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Leon R. Kagarise

The Baltimore Sun

;(lines=ql);(dclead=((bodlead)*(clines)) +(2*(bodlead)));(adjcl=dclead);(clines=( A-1));(bodadj=(bodpt)*25);(bodadj=bodadj /32);(psize=((bodlead)*(clines))+(bodadj ));(psize=psize*32);(dcptsize=psize/22); (adj=dcptsize/33);cf21,(dcptsize),(dclead);ec8,Q,capQ;ec7,1,cap2Leon R. Kagarise, a retired audio technician whose collection of photos and tapes of country and bluegrass musicians he began recording in the late 1950s caught the attention of the Library of Congress Folklife Center and the Country Music Foundation, died of congestive heart failure Saturday at his daughter's Perry Hall home. He was 70.

"It's hard to put a value on such an amazing historic collection. It is an historic document that no one else has, and he did for the love of the music," said Cary Mansfield, vice president of Varese Sarabande Records in Los Angeles, yesterday.

He added: "And given what he was able to do given the technology of the time is amazing. He was a genius."

Charles K. Wolfe, country music historian and author, told The New York Times in a 2001 interview, "Leon's recordings are unprecedented in county music. They are the equivalent of someone finding pristine-sounding recordings of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Sunset Cafe in Chicago."

Mr. Kagarise was born in Martinsburg, Pa., and moved to Towson, when his father took a job with Bendix Radio Corp. on East Joppa Road.

As a teenager, Mr. Kagarise built a hi-fi set, and after graduating from Towson High School in 1955 he went to work for the old High Fidelity House, a state-of-the-art electronics shop in Roland Park.

He was 18 when he began lugging a heavy tape recorder to parks and ranches throughout the state to make reel-to-reel tapes of live country and bluegrass music. He also taped live country performance shows on TV, such as The Jimmy Dean Show, The Porter Wagoner Show, The Jim and Jesse Show and The Don Owens TV Jamboree.

He also photographed and taped performances by Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Reno and Smiley, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the Louvin Brothers - many of whom were at the beginning of their careers.

"I was trying in my own little way to stop time, if you will - stop time," Mr. Kagarise told The Sun in a 2000 interview. "I loved the music so much, and I loved the people so much, the stars. I didn't ever want it ever to change or go away."

In addition to his live tapes, Mr. Kagarise visited yard sales and traveled throughout the back roads of rural Virginia seeking 78s - and later 45s - of such country and bluegrass legends as Uncle Dave Macon, A.P. Carter, and Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, as well as string band performers Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers.

Mr. Kagarise, who lived in Hillendale, managed to fill two houses with thousands of tapes, photographs and records, and his inventory also included antique radios, magazines, and wind-up phonographs.

"He has at least 6,000 hours of recording and more than 700 photos. He caught what was then hillbilly music at its apex," said Joe Lee, a longtime friend and owner of Joe's Record Paradise in Rockville.

"When I took the New York Times reporter to his house, I had to wait on the front porch. You could only get one other person comfortably in there," Mr. Lee said. "Leon had a little area, like a cockpit, where he had his TV and a chair. He really was the King of Clutter, but what clutter."

One of Mr. Kagarise's favorite places was the old New River Ranch in Rising Sun off of U.S. 1.

"The place was back in the woods with a stage that couldn't have cost more than $75 to build. Spectators sat on lumber seats laid on top of cinder blocks," Mr. Lee said. "So many came they had to turn them away. Buses came from as far away as North Carolina with fans who came to hear the music."

Mr. Lee still remembers how he felt when he picked up a tape that had scrawled on it: "Johnny Cash Live in Maryland 1962."

"For the past 40 years, I had been listening to tapes, and I assumed this was going to be lousy. But the moment I heard Johnny Cash sing 'Country Boy,' it sounded like it had been taped yesterday," he said.

In his professional life, Mr. Kagarise worked during the 1970s and 1980s at the University of Maryland Hospital, where he was an audio-visual technician. He later worked for Comcast Cable Co. as a sound engineer until retiring in 1997.

"Leon was the only person who got a really good view of how it was when our area was the hotbed capital of country and bluegrass music," Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Lee said that he had been working for the past several years with Mr. Kagarise, editing down the tapes with an eye toward their publication. "Just before he died, he produced a 1963 tape of Dolly Parton singing 'A Coat of Many Colors' at New River Ranch," he said. "So there are still surprises."

Mr. Lee said that a book of Mr. Kagarise's photographs as well as a documentary featuring his recordings is planned for the near future.

Mr. Kagarise was a member of Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren, 4800 Long Green Road, Glen Arm, where services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Surviving are a son, Michael S. Kagarise of Carney; a daughter, Judy A. Ricci of Perry Hall; a brother, Dean Kagarise of Milford, Ind.; and four grandchildren. His marriage to the former Mary Erdman ended in divorce.

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