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Radio personality Leo Chears dies

Did jazz programs in area for decades

BY CAROLYN P. SMITH

Posted on Wed, Jan. 04, 2006

News-Democrat

EAST ST. LOUIS - Radio personality and jazzman Leo Chears, "the man in the red vest," died Monday. He was 72.

Chears died at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis of congestive heart failure.

Chears broadcast a jazz show with WSIE-FM 88.7, the station of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, from midnight until 5 a.m. His last show was Dec. 18 at the station where he worked for more than 16 years.

He was known as "the man in the red vest" starting in the early 1970s, when he hosted a jazz show on KSD-AM that was sponsored by Budweiser beer.

Chears' health had deteriorated for the past several years, but his daughter, Terri Long, said he died suddenly.

"He wasn't feeling well on Christmas Eve, and my mother urged him to go to the hospital, but he wanted to stay home. She called the children. We got him to go," Long said.

"He was upbeat and talking, and suddenly the nurse told us his blood pressure became unstable and he was gone," she said.

Chears' three children, Kelvin, Florence and Long, said they're saddened by the loss of their father, but that the wealth of knowledge he gave to them about "real jazz" is something that will keep him alive in them forever.

"My Dad was the essence of real jazz," Long said. "He was dedicated to the preservation of modern American jazz. He never wavered from this. When radio stations where he worked wanted to change the format or the type of music they played, he wouldn't play jazz any other way. He played greats like John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Cannon Ball Adderly, Lena Horne, Ahmad Jamal, Marlena Shaw and Clark Terry."

Chears has done jazz radio shows for more than 40 years on radio stations throughout the area, and has interviewed just about every artist whose work he played, Kelvin Chears said. He also introduced his children to many of the artists when they came to the area to promote their records.

"I play jazz as a culture," Chears said during an interview in 1995. "Whether it's Stan Kenton or Miles (Davis) or (John) Coltrane or whomever, it's the way I feel like it ought to be. Can't nobody accuse me of 'He's just leaning to one particular artist.' We try to do a variety of stuff. I think that's the reason people tune in at night, because they know they're not going to hear the same bland music all through the show."

Chears' wife, Betty Chears, said Tuesday he would be laid to rest wearing his red vest.

She said she would remember him as "a devoted husband and father."

He was born in Lamar, Miss., and moved to Brooklyn in the metro-east in 1940, when he was 8 years old. Two years later, his family moved to East St. Louis.

Chears served in the Army from 1955 to 1957.

Radio personality Jim Gates, production manager for WESL radio station in East St. Louis, said the metro-east community and the nation has lost an icon and a national spokesman for the modern jazz art form.

"There is no one like Leo Chears. There never was and there never will be," Gates said.

"He was one of the best announcers on radio, especially for jazz. He was a historian. Leo Chears always gave a story and the history of the artist. He knew most of them by their first names," Gates said.

Chears had more than 50,000 jazz records in his collection. Long said he left instructions for her to donate some of them to SIUE so "the children of today will learn what real jazz is about."

Chears wrote a weekly column called Station Break for the East St. Louis Monitor.

Visitation will be from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Saturday at Nash Funeral Home, located at 144 N. 16th St. in East St. Louis. The funeral will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, located at 3424 Lasalle St. in St. Louis. Burial will be at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Reprinted with permission from the Belleville News-Democrat

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