By David Gunter
In the 1960s, guitarist Leon Atkinson met The Beatles and was wholly unimpressed.
“I just thought they were a bunch of shaggy haired guys playing three-chord songs,” he said. “Paul was nice, George was OK, John was intense and Ringo was an a------.”
Almost a decade later, he met Andres Segovia, a Spaniard who was one of the most important figures of the classical guitar in the beginning and mid 20th century. The man’s very presence charged the room with energy and convinced Atkinson that he was in the presence of greatness.
Atkinson, 63, latched onto the idea of playing guitar almost as soon as he was old enough to have such notions. Before he was out of school in New York, he had appeared on national television, was earning money by intercepting calls meant for his older, violin-playing brother and, in the same way, began picking up gigs on electric bass by booking himself through calls intended for his father. Music carried him into the recording studio and onto the stages of the Apollo Theater, Town Hall in New York and Carnegie Hall.
In the world of classical music, Atkinson was an anomaly – a black musician in an environment where, at the time, few were to be found. He met the challenge heartily, establishing guitar programs at Jersey State College and the extension division of the Manhattan School of Music. The guitarist later “helped break the barrier” on Broadway, working an extended run of the hit show, “Promises, Promises” as a black musician on the Great White Way.
Given his own family history, Atkinson pointed out, race was never a big deal.
“My grandfather was a white Jew,” he said. “Our house was like the League of Nations.”
In the early 1970s, Atkinson walked away from the life of a successful New York performing artist to immerse himself in a simpler lifestyle in Sandpoint. One of his new friends here told the guitarist that being black in a town of virtually all white residents shouldn’t be a problem, just stay away from a particular watering hole with a bad reputation. The year before, Atkinson’s friend reported, a longhair had been held down and given a chainsaw haircut by patrons of this same tavern.
“So what did Leon do?” Atkinson said. “I went straight down there for a beer.”
From his home base in Sandpoint, he founded the guitar programs at Whitworth College, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington universities and North Idaho College and, for the past 19 years, hosted the popular “Guitar Hour” program on Spokane Public Radio.
Atkinson’s health has presented two major challenges for the artist in this decade – he fought cancer nine years ago and continues to undergo treatments for kidney failure today. Those battles aside, Leon Atkinson has recommitted himself to what he calls the “higher level of selfishness” needed to return to the role of performing artist.
“That’s what I’m going to be doing for the next 30 years,” he said.
Do you recall when you first decided to become a guitarist?
Yeah, totally. I was 3 years old and my dad took me to the Apollo Theater to see a friend of his perform – Josh White Sr. He was on the stage with a stool and a pink floodlight, and he sang a song called “One Meatball.” It just touched me and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Did you come from a musical family?
My mom and dad both played violin in the symphony. My dad had learned the upright bass, and he was playing big band dance music. My brother was six years older and, at 10, he was winning competitions for violin. My dad wanted me to play cello. If I played cello, since my dad could also play viola, then we had the Atkinson String Quartet. He had it all figured out, and I ruined it for him when he took me to hear this guy play guitar.
You received widespread recognition pretty early as a guitarist.
I was very lucky. When I was 8 years old, my dad took me to a place on the Lower East Side called the Henry Street Settlement where I studied with a guitarist named Mark Oalth. That year, the people from the Arthur Godfrey Show came to pick different kids to be involved in this steeplechase show that they were doing at Coney Island. I was probably standing out – because there weren’t that many black kids, mostly little Jewish kids – and I got picked. We did the show and I sang “Skip to My Lou.” Arthur Godfrey liked it, and I ended up on the Arthur Godfrey Show, where I won.
Did audience response hook you into a life of performing?
It definitely was a big part of it. When you get that much attention and everyone is fussing over you, as a little kid, you eat it up. Audience response is a big thing. I think it hooks all performers, all athletes. When you get all that energy being focused on you – and if you view it properly – you can take that energy and nurture it and put it back out to them. You get this reciprocal thing going on that elevates, and it’s better than sex.
You had a chance to meet and play for Andres Segovia. What was your impression of the man?
It was amazing. I had heard that, if you were ever in the presence of a great person, you’d know it. You’d feel it. This class took place in this beautiful, old, stone room. I was in there with about 30 or so students, along with journalists and photographers. He came into the room while I was talking to somebody and I just felt something. And there he was. It was an overwhelming presence. It’s hard to explain it. He looked around the room and who stands out? The only black face in there – me. So he points to me to play. I had a pretty big ego and I had performed a lot, but this was my all-time idol and I was not very calm. So I get up and I’m tuning my guitar, I’m stalling, trying to think of what to play for him. I played one of his favorite pieces that I knew he particularly loved. By the time I finished playing the piece, he asked me, “Do you like what you do?” I was afraid he might say something like, “Well, give it up kid. Throw away your guitar!” He told me, “It’s easy to see that you like what you do. You play music straight from your heart. Very beautiful.” It was the greatest compliment I could ever get in my life. From Segovia himself. It was quite an honor to be in his presence, to watch him play close up and to have him like my playing.
