“Man. Staples of my life: I Wanna Be Where You Are, If I Ever Lose This Heaven, Inside My Love, I Want You, Sumthin Sumthin— these jams made the world better. All due respect to the author of sexiest pen game #LeonWare. Master Craftsman. Will be missed. Master of words,” remarked American musician and DJ Questlove in an Instagram post paying tribute to soul music legend Leon Ware, who passed away in February last year. Over the course of his 50-year career as a musician, songwriter, and producer, Ware collaborated with fellow greats by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones, leaving an indelible mark that changed the musical landscape. We’ve highlighted seven essential Leon Ware works that prove the world will forever be grateful for Ware’s contributions to music.
I Want You (Album) performed by Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s critically acclaimed album I Want You is widely considered one of the sexiest albums ever made. The 11-song collection, which went to #1 on Billboard’s Soul charts, was the first album on Motown to be done with only one writer and producer. The majority of the album was originally conceived by Ware, but materialized as a finished piece when the pair got into the studio together. “I brought the music, but the magic that Marvin brought with his vocals made it a classic. I had a body, but Marvin and me dressed it together,” Ware revealed to Pitchfork in a 2016 interview commemorating the 40th anniversary of the infamous project. I Want You’s legacy is longstanding. The album helped influence the sound for entire genres, including disco, quiet storm, R&B, and neo soul, while title track “I Want You” has gone on to be sampled in nearly 50 contemporary tracks and covered 20 times by artists ranging from Ice Cube and French Montana to Alicia Keys and Madonna.
“I Wanna Be Where You Are” performed by Michael Jackson
The King of Pop was only 14 years old when he covered Leon Ware’s track “I Wanna Be Where You Are” in 1972. The song shot to #2 on Billboard’s R&B Singles Chart and was a Top 20 hit on the Hot 100. “I Wanna Be Where You Are” would go on to be one of the most covered songs in Ware’s catalog, with artists including Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, and The Fugees among those who have done their own versions of the song. Notably, Beyoncé also reimagined the cut during a series of live performances in 2009 through 2011 that were filmed and included on the CD/DVD I Am… Yours: An Intimate Performance at Wynn Las Vegas.
Later, at the Michael Forever tribute concert in 2011, Beyoncé told the crowd, “I remember seeing Michael Jackson for the first time. Lord knows I fell in love… Watching him I realized exactly what I wanted to be,” before launching into a performance of “I Wanna Be Where You Are”. Moreover, prior to becoming the legendary performer we now know her to be, a young Whitney Houston would open her showcase sets with “I Wanna Be Where You Are” when Clive Davis was presenting her to music publishers before she recorded her first album.
In addition, the song was recently sampled by Gospel singer Tim Bowman Jr. in his track, “I’m Good”, which became one of the most performed works of 2015 and 2016, earning Ware two ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Awards.
From artist to artist, Ware influenced multiple generations of the biggest names in music.
Body Heat by Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones’ 1974 album, Body Heat, was a landmark album for the American musician. Notes record exec Ed Eckstine, Body Heat “was really the turning point of his commercialism on record. He shed his big band persona and began focusing on record success.” Ware contributed to three of the album’s nine cuts including title track, “Body Heat”, “One Track Mind”, and “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” featuring Ware and Minnie Riperton.
Ware and Riperton first met while working on Jones’ “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” which was the starting point for their successful future collaborations. The song was also famously covered by Average White Band and was a Top Pop Chart hit.
Moreover, the late 2Pac sampled “Body Heat” in his iconic hip-hop song “How Do You Want It”. “How Do You Want It” went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and Hot Rap Singles charts, in addition to earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the 1997 Grammy Awards.
“Inside My Love” performed by Minnie Riperton
Ware’s contributions to iconic R&B artist Minnie Riperton’s catalog of works included penning three tracks on her 1975 album, Adventures in Paradise, which SPIN Magazine called one of the two greatest R&B albums of the 1970s, (the other being Marvin Gaye’s I Want You). “Of Ware’s Riperton tracks, the standout is ‘Inside My Love’, where ambiguous yet explicit sexual imagery is tempered by the innocence of Riperton’s vocals,” the BBC noted in a review of the record. “Inside My Love” has been sampled over 100 times by notable contemporary artists including J. Cole, 2Pac, Busta Rhymes, and A Tribe Called Quest among others.
“Sumthin’ Sumthin’” performed by Maxwell
In 1996, Ware teamed up with then-unknown neo-soul singer Maxwell, to collaborate on new material for the burgeoning star’s debut album Urban Hang Suite. Together, the pair started writing the celebrated “Sumthin’ Sumthin’”, which became one of the 2x Platinum conceptual album’s breakout hits drawing comparisons to Gaye’s I Want You.
“So High” performed by John Legend
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and modern day neo-soul artist John Legend’s song “So High” is adapted from Ware’s co-write, “I Don’t Need No Reason,” and like many other contemporary visionaries, Legend was inspired by Ware’s sound of sensual soul blended into vibrant R&B. In a 2008 interview together, Legend further told Ware that Gaye’s I Want You album was one of the most influential albums which moved him to shape his 2008 record Evolver. “He probably didn’t get his due, because some of his work was behind the scenes,” Legend says. “But I think the people who know, know that he’s one of the greats.”
“Why I Came To California” performed by Leon Ware with Janice Siegel of Manhattan Transfer
As a celebrated writer-producer, Leon Ware was the man “behind” so many of soul and R&B’s greatest records, but he also played the frontman many times in his career, releasing eleven album of his own accord. “Why I Came To California” is just one example of Leon Ware’s contributions as a solo artist. “A sun-kissed soul boogie groove with big horns and even bigger chorus that’s been a mainstay on soulful dancefloors for decades and will endure for years to come,” notes UK-based label Jazzman Records. The single, off of his self-titled album Leon Ware, released in 1982, is highly regarded as a standout amongst his own self-performed works.
The song was a huge hit overseas before it became more popular Stateside. When Ware held his first Jazz Café performance in London, the audience begged him to perform “Why I Came To California”, which was not part of the set list that evening. Unprepared for the request, Ware promised to perform the hit next time, and since then it became a staple in his repertoire, much to the delight of audiences worldwide.