Chicago, IL (May 1, 2020)—Noted studio and live engineer Danny Leake died Wednesday, April 27, bringing to an end a career that saw him work with some of the biggest names in music over a 50-plus year career. While known for studio work that led to six Grammy nominations for engineering and mastering, Leake was equally adept in a live setting, working as Stevie Wonder’s FOH engineer for 28 years. Over the course of his career, he worked with the likes of Janet Jackson, Diana Ross, Kanye West, The Police, Willie Nelson, Johnny Gill, Brian McKnight, Hank Williams, Jr., Natalie Cole, Candlebox, Lupe Fiasco, Natalie Cole and dozens more, bringing a keen ear and thoughtful perfectionism to his work. Felled by a heart attack while enroute to a dialysis appointment, Leake was 69.
Born in Chicago, Leake was already occasionally working as a session musician when he graduated from Lane Tech High School in 1969, but was soon moving towards an interest in audio engineering. As he recounted to Pro Sound News in 2007, “I played guitar for the longest time, since ’68, went out on the road with the Five Stairsteps, played with them, and I really got fascinated in the studio with the machines, the playback and everything. There weren’t really any black engineers in Chicago floating around at that time, so I’d say, ‘hey, how do you get into that?’ Everybody would laugh and walk away, and I’m like, ‘damn, what’s so funny?’ [laughs]
“So I basically read books, got drafted, went into the service, put a band together while I was over there and actually sold it to EMI Records. I forged a pass, told them I’d come from Chicago, Illinois when really I was just driving in from France, but we sold that stuff, and they gave me access to Abbey Road Studios and stuff, so I used to go just hang out with cats. When I came back to Chicago, I figured I would get a job as an assistant engineer or something like that, but that didn’t happen, so I just kept studying.”
Back in Chicago after an honorable discharge, Leake attended DePaul University and Roosevelt University, earning a BA in Music and Audio Engineering while also making use of what he’d learned overseas: “One day, a cat asked me to help him out at the studio and I told him, ‘yeah, I can help you out, but we really have to go someplace else that has this format to mix on.’ When we got there, I wired up all the stuff like I had picked up in England and the studio owner was impressed, so he offered me a job. He didn’t offer me any money [cracks up] but he gave me the keys—which was even better!”
Making a name for himself, in 1979, he moved on to Chicago’s Universal Recording Corporation, where he worked for the next 11 years, engineering in every genre and media that the studio served. “I worked my way up to the chief engineer of that joint, cutting thrash metal records in the middle of the night, cutting [advertising] spots during the day,” he recalled.
During that time, he garnered production credits with The Dells, Tom Waits, The Chi-Lites, Eddie Harris and dozens of others, while some efforts, such as recording The Police in 1984, were under the radar. “They were touring, but I guess Sting and everybody else wasn’t happy with what they were doing live, so they actually set up the entire live show—monitor boards, the whole trip—in my studio at Universal Recording, which held 150 musicians. I remember I used a second studio to sub a lot of Stewart Copeland’s drums down. Over a two-day period, we recorded a ton of 24 tracks, 48 tracks, all of that stuff. I always wondered whatever happened with that—and last year, I bought a DVD of a show they did in Atlanta [2005’s Synchronicity Concert]. The show was them on stage, and all of a sudden they went into this big video, esoteric thing with colors floating around and I recognized the tracks I cut. Oh, okay! Did I get credit? No [laughs], but that’s part of the game.”
Becoming an independent engineer in the early Nineties, Leake moved into the live sound world with a true baptism by fire. Having worked with Johnny Gill on some of the early hits that established the former New Edition singer as a solo artist, Leake was asked if he’d mix FOH for Gill in Japan.
He recalled, “I thought hey, how hard can it be? Big time engineer, right? Well, the first gig was at the Tokyo Dome. [laughs] It was a festival with Hall and Oates, the Doobie Brothers, Sheila E, all these cats, so there were 63,000 people, maybe 200 Clair S-4s up in the air. I’d never seen a speaker that big in my life. The audio guys were talking about things I had no idea what they were talking about—but everybody thought I was the pro because I brought my own gear! But I always bring my own gear, so I was like, what did I get myself into?! We did the show and to my ears, to my way of thinking, I was, God, this was horrible. I was ready to say ‘guys, you don’t have to pay me, I’m really sorry’ and they were ‘man, that was the greatest thing we ever heard!’ And I’m like, oh…it was?
“One thing that did happen though—that show, when they said ‘Johnny Gill’ and the whole place started yelling, they hit the first note and the joint went crazy. I got addicted to the audience. I had never experienced that before—63,000 people all getting their vibe through me and nobody’s remixing me. Yeah…I told him, whenever you go out again, call me; I’d like to do that.”
The “Freebird” of Pro Audio
Garnering studio credits with the likes of Kurt Elling, Ramsey Lewis & Nancy Wilson, Dennis DeYoung, Michelle Williams and others over the next 30 years, Leake founded his Urban Guerilla Engineering boutique mixing and mastering studio in Chicago. Additionally, he was a multi-term president of EARS (Engineering and Recording Society of Chicago), mentored dozens of working engineers in the region, was a board member of SPARS, and was also a member and one-time trustee of the Recording Academy, writing proposals that helped lead to the Engineering, Mastering and Remix Grammy Awards.
Despite that success in recording, he was often on the road, mixing tours for Diana Ross, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Dennis DeYoung, Aretha Franklin, Bell Biv Devoe and most notably, for Stevie Wonder, helming the house desk for hundreds of shows across all of Wonder’s tours from 1992 to today.
In the live realm, Leake brought the meticulousness and insight he’d learned in the studio to the road, carefully placing microphones onstage himself—occasionally to some monitor engineers’ irritation—and bringing along studio tools that were considered esoteric in the live realm. “I was probably the only guy on the planet that was traveling with a Massenburg Equalizer in my live rig,” he mused of his early days mixing shows.
Despite his willingness to bring technology to bear in a live setting, Leake had strong opinions on the subject, going so far as to note on his website, “Music should never become a slave to the technology.” Instead, he always aimed to ensure that music lovers, whether listening at home or in the middle of a packed arena, were focused on the music, and that philosophy was at the heart of every mix he created. As he told PSN while on tour with Stevie Wonder, “I have a theory that people don’t necessarily want to hear the record. They want to hear something bigger than that! If they wanted to hear the record, they’d stay home.”
Danny Leake is remembered by his wife of 24 years, Fran Allen-Leake, owner of LJect Productions; children; and grandchildren.