Dancer and B3 Hammond player Leon Gardner moved from his home in Texas to Los Angeles sometime in the mid '60s. It was soon after this that he set up his own Igloo record label, and a publishing company which he named Shelita after his eldest daughter. The first release on the label was issued in either 1964 or early 1965, a rare and collectable 45 called “Mr. Magic” b/w “Can’t Stop Now”. It was also issued on the Vault label as “Can’t Stop Now” (Pts. I & II) around the same time.
While in LA, Gardner befriended arranger and pianist Arthur Monday. Monday had settled in LA with his friend and co-musician Gabe Fleming, and they shared arranging credits for Igloo 163. Fleming was credited for “Farm Song” while Monday was credited for “Honest Song” on the flip. Igloo Records (i.e. Leon Gardner) was credited as producer. In reality, it’s likely that the three of them worked together on both sites of the record. By 1969, when the 45 was issued, Gardner had seemingly grown tired of the Hammond; certainly there are no keys featured on “Farm Song”. Instead, Gardner had taken up the mightiest sword, becoming something of a Beat Poet. In common with some other recordings of the time, “Farm Song” features an almost incomprehensible monologue from Gardner himself. Perhaps the song was autobiographical, referring to an only recently departed rural upbringing, but Gardner also seems to be giving vague farm-related directions to a dance he calls “The Natural” and “Something for Nothing”.
Despite releasing a few more 45s, Gardner became frustrated by his lack of recognition and success, and became increasingly more reclusive, which in turn led to a rift between him and his family. Drummer Edward ‘Apple’ Nelson, remembers his first impression of Leon: “I met Leon a few times here and there as him and Monday were real tight. I didn’t get to know him that well or nothing as he could came across as very much into his own thing”. Leon’s son Darrell recalls his father’s music saying: ”I always knew his music was special even back then and am truly surprised the he never really got any recognition for it until now.” Looking back, LA bandleader Charles Wright concurs, “We didn’t think of him as being very significant, but I guess he was. He did come out with some good lyrics.”
As well as his other 45s released on Igloo, there were other recordings made for several other independent labels between 1965 and 1974, after which Gardner seemed to disappear under the radar. Not even his family knows his present whereabouts. The general consensus is that he is currently of no fixed address and living somewhere in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, yet all attempts to contact him have so far been unsuccessful. However, his brother in-law, Los Angeles based singer Andy Belvin, claims that Leon is currently residing in a house in downtown LA, where he refuses answer the door to callers, though this has not been corroborated. Charles Wright believes he has already passed away, recently stating “[Gardner] spent the last part of his life just sitting on a bench on Hollywood Boulevard.” To this day though, nothing has been confirmed, and whilst we can only hope that wherever Gardner is, he is in good spirits and health, in some ways it is quite fitting that in this instance the artist should remain as elusive and enigmatic as his work.
* Linernotes from Jazzmanrecords' "California Funk" (www.jazzmanrecords.co.uk)
* Liner Notes with help from Jazzmanrecords (www.jazzmanrecords.co.uk)