Did reaching that level of artistry and musicianship open doors for you?
Yes and no. I would say more no than yes. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of racism in the classical world and it still exists. A black classical guitarist? There was no such animal. The minute someone saw me they would say, “Oh, you play guitar – do you play blues? You play jazz?” Yeah, I can play blues; I can play jazz. But they’d never stop to think, “Maybe this kid plays classical guitar.”
How did you get started in studio work?
A good friend of mine, a drummer who has become world-renowned, named Billy Cobham, knew that I was playing electric bass for some jobs. He said they were doing a record date and he could get me on it. From that, it went to another one and another one and then, in 1964, I was on a record that became a big hit. That led, for a short time, to me becoming involved in the rock ‘n’ roll thing, which I hated. It just wasn’t my thing.
What was the hit song?
It was a song called “Tell Him.” Do you remember it? (Sings the phrase: “I know … something about love … you gotta want it bad ….) That’s me on that, playing bass. That big hit put me into being a headliner with that group. We played the Apollo Theater when I was 17, playing next to the Isley Brothers and Dionne Warwick. But I had started to play electric bass so much that it was getting in the way. I remember hearing about two of my friends having an argument about Leon Atkinson – one knew me as a classical guitarist and one knew me as a bass player. They didn’t know it was the same person. That’s when I stopped playing the electric bass, cold turkey. I’d put all of these years into the guitar and people weren’t going to remember that? Go to hell with the bass! (laughs)
There’s an interesting progression in your career: Early discovery on the Arthur Godfrey Show, successful studio musician, playing on Broadway and in front of Segovia – drop everything and move to Sandpoint, Idaho?
It doesn’t compute, huh? I was doing Broadway, I was doing a lot of record dates and I had this guitar program at Jersey State College that was the largest program in the country at the time. I mean, I was really busy. I started thinking, “You know, I’m not feeling satisfied. I don’t feel musically rewarded anymore.” I felt like a musical factory.
A buddy of mine and I were visiting someone up in the hills of upstate New York. After dinner, we walked outside and he said, “God, this is beautiful. But if you think this is beautiful, there’s a place out west called Sandpoint, Idaho. It’s a lot like this and land is cheap.” That was July of 1973. I got in my car and went to check out Sandpoint. I bought land that year, stayed here a while in ’74 and moved here in ’75. When I was moving out here, my dad said, “What is wrong with you? You’re going to give up more great jobs than most people can get in a lifetime to move to Idaho? Are you nuts?” I told him, “Pop, I’m a funny kind of person. I’m the guy that runs after the bus until I catch it. But once I get on and I sit down, I don’t enjoy the ride.”
Were you at all concerned about being one of a very few, if not the only black person in Sandpoint when you moved here?
No, I really didn’t give that any consideration or thought when I came here, because I liked the area and that was all that mattered. I really have had no major problems in Sandpoint. There are people who dislike me for no other reason than that I’m a black person. And there are people who are just curious about me and what I do.
What was the cultural environment like here in the early 1970s?
There wasn’t very much happening culturally at that time. At least, I didn’t feel there was. I got involved in helping to start the Pend Oreille Arts Council and I started the Classical Guitar Guild. I thought it was important to bring culture to wherever I live.
After the move, you shifted your focus from being a performing artist to the role of full-time teacher. Was that a kind of “artistic transference?”
I would say yes to that. The transference was definitely very strongly happening for me with my students. I was getting what I wanted through them. I got a lot of satisfaction out of watching them grow and learn the instrument. Now I’m at a point in my life where I’m not teaching – I am still doing the radio show, which I enjoy – but it’s time for me to get back out on a full-time basis as a performer.
Did your health-related issues add any urgency to your decision to get back in front of audiences?
No, I think what played the biggest part in that is that I stopped teaching and I had to go back to me to get that artistic satisfaction. Plus, I love playing. Thank God my hands still work and I can still play. As long as my body will allow me to do it at the level and with the expertise I’m capable of – not like a fighter who has been in the ring too long and should retire – then I’m going to do it.
In a very general sense, how would you describe music? Let me put that another way: What is music?
I see music, not in any kind of isolated way, but as a part of the involvement with the landscape of life – the trees and the water and the rain. It’s all music and it all connects.