Three Chears for Leo

The story of the jazz man with the red vest on

By Stephon White
Lifestyle Reporter


Leo Chears loves jazz. His love for the music goes back to 1957. But his career as a disc jockey, like the music he loves, is timeless.

"I was in the army and stationed out in Washington state," Chears said, remembering his first experience with the music that would shape his destiny. "A friend of mine had a huge, beautiful record collection. At that time, my interests were purely in rhythm and blues. But after listening to his collection, all of a sudden jazz became my music."

Leo Chears, known to radio listeners everywhere as "The Man in the Red Vest," has been "setting the mood" for his dedicated listeners since 1962. He is a radio legend in the metropolitan area with a resume that includes experience at over a dozen stations like KSD, WRTH, WMRY and of course, WSIE.

"The red vest came into play when I was at KSD in the early 70s," Chears explained. "As the story goes, Anheueser Busch wanted to buy my show, and they said they knew that they were buying Leo Chears, but they wanted to call the show something else. So when I was meeting with them at the agency, I had a red vest on. I said, 'listen, how about calling me The Man in the Red Vest because when you go into a nice lounge the bartender usually has a red vest on and a red vest is in your colors,' and so they bought it. And they've bought me a ton of red vests over the years."

When Leo Chears came from WRTH to WSIE over eight years ago, the station's late-night audience was almost non-existent. Since then, his unique personality has attracted a legion of dedicated listeners. Several people call him just to talk on a typical night, he can get 20 or more calls from such people.

"I don't mind it," he said. "It's cool because the same people who call you up every night will protect you if anything happens."

Not everyone that listens to Chears' show is a night owl. Some have to go to work the next morning.

"I've gotten calls from people who say, 'Leo, play something I don't like so I can get some sleep. And that's really kind of a feather in our cap, because WSIE has came a long way in the past 10 years."

Chears' uniquely original repertoire of "straight ahead" jazz and his tough, no-compromise style of handling callers are two reasons why he says he has earned the respect of the listening population in St. Louis.

"I draw the line. I play the kind of music I want to hear. When someone calls and says, 'Leo, you're playin' too much Miles, play more Gene Ammons,' I say, 'Call in a request.' I can't please everybody and I don't try to. And I think people respect that.

"We've established a great audience," he said. "The entire station does very well, because we offer something different. It's really a mature sort of situation we have here. The station is a learning ground for listeners. I try to do two things with my show: entertain and educate. If we can do that, then we’ve done our job."

Chears was born on Aug. 27, 1933 in Lamar, Mississippi. His family moved to Brooklyn, Ill. in 1940 and again to East St. Louis in 1943. In East St. Louis, he lived just two blocks from the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

"I could name more than a handful of people who I consider friends and who would look for me when I come to town. We're talking about national, big-name jazz stars. People like Clark Terry, Billy Eckstein, Arthur Priysock and Cannonball Adderly, to name a few."

Chears has established a solid reputation in a dying market of jazz radio disc jockeys.

"There's not that much room in this market for jazz," he said. "There just aren't that many jazz stations in this area. When I say jazz, I mean real jazz, not some guy sittin' around playin' stuff like Kenny G."

In such a difficult market, even "The Man in The Red Vest" gets a little scared by the prospect of someday losing his job, but he takes comfort in the fact that he is a well-rounded radio man who knows how to do more than just spin records.

"If this station were to, say, close its format down this weekend, I wouldn't need to depend on jazz," he said. "I think I'm a pretty good newsman, a pretty good weather man, and I have experience playing other types of music as well. "

His show, "Late Night Jazz with Leo Chears," airs every weekday morning from 12 to 5 a.m. He acts as a combination engineer and disc jockey, operating the entire radio station by himself.

After midnight, Chears turns the lights down in the studios of WSIE and plays mostly subdued and mellow music. He creates a mood of romance and subtlety.

"I try to play to the romance of the night," he said. "Behind every woman who calls in a request there's a man. And I try to play to that."

His selections are sometimes bouncy, lively and rhythmic, but they’re never excessively loud or overbearing.

"You don't want to blow anybody out of bed, but at the same time you want to make a statement," he said.

Chears' rich and lyrical voice is noble, mysterious, and charming it works perfectly with the music he loves to share with the nighttime world.

However, he said that in his childhood, no one had ever mentioned to him the possibility of his becoming a radio broadcaster.

"When I was a kid, I used to like to read everything I saw," he said. "And at the same time I would mimic voices from some of the early stars of radio like the Lone Ranger and Orson Wells." Chears' eloquence and phrasing as a reader are showcased by his many poetry readings, which he recorded several years ago on cassette with music. He has an entire library of poems with names like "Compliments," "The Jazz Guru," "Reflections" and "Like I Wish."

"No one has ever complained about the poetry," he said, smiling broadly. "It's great for when we're in a lull or I need something to hype things up. When I recorded those poems several years ago I had a great producer that knew just the right music for the poems. It kind of just caught on."

He said that he's always been a night owl. On average, he only gets about six hours of sleep a day.

In 1958 Chears was just starting a family, his wife was pregnant with their second child, and he was working as a lab technician at Barnes hospital. During a game of street basketball, he tore the ligaments in both of his knees an injury that would later lead to a debilitating case of arthritis.

His knees have only gotten worse. Chears has trouble walking and is in constant pain, but he still comes to the studios of WSIE every night ready to work.

"Before I hurt my legs I used to walk all over town," he said. "I used to walk, walk, walk. I had torn ligaments but I didn't take the knee operation that's basically why I've got all this arthritis. I probably could have gotten arthroscopic surgery now, but not then. When I was young, the pain would come and go. I didn't think much of it. In my early fifties, me and a friend were joking around. He brought me a walking stick, and said 'Here, you're going to need this.' I was walking kind of limpy, giving in to the knee, but I was walking. Less than a month later I needed the stick. Many times I've felt like digging him up and banging him in the head with that stick."

"I want to work here [at WSIE] as long as my voice holds out," he said. "I'm lucky to have this kind of job. Jazz has treated me very well. The thing I like about WSIE is that nobody steps on anybody else's toes. We all have our own thing you know, Ross and Laverne and myself. And that's really cool."

Chears is proud of his identity as "The Man in the Red Vest." He wears his red vests everywhere he goes. After all, it's his image. He's developed his own style as a broadcaster, and he's not afraid to speak his mind.

"I always said that if they let me in the door, I would kick it down," he said, smiling. "I'm not sure exactly what I meant. I guess it means what I'm doing now."