Profile of Leo Chears (10/08/1995)


The following article about Leo Chears was originally published Oct. 8, 1995:

EDWARDSVILLE — Leo Chears, the “Man in the Red Vest,” had just started a record spinning the sounds of jazz vocalist Arthur Prysock’s “At Last” out to thousands of late night listeners of station WSIE-FM, 88.7.

Chears, as he does every Monday through Friday, was anchoring the midnight to 5 a.m. slot from the WSIE studio in the basement of the Communications Building at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. And the phone calls, as they do every morning during his show, were steadily coming in. Some of the callers to the SIUE-owned station wanted to talk jazz. Others called just to say hello to Chears and thank him for the tunes.

“There’s a great audience for this music,” Chears said. “I come on at midnight — you know, you think about midnight as a time when folks are going to sleep. But I know that I’m very busy here at night, and not just sitting there. I get a lot of phone calls, talk to quite a lot of people.”

Chears, 62, has been in radio since 1962 and with WSIE since 1987. Chears chooses the show’s music —much of it from his personal collection — and loves sharing jazz with appreciative listeners. “It’s the reason I get up at night and come out here,” he said. “It’s a service.”

Chears has the ultimate hip, laidback deejay sound, with a voice that flows into the microphone and smoothly blends with the airwaves carrying the flavor of what he likes to call that “modern American music called jazz.” When discussing musicians or styles, Chears doesn’t consult references. Instead, he taps into the jazz encyclopedia that has accumulated in his mind as the result of a 40-year love affair with the music. His goal is to do the best show possible.

“I want to put on the most educated, classic show I can,” he said.

By doing this, Chears is confident of attracting true jazz fans.

“People who enjoy jazz will listen to this show,” he said, as the gentle strains of a saxophone piece wafted through the studio. “I play jazz as a culture. 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.”

The show, spanning the hours when many people sleep, has a unique, magical quality. Chears opens each show with his theme song, “Desmond Blue,” a haunting saxophone solo by the late tenor saxophone genius Paul Desmond. Each show closes with Quincy Jones’ “Quintessence,” which, Chears said, “has that going home feeling about it.”

In between, he emphasizes mood-filled tunes that touch emotions. He usually shares several “reflections on life,” sentiments that address positive ways of viewing life and dealing with people. The reflections, written by St. Louis teacher Winnie Hill and read by Chears, are backed by quiet jazz instrumentals. Another Chears trademark is playing two consecutive cuts by the same artist.

“You might be listening to Miles or Coltrane,” he said, “and say, `Hey, that’s nice. I wonder what else he does?”’

Chears is pleased with what he accomplishes each night, but still strives to do better.

“As far as getting that good feeling about it, I certainly do,” he said. “I think I’m the hardest person to satisfy though. I’m my own harshest critic.”

Chears sets high standards because he has been in the business a long time. His first radio gig was in 1962 with station WBBR in East St. Louis. He started as a staff announcer and ended up playing music, but left the station late in the year to move on to KADI-FM. Chears did a jazz show at KADI in St. Louis, which he continued until switching to KSD-AM in 1970.

The KSD job led to his nickname. The show, which Chears did until 1973, was sponsored by Budweiser. Chears, who wore a red vest to the interview, suggested calling the show “The Man in the Red Vest.” Budweiser liked it and gave him “a closet full” of hand-made red vests. The man and the red vest became inseparable.

“The image grew,” Chears said, extending his hands, palms up. “It got to the point where I couldn’t go anywhere without my red vest.”

Chears and his red vests left radio for a year to work for the city of East St. Louis. But with late radio personality Jim Bolen’s help, Chears came to WMRY in Belleville in 1974. Bolen left the station a month later, but Chears became the program director for jazz and stayed until 1986.

After a brief stint with WRTH-AM, he came to WSIE in 1987. Chears started with Monday and Friday afternoon shows, then went to weekend overnights. The five nights a week show started last year.

WSIE general manager Roy Gerritsen said Chears is one of a kind.

“Leo is a legend in radio in St. Louis,” Gerritsen said. “When you think of the history of jazz broadcasting in St. Louis, one of the names that comes to mind is the ‘Man in the Red Vest.’ Leo Chears. A distinctive voice. An engaging personality. We’re very lucky to have him on the air.” Chears said each show is dedicated to continuing the tradition of the late St. Louis jazz deejay Spider Burks, who “steadfastly said he would play nothing but jazz.” Chears liked seeing someone take a stand.

“Here was a music that, at that particular time, seemed to have been cast aside by a lot of people and not really nurtured by people who should’ve thought of it as a heritage. So it fell in my lap. I began thinking, ‘I’ve got the mantle, I should carry it. I should be the guy who carries the flag for the music.”’

Chears decided to “not compromise my thoughts about the music. And that’s what happened. I began to write about it, learn about it. All of a sudden, people began to look at me as being some sort of an authority.”

The frequent phone calls are an indication listeners consider Chears “the jazz man.” Chears, who lives in East St. Louis, counts among his loyal callers his wife, Betty, and their adult children Teri Long, Florence Chears and Kelvin Chears. Chears wishes more local musicians would also call to talk music, but said he often hears from nationally-known jazz artists when they are in town.

“I like to hear from everybody, but especially in the business where they know what you’re doing and know what you’re attempting to do,” he said. Chears, who also writes reviews and columns for the East St. Louis Monitor, stays at his best by bringing in a couple of bags of CDs, cassettes and LPs for each show.

“I use everything I can.... It’s really the tools of the trade. I don’t want to come in here unarmed.”

Reprinted with permission from the Belleville News-Democrat