By James Wood
It’s been a busy year for former Heart guitarist Howard Leese. The man who played alongside sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson for more than 20 years has spent much of 2013 performing in the Las Vegas musical Raiding The Rock Vault.
In addition, Leese will once again be joining Paul Rodgers and Bad Company for the band’s 40th anniversary tour, which kicks off this summer. Then there’s the little matter of his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and reunion with the rest of Heart.
With a successful Vegas show in full gear, Leese shows no sign of slowing down.
I recently spoke with Leese from his home in Malibu. We talked Raiding the Rock Vault, Heart, Bad Company and of course, guitars.
GUITAR AFICIONADO: Congratulations on your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What was it like reuniting with Heart?
It was incredible. The thing I’m really happy about was that we all lived to see the day. That version of the band hadn’t played together in nearly 30 years; it's been about 15 years since I've been with Ann and Nancy. What was amazing was that it sounded just as if it were yesterday. The combination of everyone in that band is the only one that can make that sound. We sounded just like we did back then, and proved why we belonged there.
How did you become involved in Raiding the Rock Vault?
Robin McAuley [vocalist] brought me in. We had played together at a Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp a few years ago and our styles worked well together. He introduced me to John Payne [Asia vocalist] when he was putting the show together. John saw I was very organized and professional and I’m now the co-musical director. It’s a lot of work but also a lot of fun.
What makes Raiding the Rock Vault different from something like "Rock of Ages"?
"Rock of Ages" is more of a Broadway show with a storyline and characters; whereas 95 percent of Raiding the Rock Vault is us playing rock music. There are short little vignettes in between songs with a few actors, but the main focus of the show is live rock and roll. What we do is play the greatest songs from 1965 to 1989. It starts with the Who, Hendrix and then moves into Zeppelin and Deep Purple. We do all of the classics right into the '80s. Our show is much more of a concert and less of a play. We play 34 different songs, and every one of them is a giant smash.
You’ll also be joining Bad Company again on their 40th anniversary tour this summer. Tell me about your first gig with Paul Rodgers.
Back when Nancy had stopped touring with us for a while, Ann and I went out as the Ann Wilson Band. We finished a tour on a Saturday night and I flew home on Sunday. I remember feeling relieved that I was off the road and could catch up on things. I was retired all day Monday thinking about the books I could read, all the music I could write and all of the other things I wanted to do. Then on Tuesday, Paul calls me and says, “Hey, can you be at Pine Knob Friday night? Here’s the set list.” [laughs]. I literally had to walk onstage and play my first gig with him cold.
What’s it like performing in Bad Company?
Amazing. Just to hear that voice is incredible. I’ve been working with Paul for 16 years now and consider him the greatest singer in rock. Then there’s Mick [Ralphs] who’s such a great, legendary guy. He wrote many of those great songs and regularly hung out with George Harrison and David Gilmour. He’s British rock royalty. Then I turn and there’s Simon [Kirke], who was also with Paul in Free; which is my favorite band of all time. I sometimes look around wondering how a kid from Hollywood, California, got into this amazing British band! [laughs].
How did your relationship with Ann and Nancy begin?
I never really liked playing cover tunes in bars, so I became a studio guy. My partner, Mike Flicker, and I went up to Vancouver and started our own record label [Mushroom Records] and Ann and Nancy came into the studio one day to make a demo. You could tell right away that Ann had a great voice, but they didn’t do any originals; they did an Elton John song and something else.
We told them to go write a bunch of songs and then come back. Sure enough, a year later they came back and had most of Dreamboat Annie already written. At the time, they were just a club band and weren’t trying to make a hit, but we made the album and it just exploded.
Tell me about you relationship with PRS Guitars.
Paul [Reed Smith] used to like to go to shows whenever there was a guitar player he thought might like his guitars. The first time he came to a Heart show in 1980, he couldn’t see me, but he met my tech and sent a Polaroid picture of a guitar he had originally built for someone in Maryland. The guitars he built were quite expensive at the time — around $2,000, but when the guy got it, he told Paul he had decided to buy a Les Paul instead. So the guitar was up for grabs.
I still remember seeing the picture of it. It had a crazy top to it that was made from a 300-year-old dresser. It was like Stradivarius-era wood and was the first maple top guitar that Paul had ever built, called the Golden Eagle. I bought it just on the strength of the Polaroid, and it became my main guitar for the next 17 years. It's on all of the hits from the '80s. After I left Heart, I put it away. That $2,000 turned out to be a good investment, because the guitar is worth a half a million dollars now! [laughs].
What are your plans for the future?
I’m very busy these days. I’ll do the Bad Company tour and then return to Raiding the Rock Vault. I’m also a dad. I have two teenage boys, and I like to spend a lot of time making sure they’re developing into fine young men.
Is there a secret to your success?
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and blessed to have been involved with the two greatest singers in rock and roll, Ann Wilson and Paul Rodgers. One of the things my dad told me when I was very young was that if I wanted to be the best, I needed to work with the best. And fortunately, I’ve been able to do that.
For more about Raiding the Rock Vault, visit raidingtherockvault.com.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.