Jazz broadcaster Leo Chears dies

By Tim O'Neil

Jazz broadcaster Leo Chears, known as "The Man in the Red Vest" and for his love of classic jazz, died Monday (Jan. 2, 2006) in Barnes-Jewish Hospital of congestive heart failure after a lengthy illness. He was 72 and had lived in East St. Louis.

Mr. Chears broadcast for the past 16 years from WSIE-FM, the station of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He broke into broadcasting in 1960 at old WAMV-AM in East St. Louis.

Always, his fare was jazz.

"He always considered it the music for the people," said Bob Bennett, music director at WSIE. "He knew his audience, and he brought them what they wanted to hear."

Bennett frequently worked with Mr. Chears on broadcasts. Mr. Chears' last show was on Dec. 18, and he was taken to Barnes-Jewish on Christmas Eve.

Until arthritis effectively kept him homebound two years ago, Mr. Chears broadcast WSIE's midnight show, playing Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong until 5 a.m. Illness forced him to reduce his work to one nighttime show a week, which he produced from his home.

For almost 40 years, he also wrote a regular weekly column on jazz for the East St. Louis Monitor.

He got his nickname in the early 1970s, when he worked for KSD radio in St. Louis and was negotiating a sponsorship with Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. In 1998, Mr. Chears told an interviewer that he had worn a red vest to a meeting with brewery representatives. He suggested the name, "and they've bought me a ton of red vests over the years," he said in 1998.

Once the name hit the airwaves, "he never went anywhere around town without wearing one," said his son, Kelvin Chears of Florissant.

Kelvin Chears said that among the jazz greats his father interviewed were Armstrong, Davis, Ray Charles and Duke Ellington. He said his father accumulated almost 30,000 albums through his career.

"Jazz was his whole life," he said.

Mr. Chears was born in Lamar, Miss., and moved with his family to Brooklyn, Ill., in 1940, when he was 8 years old. His family moved two years later to East St. Louis, and he graduated from the old Lincoln High School.

He served in the Army from 1955 to 1957 and worked in a lab at Barnes Hospital before becoming a DJ. Other stations he has worked for include WRTH and WMRY.

In 1955, he married the former Betty Stewart of East St. Louis.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by two daughters, Florence Chears-Lawrence and Terri Long, both of Belleville; four sisters, Margaret White of Chicago, Juanita Chears of East St. Louis, and Iris Hampton and Annie Mitchell, both of Florissant; two brothers, Bernard Chears and Eddie Chears, both of Chicago; and five grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Nash Funeral Home, 144 North 16th Street in East St. Louis. The funeral service will be at 7 p.m. Sunday at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, 3424 LaSalle Street in St. Louis. Burial will be in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Reprinted with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch