traumatic breach that he never fully recovered from."
Growing up in Robertson, Leewright still didn't quite fit in, being, in Kuelker's words, "not black enough for some black people." He eventually found solace in music, first hearing the blues at local juke joints — an experience he wrote about in the title song to his 1989 album Shack Pappy's — and also singing in the church choir.
After graduating from Berkeley High School in 1962, Leewright joined his first professional band, El Rondo and the Jades. It was the source of the stage name that would stick with him for the rest of his career, chosen to help to him pass as Spanish while fronting an all-white band. Covering blues, soul and rock hits, the group played bars, teen dances and other typical local-band gigs. They also recorded an original song, "Crying in My Heart," at Oliver Sain's Archway Studio in 1966. It was pressed as a one-sided, 33 rpm single.
During this time Leewright also met his future wife, Deborah. "I knew Ron since I was, like, seventeen years old," she says. "I was married to someone else at the time, and he was playing at the El Rancho on the Rock Road. I was pregnant at the time and used to go in there to hear the music, and Ron would always come over and ask me how I was doing and if I needed anything." Several years later, after divorcing her first husband, she went with her sister to hear the Jades at another spot called the Spiral Staircase. "When I walked in there, Ron saw me and said, 'Where the heck have you been?' and after that, we were together."
With several personnel changes, El Rondo and the Jades lasted until the end of the 1960s. During the next decade, Leewright worked a day job repairing copy machines and sang whenever he could find work — sometimes with his own bands, such as Ellipsis and Doctor Focks, and sometimes as a hired gun, as when he filled in for Walter Scott in a band called the Spectors.
A turning point came when Leewright joined the Soulard Blues Band in 1979. At the time, St. Louis' live music scene was rebounding after a recession and the mid-1970s displacement of many live bands by disco. The people coming out had an appetite for blues. The SBB found regular work playing to packed houses at local clubs including J.B. Hutto's and Mike & Min's. They became one of the top blues acts in town, even getting tapped by Anheuser-Busch's advertising agency to record a version of the "This Bud's for You" jingle that was "heard on radio all around the English-speaking world," according to bandleader and bassist Art Dwyer.
Leewright made one album with the group, called simply Soulard Blues Band, released in 1981. Not long after, he left the SBB and started Rondo's Blues Deluxe. The group got regular gigs at Blueberry Hill and elsewhere and quickly become popular, thanks largely to Leewright's no-holds-barred performing style. "His idea of doing a show was basically just showing people his heart," says Steve Waldman. "Ronnie operated purely on emotion. There was never anything that was calculated about it. He was a great frontman, but he was a natural frontman — never scripted."
Rondo's Blues Deluxe continued to work regularly into the new century, until Leewright was slowed by a series of strokes, the last of which in 2006 left him able to get around only with the aid of a motorized chair. Despite this, after an initial period of recovery, he continued to sing, sitting in with bands at local clubs and booking an occasional gig for himself. One such performance had been scheduled for September 10 at the VFW hall in Festus.
During the last years of his life, Leewright also spent time searching the Internet for information about his biological parents and sharing much of what he found on his Facebook page. Through these efforts, he eventually reconnected with relatives from both his mother's and father's families, something that his wife says "validated what he had been searching for for so long."
Ronald "Rondo" Leewright is survived by his wife, Deborah (Davis) Leewright; daughters Celeste Davidson, Angela Miller, Judith Beck and Jeannette Beck; and sons Ronald Leewright Jr., Spencer Pierce, Jerry Beck and Scott Haley; as well as eighteen grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and numerous members of the extended Jones and Norris families. Leewright requested that his body be cremated and that no funeral service be held. Instead, a musical remembrance will take place at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups on October 1 from 4 to 10 p.m.