Leo Jackson – 1934 – 2008

BY RONNY LIGHT

 

PICTURE: COURTESY OF RONNY LIGHT

It is often noticed that the career of an average Nashville session musician is longer than that of musicians in other musical genres. But even by Nashville’s standard, Leo Jackson’s five decades-long career is matched by few. Leo started at the top in 1953 as a gifted teenaged guitar player for Jim Reeves and played on all but a few of Reeves’ records, the ones that were recorded when Leo was in basic training. Over fifty years after his first concert with Jim Reeves, Leo is still going strong—playing sessions, producing records, and touring the world with his guitar in hand.

Leo Jackson was born the youngest of six children on October 22, 1934 in Meridian, Mississippi, a railroad town that was a supply depot for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and much later, the birthplace of the Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers. In 1864, toward the end of the Civil War, Union General, William Tecumseh Sherman, famous for the burning of Atlanta, destroyed Meridian’s railroads and warehouses. Sixty years later, the Great Depression of 1929 destroyed what was left of Meridian’s recovering post-war economy.

These were the hard times Leo Jackson was born into. Leo’s father was Georgios Tsakonas, a Greek immigrant who came to America at the age of 15 and settled in Mississippi. Georgios Tsakonas used the Americanized George for a first name and changed his last name to Jackson, most likely taking the name from the state capitol of Mississippi. When Leo was born, George Jackson was a short-order cook at the Country Corner Café, a restaurant owned by his cousin. George was a cook for over twenty years.

Leo’s mother was an American of Irish and American Indian descent born in Brookhaven, Mississippi. She died when Leo was nine years old. Leo remembers that she was “a very thin skeleton” and that she lived her last three years in great pain.

The men in Leo’s family were only given a first name and Leo was supposed to be Leo Jackson in honor of an uncle who was still in Greece. When his birth certificate came, his name was recorded as George Jackson so parents sent the birth certificate back to have the name changed to Leo Jackson. When a second birth certificate was issued the name was listed as George Edward Jackson. No one knew where the name Edward came from but his parents accepted the second birth certificate.

George Edward Jackson spent his early years thinking his name was Leo. On his first day of school, at the age of 6, the teacher called on George Jackson. Leo didn’t respond. That was the day he found out he was really George Jackson.

In the Depression era world of 1934 Leo Jackson was born into, Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States, Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Baby Face Nelson was Public Enemy #1, Bonnie & Clyde were robbing banks in Texas, Alcatraz became a federal prison, the Dust Bowl ravaged the southern plains, and Country Music was the minority music of uneducated, poor, downtrodden, white Southerners.

But everything about the 1930s was about to change and Leo Jackson would have an important part in reshaping the sound of Country Music and helping to send that sound around the world.

In the 1940s, while young Leo learned the three Rs, reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, older southern boys went to war and took their Country Music, then known by the derisive name Hillbilly Music, to foxholes in foreign lands. While the lyrical themes of family, home, and loved ones may have struck a chord with homesick non-Southerners, steel guitars, fiddles, banjos, and yodels didn’t. Hillbilly Music was ready to go in a new direction and it took an artist like Jim Reeves to make the first bold step. But Jim Reeves wouldn’t change the course of Country Music until fate brought him together with Leo Jackson.

Leo first heard Jim Reeves’ record of Mexican Joe while playing pinball machines at a Meridian restaurant called The Orange Bowl.

A fight with a schoolmate caused Leo to never finish the 7th grade. A boy with the prophetic first name Reeves pulled a knife on Leo and Leo beat Reeves up. The school system wanted to punish him and 15 year old Leo decided to drop out of school and join his father in Houston.

Leo worked in the restaurant owned by his father and uncle. One day, Reeves, the same boy who pulled a knife on Leo in Meridian, showed up at the restaurant. The altercation apparently forgotten, Reeves treated Leo as a long lost friend. He introduced Leo to his friends in Houston, including one couple who would change Leo’s life and start him on a fifty year career in the music business.

John Ross and his wife Clara Lee found a common interest with Leo. Their daughter liked to sing and they invited Leo over to play guitar for her. John and Clara Lee Ross were best friends of Jim and Mary Reeves and got together often to play cards with Jim and Mary. They promised to introduce Leo to Jim Reeves.

Leo was working in a beer joint with an American Indian singer. After one of his nights in the beer joint, John and Clara Lee picked Leo up and drove him to Shreveport to meet Jim Reeves. When they pulled up at Jim’s house he was mowing the yard in shorts and a well worn cowboy hat. Jim said, “I hear you’re a musician. Get your guitar.”

18 year old Leo grabbed his newly acquired Gibson ES-5 and sat around playing with his hero Jim Reeves. A photo of that fateful meeting exists with Jim playing Leo’s guitar and Leo playing Jim’s. That night, John and Clara Lee Ross and Leo were guests of Jim Reeves at the Louisiana Hayride. They watched the show from audience seats and later went backstage. Leo didn’t think it could get any better than that…but it did.

Leo had no idea how important that meeting with his hero was. On the way home John Ross said, “I guess you know you were auditioning to be Jim Reeves’ guitar player.” A month later Jim Reeves called Leo to offer him the job. Leo, who had only been playing two years, said “If you think I’m good enough, I want to do it.”

Leo still wonders if it was his Gibson ES-5 or his guitar playing that got him the job. Years later Jim said, “I knew any musician with a guitar like that had to be good.”

Jim Reeves was a member of the Louisiana Hayride when he hired Leo but he had already been asked to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry and wanted to take his own band to Nashville. Jim made a number of trips to Nashville to be a part of a Country Music show, the now historic Ganaway music shows that were filmed in color at a time when there were no color TVs. On those trips, he worked out details of his move with the Opry management and AFM, the American Federation of Musicians.

The AFM allowed Jim to bring one musician to Nashville on a trial basis and the rest of the band would be allowed to join the local union at a later date. So, in 1956, Jim moved his first musician, 22 year old Leo Jackson, from Texas to Nashville. Leo could work certain jobs, including recording sessions, but was restricted from working the Opry with Jim for a month. During the trial period, if any Nashville musician complained that he was taking their work, restrictions would apply for another year. No one complained and Leo was quickly absorbed into the Nashville music community.

Military service took Leo away from Nashville but he returned in 1959. While Leo was gone, Jim met Dean Manual in Las Vegas and hired him to play piano. Jim’s band was called The Wagonmasters but Porter Wagoner was using that name and Jim had to come up with something else. He ran a couple of names past the band and in 1960 it was decided they would be called The Blue Boys after one of Jim’s records.

In July of 1964, Jim Reeves piloted his plane to Batesville, Arkansas to look at some acreage he wanted to buy. Jim asked Leo to fly to Arkansas with him but Leo stayed in Nashville  because he had to pick up his girl friend Nell, because she was working the 3:00 to 11:00 shift. She did not have a driver’s license at that time and he wanted to pick her up. 

 Dean Manual took Leo’s place, and on the return trip to Nashville, Jim Reeves plane crashed on approach in a sudden thunderstorm and Reeves and Manual died in the crash.

Twists of fate brought Jim Reeves and Leo Jackson together and twists of fate kept Leo off the plane that took Jim Reeves and Dean Manual’s lives.

Leo Jackson’s life changed forever when he met Jim Reeves. Their relationship was more than singer and guitar player. Leo moved in with Jim and Mary when he was still a teenager and Leo says Jim finished raising him. They travelled the world together and created music that is timeless 40 years after Jim Reeves’ death.