Unfamiliar name, familiar sound

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The name Leon Ware probably doesn't ring any bells right away. But you've heard his music before, have probably been pulled under by its heated sensuality. Few know that Marvin Gaye's 1976 bedroom classic I Want You (the bulk of it, anyway) was actually Leon's album before Marvin recorded it and made it a smash.

Universal Records has just reissued a two-disc deluxe edition of that album and Musical Massage, Leon's overlooked funk-and-candlelight masterwork from '76.

A songwriter at Motown, Leon had written hits for such label artists as the Miracles and Michael Jackson. He also penned hits for Quincy Jones, Bobby Womack and Melissa Manchester. In 1975, Leon was given the green light to do his own project.

"I was making an album at Motown, and Marvin didn't have anything out at the time," says the Detroit native, 63. "We already had several tracks done. While I was visiting with Marvin at his home, I played a cassette to review my material. Marvin heard it through the wall, came out of his room and listened to all 10 tracks."

Marvin asked for and received the set of tunes. ("I Want You" was initially a demo for T-Boy Ross, Diana's singing brother who co-wrote the record with Leon. Motown chieftain Berry Gordy had already heard "I Want You" before Leon's visit with Marvin. And he persuaded the songwriters to give it to the label's celebrated dark prince.)

As he oversaw Marvin's project, Leon wrote new songs for his Motown debut. I Want You hit the streets on May 16, 1976, and blazed up the charts, topping the R&B; listing. When Leon turned in Musical Massage a month or two later, Motown executives thought Marvin should record that album, too. But Leon refused, and the company released the record in September 1976 with zilch promotion.

Although Marvin could sing circles around Leon (I mean, it was Marvin Gaye. Come on now.), his album wasn't as strong as Leon's. Soothing, enchanting, elegant and flavorful, Musical Massage is a satin-smooth ride from start to finish. (Even the cover, which features an oiled, nude dark-skinned woman, is a beauty.) In his supple tenor, Leon croons about sex in a way that never comes off as crass or self-conscious. Such song titles as "Learning How to Love You," "Journey Into You" and "Phantom Lover" suggest that the dude wants more than just a night together.

"Somebody asked me do I go somewhere to write these songs, do I go to a special place," Leon says. "No. I've forever been on this path of saying things that arouse people. I truly believe that the magic of the human race lies in the love we extend to one another."

Professionally, Leon has continued to extend himself as his works go unnoticed. (Soul fans over in Europe love the man.) He co-wrote "Sumthin', Sumthin'," one of Maxwell's best hits from his 1996 debut Urban Hang Suite.

Today, the veteran singer-songwriter lives quietly in L.A. with his wife, Carol, a music publisher. He has three grown children. And he continues to release "musical delicacies" on his own label, Kitchen Records. His latest release, his ninth overall, is Love's Drippin'.

But he says that he's glad that new ears will get a chance to check out what he put down back in the day. Musical Massage, revamped with bonus cuts, holds up well.

"Quality, skill, accountability -- all of those things were important to me then," Leon says. "Keeping those things in mind has helped the music stay around. It's not going anywhere."

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